Friday, May 7, 2010

Flying Without Wings, Part 1

by Scott Bradley

The passage upon which this commentary will focus is part of a larger narrative in Chapter 4 in which Confucius remonstrates and instructs his favorite disciple, Yan Hui, in the light of the latter’s desire to reform the prince of the State of Wei. It begins with Confucius’ exclamation “You must fast!” and concludes with the end of the narrative, though I have excluded the last few sentences. In the interest of establishing the context, however, I will here give an overview of that narrative up to the point where the true focus begins. Within the commentary itself reference will be made to this fuller narrative when germane.

Yan Hui asks permission of Confucius to go on a mission to Wei in order to change the prince who is despoiling his country and its people. This would seem to be a worthy project, reflective of the teachings of Confucius himself. Confucius, however, takes another view and fears for the very life of his disciple should he attempt to do so. In his first reply, he expresses his misgivings in three main points.

Firstly, Yan Hui has no business attempting the business of a sage if he is not one himself. “The Consummate Persons of old made sure they had it in themselves, before they tried to put it into others.” He would do better to cultivate his own person.

Secondly, Confucius questions Yan’s motivations. Although the goal is honorable, the motive is not. He still seeks to be someone, to have a “name”.

Thirdly, even if he were a sage, things could still go badly wrong. However much a sage he might be, he must not forget the power of the will to dominate in others, especially the will of a tyrant. The beauty of his sagacity will only expose the ugliness of the tyrant, and his response is likely to be anger.

And then there is the problem of getting caught up in the petty politics of the kingdom wherein even a sage might find himself used to realize the ambitions of the competing princes. (Zhuangzi himself would most likely eschew all such involvement in politics, believing that to be so involved is to fight fire with fire; in the end, the fire would rage on and the sage would himself get burned. Rather, he would suggest that the sage can best influence the world by being other than the world. Though unseen and unnoticed, these are the ones who most change things for the better. We are told that Zhuangzi, when offered an important governmental post, adamantly refused.)

Yan Hui responds with a plan wherein he will be both upright and humble. But Confucius replies that this will likewise not do.

The translations of Confucius’ response at this point follow two widely divergent points of view. Dr. Ziporyn understands the text to be referring to Yan Hui. Burton Watson also follows this reading. I prefer the rendering of the majority of translators consulted, however, which apply most of the text to the tyrannical prince. This understanding seems to make better sense as a reply to Yan Hui. (Dr. Ziporyn’s translation answers the problem of duplicity, yet Yan Hui has yet to mention this dimension of his schemes. Since I lack the linguistic skills to make a more informed judgment, I fall back on what seems more consistent with the development of the narrative). In this case, Confucius explains that, given the prince’s character, he will fail to be impressed by such a demeanor and will obstinately not change.

To this Yan Hui replies that he might try a bit of duplicity; he will be upright within, but appear to be adaptable without. This would seem to be a caricature of “Walking Two Roads” within he will be a “a follower of Heaven” but outwardly he will be “a follower of the ways of man”. On top of this, he will teach the “pre-existing doctrines of the ancients” with their hidden criticisms while he ‘innocently’ hides behind them.

But Confucius will have none of this. At best this might save his skin, but it will not achieve his purpose. He then proclaims the problem at the heart of all these schemes: “You are still taking your mind as your instructor.” Thus he diagnoses the sickness. What follows is an explanation of the cure — fasting of the mind.

Before turning to our primary focus, however, we need to consider this narrative in the context of the chapter as a whole. The two narratives that follow this one concern the same question, namely, how to effect change in the political world. The four remaining narratives, however, shift the theme from effecting political change to the value of being useless.

Uselessness, we discover, is a quality which supersedes the desire to change and control the world. When Yan Hui, through Confucius’ instruction, discovers how best to accomplish his intended mission, he might very well see the senselessness of pursuing it at all. Being useless may prove to be more ‘effective’ in bringing about change than any amount of deliberate activity.

Ironically, this new emphasis brings Confucius to task for his continued desire to actively transform the world. If Zhuangzi had his way, Yan Hui would realize in himself the teaching of Confucius as given here, and then go beyond even Confucius himself. For Confucius might make a useful mouthpiece for the teachings of Zhuangzi, but the real Confucius and Zhuangzi are actually on an entirely different page.

The chapter closes with the ridicule of Confucius by the madman, Jieyu, whose ‘madness’ has a wisdom beyond that of the real Confucius and the made-up Confucius who instructs Yan Hui. “Confronting the world with your Virtuosity — let it rest, give it up! Drawing a straight line upon this earth and then trying to walk along it — danger, peril! The brambles and thorns, which so bewilder the sunlight, they don’t impede my steps. My zigzag stride amid them keeps my feet unharmed.”

Confucius thought he knew what was best for the world and tried to apply it. Jieyu, on the other hand, made it a point to avoid getting mixed up in what could only lead to personal harm. Zhuangzi might add that it would very likely just lead to more political problems than it solved. But, as the closing sentence tells us, this is a lesson hard to learn: “Everyone knows how useful usefulness is, but no one seems to know how useful uselessness is.”

Note: At the conclusion of this miniseries, a link will be provided for those interested in downloading or printing the entire document replete with footnotes.


  1. Ahh, what a wonderful post. I like Jieyu very much. If I could keep being and not being like Jieyu...

  2. beautiful :) jieyu knows his stuff. while hiking, we often prefer the paths of others. if we decide to be adventurous, we often go off the beaten path but still try to walk like we are walking a path- we expect the forest to conform to our feet.
    the best idea is just to walk in line with what the forest give you... avoid obstacles instead of forcing your will on nature. this is a lesson america definitely needs to learn, and one that i also need to learn, especially while dealing with my animals! both the goats and i have strong wills, so there are many battles fought between us in the barn!


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