Thursday, March 6, 2014

Graham on Confucius VI: Doing-One's-Best-For-Others

Scott Bradley

The Master said, 'Tseng-tzu, I have one thread running through my Way.' When the Master went out the disciples asked, 'What did he mean?' 'The Master's Way', said Tseng-tzu, 'is nothing but doing-one's-best-for-others (chung) and likening-to-oneself (shu)'.
(Analects 4/15)
In the previous post we considered some of the implications of "likening-to-oneself". This passage introduces the complementary idea of "doing-one's-best-for-others". Chung, Graham tells us, is formed by the graphs for "center" and "heart". It implies, then, a wholehearted concern for the welfare of others at the center of one's being.

If we were to take Confucianism to the laundry-mat and wash away its fixation with the restoration of an idealized past and its obsession with ritual and an immutable hierarchical social arrangement, all that would remain would be an amazing goodness and humanity. What is there here not to like?

Daoism found something; but its objection was not with the content of Confucian benevolence, but with its imposition as an ideal, and with the means to its realization. Daoism essentially replies, If benevolence is natural to and a fulfillment of humanity, then it will arise in being natural. We need not pursue it, and especially need not impose it on ourselves or others, for to do so would be to kill it in the womb. Only when benevolence is 'forgotten' does it have space to grow and to flourish; for this, and every other virtue, is only a virtue when spontaneously expressed. This is the essential Daoist formula: the sage does this, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is her nature to do so. The mediation of mind kills true virtue.

Graham distinguishes between these two, explaining that chung is a Confucian virtue, while shu is "a form of analogical thinking". I think we can understand this difference in saying that "doing-one's-best-for-others" is the actual behavioral outcome, the goal, while "likening-to-oneself" is the method for understanding how to do so. The Zhuangzi says the sage has no use for methods, however, and this brings us back to the idea of spontaneity.

We might ask ourselves, however, if the ideal Daoist sage and his spontaneity are not similarly ideals which, though desirable, are not our present reality and are thus an imposition. Does one then purposely try to be spontaneous? That would be other than spontaneous. Alas, I feel compelled to abandon my self-imposed orthodoxy and admit that, while ideal formulas may be helpful, the road we actually walk is a rutted and sometimes overgrown one.

Accommodation, living life in its inherent messiness, always seems to emerge for me as the most authentic way to proceed. There is ample room in my heart, therefore, for the Confucian vision as well as the Zhuangzian.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.


  1. yes the ambition to be virtuous gets in the way of true virtue because it is through the ego.

  2. Taoism is philosophical fascism.. It is more concerned with whipping untermenchen in prison camps and extolling homosexual orgies and perverse quests for aryan super men.

    The origins of Orwellian political logic begin in the Tao Te Ching.

    Even Heinrich Himmler was a Taoist!

  3. Recently written comparison between Epicureanism and Confucianism

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