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Confucius and Love of Wisdom

好德好色
For the one who restores me to my native shores
Before turning a page of the Lun Yu, Confucius’ famous Analects, I must register a very
helpful insinuation fom the only Master in the Chinese ‘philosophical’ tradition to be
customarily dubbed a ‘saint’ (聖shèng) by one and all.
The saying in question appears twice throughout the book in two slightly different
formulations. The first one,
子曰『吾未見好德如好色者也』(9.18)
The Master said, ‘I have never seen anyone who loves virtue as much as he
loves beautiful women.’
And the second:
子曰『已矣乎吾未見好德如好色者也』(15.13)
The Master said, ‘It is all over! I have never seen anyone who loves virtue
as much as he loves beautiful women.’
In these sayings, the Master is not simply decrying the low standards of his own
times, but cannily pointing his readers of all ages to a subtlety of the inner struggle that
makes us humane. Our Chinese sage is clearly telling the discerning reader: ‘You must
love virtue as much as you love beautiful women.’ And this comparative is certainly
not to be taken as a limitation, as if saying ‘only thus much, not more,’ but on the
contrary, if we mean to be true to the spirit of his teachings, as a powerful intimation
to go further in the love of knowledge.
The three key words are 好 hào, ‘to be fond of ’, 德 dé, translated here and quite
ofen as ‘virtue’, and 色 sè, ofen meaning simply ‘colour’ or ‘appearance’. But let us
have a closer look at their historical meanings.
好hào, written exactly like 好hǎo, ‘good’, is composed by the characters for woman,
女nǔ, and child, 子zǐ. At its basis, this ‘love’ has the fathomless interpenetration of
the bond between mother and child, and its mysterious joys too.
德 dé, according to its composition, is a step (彳) guided by a true (直) heart
(心). And this means that ‘virtue’ is here neither an abstract doctrinal matter, nor an
empty practice, but the willed realisation of a truth, 真 zhēn, etymologically related
to rectitude as well. To bring this home, I can think of no better way than referring
an incident involving a Chinese fiend: one day, talking about religion and religions,
this fiend expressed her longing for some religious practice, or religion plainly, as
she felt she was missing something, and she avowed, not without sadness, that most
of her generation were lacking in that same respect. One week later we happened
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to be discussing the word 德 dé and its translations. I explained to her that ‘virtue’
has become something of a relic in everyday language, used mostly in very specific
religious contexts. And then she expressed her amazement, saying how odd it seemed,
considering that for her and her family this word 德 is every moment at the centre
of their lives. And I thought to myself: ‘ This is the person who feels she is lacking
a religion!’ Come to think of it, establishing and maintaining the relation between
‘practice’ or ‘outer life’ (as in the step 彳) and ‘true heart’ or ‘the heart of truth’ (惪) is
nothing short of literal for an effort at religio, or establishing a bond. Sometimes it is
all too easy for religious minded people to try hard to keep the bonds with Heaven in
good shape, while disregarding blatantly the many other horizontal and internal bonds
that are also religio.
As for 色sè, it denotes originally the flush of the face, whence its derived meanings:
passion, sexual pleasure, lust, colour in general, and finally a quality or a description.
According to Fr Wieger (p. 767), it is also a Buddhist term for the material world and
the body.
*
The obvious European correspondence to what we are reading in these Confucian
sayings is found concisely in one simple word: ‘philosophy’, translated rather tritely as
‘love of wisdom’, lef to the vagueness that surrounds our notion of love.
Just as the discipline of philosophy has cooled down along the centuries, being
now automatically related to dull lessons in some cozy university classroom,¹ the word
itself has come to be looked upon as a tepid word. But the reader should know better:
the Greek verb φιλέω phileo had a wide range of meanings, ranging through parental
love including cuddling and kissing, affection between fiends and relatives, and even
sexual intimacy. In short, very similar to what ‘love’ has come to mean for us.
In these days, when ‘philosophy’ refers, at least in some academic circles, to the
anodyne acquisition of information arranged in piecemeal periodisations and ‘schools’,
it shall be hardly out of place to come back to the essential drive of philosophical
endeavours by the light of Confucius. Distracted as we are by the invasive myriad of
daily news, we allow ourselves to drif too far fom the vital urge that qualified an
aspirant to philosophical instruction, as in Socrates’ famous anecdote:
A young man came to him near a lake and asked Socrates to teach him how
to acquire wisdom. Socrates grabbed the man and plunged his head under
the water. As the young man struggled for his life, Socrates continued to
forcibly hold him under the water. Finally, Socrates let him up to breathe,
and when the man, gasping for breath, asked why Socrates nearly drowned
him, Socrates replied, ‘When your desire for wisdom is as great as your
desire to breathe, come back to me.’²
¹Basic references here would be perhaps Hadot, especially his What is Ancient Philosophy?, and Už-
davinys, Philosophy as a Rite of Rebirth, together with the work of the Prometheus Trust in the UK.
²This anecdote, which so fully conveys the import of the word “aspirant”, is variously found across
different traditions. ¡¡SOME Source needed here‼
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It is not difficult to see the relation between this urgent need and philosophy if
we recall the origin of the word and the meanings mentioned earlier. He is a philo-
sopher who loves, fondles, nurtures σοφία sophia, wisdom. The philosopher is a man in
love, or there is no such thing. This is worlds apart fom the activities of the ‘thinkers’
of the last centuries, who have felt and feel that they must develop their own σοφία
fom scratch, over and over again, in what is a disquieting or, in any case, a telling
display of arrogance. The distinction between ‘philosophers’ and ‘thinkers’ ought to
become, indeed, a fundamental one in the contemporary approach to philosophy: the
former behave like inheritors of a great treasure they love and cultivate; the latter look
in contrast like iconoclast teenagers, in love with their own fancies, developing new
theories of ever increasing abstruseness.
Back to our analect, we can see how Confucius implies that it is precisely with
the ardour of a lover that we should care for wisdom. Closer to the Socratic anecdote
mentioned above, and as if in a different degree of intensity fom the φιλία philia of
the philo-sopher, the Chinese master is speaking of turning our ἔρως eros or burning
essential desire towards the pursuit of wisdom. Or, again, availing us of the same playful
hermeneutics used by Plato, he seems to tell us that our pursuit of philosophy, all
our readings, discussions and meditations must become an erotism of wisdom, one
where we can consume ourselves without reservations but with full trust in the blessed
correspondence of our love.
This Confucian hint comes to our help particularly in a time when pornography
has become a hallmark of urban life around the world, and through ever-varying and
aggressive publicity campaigns never ceases to insidiously draw our attention. The Chi-
nese way, as in the circular deflection techniques of Taiji Quan, is to use the very mo-
mentum of the attacker to gain the upper hand. That is, in our context, to hold the fire
suaviter, magno cum ingenio,³ channelling it through words and works into the philo-
sophical garden. This corresponds also to what in the Hebrew tradition is referred to
as “The Elevation of Strange Thoughts”, an expression which is almost a method in
itself.⁴
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Like the masters of the pipe bowl and the athanor, as they burn down to ashes even
the last speck of sacrificial matter, carefully measuring out their fire with sustained
attention, not otherwise should we tend to philosophy, our love. The fire must be kept
always burning, not a raging fire, but a fire nonetheless. We must learn even fom him
who is abjectly dragged and consumed by passion, like Shaykh Ṣanʿān:⁵ let the night
help you, and meet your love under her fiendly cover,⁶ and don’t ever waste a chance to
see your love, and never let her wait for you, but go to meet her, and write to her and
³‘Sofly, with great prudence’, fom the Emerald Tablet.
⁴Louis Jacobs, Hasidic Prayer, Schocken Books: New York, 1978.
⁵See Schimmel, p. 269.
⁶Cf. Heraclitus (DK26) ἄνθρωπος ἐν εὐφρόνῃ φάος ἅπτεται ἑαυτῷ—Man in the peace of night kindles
a light for himself / in himself (cf. Marcovich).
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think of her all the time. As a secret love in your heart of hearts she will be stronger
in your soul, blessing your every thought.
Let every turn of page, as every step in the performance of a sacred rite, come
with a thrill of anticipation and bring the bliss of union. When our mind pores over
the consecrated sentences of the sages of the past, let us not lose sight for a moment
of the joy being granted us by Providence. Approaching the sacred repositories of the
wisdom of the ages, far fom being a mental pastime or logical calisthenics, is the
consummation of a ἱερὸς γάμος hieros gamos, a sacred marriage, ‘where in love it is the
same to give all, and receive all and keep all forever.’⁷
Juan Acevedo
*
Bibliography
Confucius, The Analects of Confucius: Lun Yu. Translation, with introduction and notes
by Chichung Huang. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Lings, Martin, Collected Poems, Revised and Augmented. Archetype, Cambridge, 2002.
Marcovich, Miroslav (ed. and trans.), Heraclitus: Greek Text with a Short Commentary.
Editio Maior. The Los Andes University Press, Mérida, Venezuela, 1967.
Schimmel, Annemarie, Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina
Press, Chapel Hill, 1975.
Uždavinys, Algis, Philosophy as a Rite of Rebirth. The Prometheus Trust, Westbury,
UK, 2008.
Wieger, Léon, S.J., Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification
and Signification. Dover, New York, 1965.
⁷Lings, Collected Poems, p. 20.
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