The Doctrine of the Mean 中庸
Translated by A. Charles Muller
First translated during the summer of 1991. Revised 10/6/2014
When citing, please refer to the URL of this page: http://www.acmuller.net/con-dao/docofmean.html
B. The Commentary
2. Confucius said: “The Superior Man actualizes the mean; the inferior man goes against it. The Superior Man actualizes the mean because he is always with it; the inferior man's non-actualization is due to his heedlessness.”
3. How far-reaching the mean is! That is why those who are able to keep it for long are few.
4. Confucius said: “I know why the Way is not practiced. The intelligent go beyond it and the dull do not reach it. I know why the Way is not disclosed. The ‘good’ go beyond it and the unworthy do not reach it. There is no one who does not eat or drink, but there are few who really have ‘taste.’”
5. Confucius said: “What a pity! The way is not followed.”
6. Confucius said: “(Emperor) Shun was so wise! He liked to question people and delighted in listening to everyday speech. He would cover people's bad points and disclose their goodness. He snatched up their excesses and facilitated their balanced nature for the benefit of all. It was in this way that Shun made himself into what he was.”
7. Confucius said: “Everybody says ‘I know,’ but they are driven forward, becoming ensnared in traps and falling into pits without knowing how to avoid them. Everybody says ‘I know,’ but in intending the actualization of the mean, they are not able to stay with it for a full month.”
8. Confucius said: “(Yan) Hui was the kind of person who grasped the mean in such a way that, attaining to a certain goodness, he would cleave to it firmly and never lose it.”
9. Confucius said: “You might be able to put in order the whole country, kingdoms and clans; decline rank and merit-pay and tread on bare swords, yet still be incapable of actualizing the mean.”
[Comment] The performance of phenomenal wonders cannot be compared with the accomplishment of actualizing the mean.
10. Zilu asked about strength. Confucius said: “Do you mean the strength of the South, the strength of the North, or the strength of self-mastery? To be broadminded and gentle in teaching and not rashly punish wrong-doing is the strength of the South. The Superior Man abides in this. To be able to make a bed of weapons and armor and die without grief — this is the strength of the North. The forceful are at home in this.”
“Therefore the Superior Man is harmonious without getting sloppy. How correct his strength is! He stands in the center without leaning to either side. How correct his strength is! When the Way is manifest in the land, he is changeless in his support of it. How correct his strength is! When the Way is not manifest in the land, he will not sell himself out, even until death. How correct his strength is! ”
11. Confucius said: “When you study the occult and perform miracles, later generations always tell about it. This I won't do.”
“As a Superior Man, to go according to the Way and abandon it half way—this I certainly cannot do.”
“Then there is the Superior Man, who depends on his actualization of the mean, hides himself from the world such that he is unseen and unknown, and has no regrets about it. Only the sage can do this.”
The Way of the Superior Man functions everywhere, yet is inconspicuous. Average men and women, even if ignorant, know something of it; yet even the sage cannot know it completely. Average men and women, even though lacking in ability are able to practice to some extent; yet even the sage cannot practice it perfectly.
As vast as the universe is, people still have dissatisfaction. When the Superior Man calls it “vast,” he means it is too large to be grasped. When he speaks of its smallness, he means that it is something that cannot be further broken down.
The Book of Odes says: “The hawk flies high in the sky; the fish dances in the deep.” This means that its height and its depth are both observable. The Way of the Superior Man starts with the common people, but in its absoluteness, it is observed throughout the universe.
13. Confucius said: “The Way is not something separate from man. If you practice a Way that is apart from man, this cannot the Way. The Book of Odes says:”
Carving axe handles
One after another
They differ little from the original sample
Taking one to carve another.
When you compare them,
There are still differences.
Therefore the Superior Man treats people as human beings, and once they have corrected themselves, he lets them be. Being sincere and fair to all, though this is different from the Way, it are not far from it. This means “not doing to others what you don't want done to yourself.” There are four general ways that this can be characterized, one of which I 1 have been able to fully practice:
(1) Treating my father as I expect my son to treat me.
(2) Treating my ruler as I expect my ministers to treat me.
(3) Treating my older brothers as I expect my younger brothers to treat me.
(4) Treating my friends as I expect my friends to treat me.
In the putting into practice of virtue or the taking care of speech, if there is somewhere where I am deficient, I certainly endeavor further. If there is excess, I do not dare to merely expend it. His words reflecting his actions, his actions reflecting his words—how can this Superior Man not be sincere through and through?
14. The Superior Man acts accepting his own situation. He does not hope to be somewhere else. When he is in a position of fame and fortune, he acts within fame and fortune. When in a position of poverty and low status, he acts within poverty and low status. When dwelling with uncultured tribes, he acts as if he is with uncultured tribes. When he is in stress and difficulty, he acts from within stress and difficulty. There is no place where the Superior Man is not completely himself.
When in a high position, he does not step on those below him. When in a low position, he does not drag down those above him. Correcting yourself and not expecting things from others, you will not create resentments. You will not resent Heaven above, nor blame men below.
The Superior Man abides in change and awaits his destiny. The inferior man practices manipulation and prays for luck.
The Master said: “Practicing archery is like practicing to be a Superior Man. When you miss the bulls-eye, you look for the error in yourself.”
15. The Way of the Superior Man can be compared to traveling: To go far, you must start from close by. It can be compared to climbing: To go high, you must start from down low. The Book of Odes says:
The Happy union with wife and children
Is like the music of lutes and harps
When siblings all get along
The harmony is entrancing.
So make your household good
And enjoy your wife and children.
The Master said: “Husband and wife should follow each other.”
16. Confucius said: “The overabundance of the power of spiritual beings is truly amazing! Looking for them, they cannot be seen. Listening for them, they cannot be heard. There is nothing that they do not embody. They cause the people of the world to fast for purification, and wear beautiful clothes in order to participate at the sacrifices. They are overflowing, seeming to be above, seeming to be on the left and on the right. The Book of Odes says: ‘Trying to investigate the spirits, we cannot reach them. How could we possibly grasp them with our thoughts?' The manifestation of the subtle and the inconcealability of sincerity is like this.’”
17. What a good son was Shun (the sage emperor)! His virtue was that of a sage, he was venerated as an emperor. His wealth included everything within the four seas. He is sacrificed to in the ancestral temple, and his sons and grandsons have preserved his name. Therefore we can say that the greatly virtuous always attain their appropriate position, always receive their proper reward, always get their recognition and are always long-lived.
We can also know that Heaven develops each thing according to its preparation. Thus, Heaven nourishes the growing sprout, and throws down the leaning tree. The Book of Odes says:
Joyful is the Prince
With the power of his own correctness
He harmonized those far and near
He received his reward from Heaven
Who protected him, helped him
And gave him the mandate
Which he in turn enhanced.
Thus, the greatly virtuous always receive the Mandate of Heaven.
18. Confucius said: “The only one who didn't suffer from grief was King Wen, since his father was King Chi and his son was King Wu. His father set him up and his son continued his ways. King Wu merely extended what had been handed down from Kings Tai, Ji and Wen. Once he put on his armor, he took control of the whole realm and he never failed to live up to the great reputation the people accorded to him. He was respected as an emperor; his wealth included all within the four seas. The ancestral halls make offerings to him, and his sons and grandsons have preserved his name.”
King Wu received the Mandate of Heaven late in life. The Duke of Zhou consummated the virtue of Wen and Wu. Following in the ways of Kings T'ai and Chi, he sacrificed to the former princes with the ceremony proper to an emperor, and spread this ceremony to all the nobles, ministers, officers and the common people. If the father was a minister and the son an officer, then the funeral ceremony would be for a minister, and the sacrifices for an officer. If the father was an officer and the son was a minister, he would be buried as an officer and sacrificed to as a minister. The one year's mourning applied up to the ministers, but the three-year mourning applied up the emperor. In the mourning for parents, there was no distinction according to class.
19. Confucius said: “How completely King Wu and the Duke of Zhou actualized their filial piety! Through filial piety, they correctly passed down the wills of their forefathers and correctly transmitted their works. In spring and autumn, they cleaned the ancestral temple, laid out the sacrificial vessels, dressed up in the ceremonial outfit and prepared the seasonal foods.”
Using the ritual of the ancestral temple, they ordered the ancestral lineages.
By rank, they distinguished high and low classes; by works, they distinguished goodness.
By having the lower classes offer the toast to the upper classes, they kept the lower classes involved.
By hair color, they distinguished seniority. Each taking their positions, they carried out the ritual, played the music, respected the venerable, loved their relatives. They served the dead as if they were alive, and they served those not present as if they were there. Herein they brought filial piety to its highest level.
They used the Winter and Summer festival to make offerings to the Lord-on-High, and used the rituals on the ancestral temple to make offerings to the ancestors. He who could completely disclose the meaning of the Winter and Summer sacrifices, and the great Imperial sacrifice, could govern the country as easily as if he were pointing to the palm of his hand.
20. The Duke of Ai asked about government. Confucius said: “The records of the governments of Wen and Wu are on the ancient tablets. When they had the right people, the government functioned, and when they didn't have the right people, government failed. When people are right, the government flourishes; when the ground is right, plants flourish; the governments of Wen and Wu flourished like fast-growing weeds.”
Therefore, the skillful handling of government is contingent upon having the right people. You attract the right people by your own character. You cultivate your character through the Way and you manifest the Way by means of ren. ren is “humanity” 2 and its most obvious function is in love for relatives. “Justice” 義 means “setting things right” and its most obvious function is in venerating the Good. The differing levels in loving relatives and venerating the good are expressed through propriety.
Thus, if your rank is low, and you do not have the support of those in power, you cannot hope to have an influence on government. Therefore the Superior man cannot but cultivate his character.
Wanting to cultivate his character, he cannot do it without serving his parents. Wanting to serve his parents, he cannot do it without understanding others. Wanting to understand others, he cannot do it without understanding Heaven.
There are five pervasive 達 relationships in this world, which are carried out in three ways. The relationships are those between ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and between friends. The three ways of practice are wisdom, ren and courage, but they are practiced in unison.
Some are born knowing it; some know it by learning and some have to struggle to know it. Nonetheless, the knowledge is the same.
Some practice it by being comfortable within it; some practice it by benefitting from it; and some have to struggle to practice it. But when the practice is perfected, it is the same.
Confucius said: “Loving study, you approach wisdom; loving energetic practice, you approach ren. Understanding shame, you approach courage. If you understand these three, you know how to polish your character; knowing how to polish your character, you know how to handle others; knowing how to handle others, you know how to govern a state or clan.”
In general, in the handling of the realm, a state or a clan, there are nine basic patterns of treatment. These are: polishing your own character; venerating the Good; caring for your relatives; respecting the high ministers; making the lower ministers feel like they have a significant role; treating the common people as your children; making the artisans feel welcome; treating foreign guests gently and embracing the nobles.
Polishing your character, you set up your own Way. Venerating the Good, you are not deluded. Caring for your relatives, then your fathers, elder and younger brothers will not resent you. Respecting the high ministers, you will not make foolish mistakes. Making the lower ministers feel like they are part of it, they will regard propriety with seriousness. Treating the common people as your children, they will work hard. Making the artisans feel welcome, there will be plenty of commerce. Being gentle to guests from afar, people will flock to you from all directions. If you embrace the nobility, the people will have a healthy fear of them.
Fasting in ceremonial dress, not acting against the norms of propriety; this is how you polish your character. Letting go of slander, freeing yourself from lust, disregarding wealth and prizing virtue: This is how you promote goodness. Respecting their rank, paying them well, going along with their likes and dislikes: this is the way to take care of your relatives. Giving them enough officers to dole out their responsibilities: this is the way to encourage the high ministers. To reward well trustworthiness and loyalty: this is the way to encourage the lower officers. Employing the people around their own farming schedules and taxing them lightly: this is the way to encourage the people. Daily and monthly examining their works and giving merit where due: this is the way to encourage the artisans. Sending out envoys to meet foreign visitors and bestowing kindness and pity on the handicapped: this is the way to be gentle to visitors from afar. To renew their broken lineages, restore their vanquished states, quell their rebellions and protect them from danger; giving them rich presents and expecting little in return: this is how you embrace the nobles.
While altogether there are this nine patterns of treatment, there is a single way to carry out all of them.
In all affairs, if you plan ahead you can be successful, and if you don't plan ahead, you will fail. If you are prepared before you speak, you won't be tongue-tied. If you are prepared before you begin a job, you won't have complications. If you are prepared before you act, you won't have to be sorry. If you are prepared before teaching, you won't run out of material.
Again, if you are in a position of low rank, and you have no influence above, you will have no way of governing people. Even though there is a way of influencing superiors, if your friends don't trust you, you won't be able to influence superiors. Even though there is a way of gaining the trust of your friends, if you have discord with your relatives, you will not be trusted by your friends. Even though there is a way of having harmony with your relatives, if your character is not sincere, you will have discord with your relatives. Even though there is a way to make your character sincere, if you have not awakened to your goodness, you will not be able to make your character sincere.
Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. Making oneself sincere is the Way of Man. If you can be perfectly sincere without effort, without concern regarding its attainment, and walk embracing the Middle Way, you are a sage.
If you are working at making yourself sincere, you must find your goodness and hold fast to it. You must study it broadly, investigate it in detail, deliberate on it carefully, discern it clearly and practice it universally. Where there is a lack in your understanding, or your study has not yet reached the point where it is effective, don't just leave it. When there is something you have investigated, or investigated but not understood, don't just leave it. When there is something that you have considered, or have considered but have not fully grasped, just don't leave it. When there is something that you have not yet discerned, or discerned but not yet clarified, don't just leave it. When there is something you have not yet practiced, or have practiced, but not yet universally, don't just leave it.
If someone else gets it in one try, I will try one hundred times. If someone else gets it in ten tries, I will try one thousand times. If you are able to follow this Way, then even if you are stupid, you will become enlightened. Even if you are weak, you will become strong.
21. The enlightenment that comes from sincerity is our own nature. The sincerity that comes from enlightenment is called “education.” If you are sincere you will be enlightened. If you are enlightened, you will be sincere.
22. Only the perfectly sincere person can actualize his own essence. Actualizing his own essence, he can fully actualize the essence of others. Fully actualizing the essence of others, he can fully actualize the essence of all things. Being able to fully actualize the essence of all things, he can assist Heaven and Earth in their transformation and sustenance. Able to assist in Heaven and Earth's transformation and sustenance, he forms a trinity with Heaven and Earth.
23. Those of the next level straighten out their own twistedness. Being straightened they can possess sincerity. Having sincerity, they can give form to their character. Their character having form, their sincerity becomes manifest. Being manifest it is luminous, being luminous it can function. Functioning, it changes; changing, it transforms. Only the most fully actualized sincerity is able to transform people and things.
24. Once you are in the Path of fully actualized sincerity, you have foreknowledge of things. When a nation or clan is about to rise up, there are always omens of their fortune. When a nation or clan is about to fall, there are always omens of their misfortune. It can be seen in the milfoil stalks, 3 tortoise shells 4 and in the movements of the body. When good or evil fortune is imminent, the perfectly sincere person will know without obstruction. With fully actualized sincerity, you are like a god.
25. Sincerity is just “perfecting” and the Way is just “following.” Sincerity is the beginning and end of all things. Without sincerity there is nothing. Thus the Superior Man values the process of “becoming-sincere.” But sincerity is not “just-perfecting;” it also means “perfecting all things.” To perfect yourself, you need ren. To perfect others, you need wisdom. The virtue of our nature is that it is none other than the Way by which inner and outer are merged. Thus we can always use it to set things right.
26. Therefore, fully actualized sincerity is ceaseless. Ceaseless, it is eternal. Eternal, it is apparent. Apparent, it is far-reaching. Far-reaching, it is vast and deep. Vast and deep, it is high and bright. Since it is vast and deep, it can support all things. Since it is high and bright, it can cover all things. Since it is far-reaching and long-lasting, it can accomplish all things. Vastness and depth refer to the Earth. Highness and brightness refer to Heaven. Far-reaching and long-lasting refer to limitlessness. In this way, it is manifest without being seen, it changes without moving, and accomplishes without effort.
The Way of Heaven and Earth can be perfectly expressed in a single phrase: “Its appearance as things is not repeated; therefore its production of things is unfathomable.” The Way of Heaven and Earth is vast and deep, high and bright, far-reaching and long-lasting. Now, Heaven is made of many single lights. But they are infinite; the sun, moon and stars are all suspended in it, and it covers the myriad things.
The Earth is but a collection of numerous handfuls of dirt. But it is vast and deep. It supports Mt. Hua and Mt. Yue without feeling their weight; it contains the seas and rivers without spilling a drop. It supports all things.
The mountains are made of many small stones. But they become high and broad. Plants and trees grow on them, the birds and beasts live on them, and rare gems are stored within them.
The waters are mere collections of many teaspoons. But their depth is unfathomable. Tortoises, alligators, dragons, fish and turtles live there, and all sorts of gems grow there.
The Book of Odes says:
The Mandate of the Heavenly Principle
Has no end to its depth.
This is why we call Heaven, “Heaven.”
It also says:
Was it not apparent,
The purity of King Wen's virtue?
This is how Wen made his own character—unceasing in purity.
27. How great is the Way of the sage! Superabundant, it develops all things, extending up to Heaven. How excellent it is! It embraces the three hundred rules of ceremony, and the three thousand rules of conduct; it waits for the right person and then functions. Hence it is said: “If you do not perfect your virtue, the perfect Way cannot be actualized.” Therefore the Superior Man esteems his virtuous nature and follows the path of inquiry, extending himself in breadth and greatness, penetrating all subtleties, penetrating its height and brilliance, following the course of the actualization of the Mean. He reviews the old and learns the new, thickening his character through the valorization of propriety.
Therefore he abides in a position of power without arrogance, and abides in a low position without being rebellious. When the government is just, he can speak and be praised. When the government is wicked, he can conceal himself by silence. The Book of Odes says:
His intelligence and wit
Were his protection.
Does this not reflect the same meaning?
28. Confucius said: “To be ignorant and like to act as you will; to be of low rank and ignore all the rules; to be living in the present and be following the norms of the past: all these will bring you trouble.”
If you are not the emperor, you cannot determine the rules of propriety, set weights and measures, or create ideographs. In the present realm, carriages have the same axle-widths, documents are written with the same characters and people follow the same norms of conduct.
But even if you are emperor, if you lack virtue, you cannot presume to create ritual or music. And even if you possess sufficient virtue, but you are not in the position of emperor, you cannot presume to create ritual or music.
Confucius said: “I can describe the Xia rituals, but the documents from Qi cannot verify it. I have learned the Yin rituals, and they are still preserved in the Song. I have learned the Zhou rituals, which are still in use. I follow the Zhou.”
29. In ruling the realm there are three essentials through which one can lessen his mistakes. 5
If you are in a position of rank, even if you are good, if your goodness is not evident, you will not be trusted. Not being trusted, the people will not follow you. If you lack rank, then you will not be respected. Lacking respect, you will not be trusted. Without trust the people will not follow you. 6
Therefore in the Superior Man's practice of his Way, he starts with himself and then manifests his character to all the people, such that when he contemplates the ways of the three former sage-kings, he cannot feel any shame. He is established between Heaven and Earth without any discord. He presents himself before the spirits of his ancestors without doubting. He waits for a hundred generations for a sage to appear without confusion.
If you can present yourself to the ancestral spirits without doubting, you know Heaven. If you can wait a hundred generations for the appearance of a sage, you know human beings. Therefore, the people regard the movement of the Superior Man as the Way of the world. They regard his actions as the norm of the world. They regard his words as the pattern for the world. When they are away from him, they long for him. When they are near him, they never get tired of him. The Book of Odes says:
When he is away, he is not hated.
When he is here, he is not disliked.
In every situation, from morning to night,
Their praise of him is unceasing.
There has never been a Superior Man who gained rapid recognition from the world and who was not like this.
30. Confucius transmitted the legacy of (sage-emperors) Yao and Shun and modeled his character on that of (sage-kings) Wen and Wu. He was ruled by the Heavenly seasons from above, and combined the Earth and Waters below. He was like Heaven and Earth, which have nothing they do not support, and nothing they do not cover. His function was like the revolution of the four seasons, the alternation of sun and moon. He nourishes the myriad things and they grow up together without harming each other, and they follow their courses simultaneously without interfering with each other. His smaller power is like the rivers and streams. His great power is seen in deep transformations. This is why Heaven and Earth are called “great.”
31. Only the perfect sage of the realm possesses the acumen, sharpness and insight necessary for overseeing things, and at the same time has enough generosity, open-mindedness, warmth and flexibility to accept everything. He also has enough energy, strength, firmness and gumption to maintain what he has and enough self-awareness, gravity, centeredness and correctness to be respected and enough refinement, principle, depth and analytical ability to discriminate.
Extremely vast, unfathomably deep—he uses his abilities according to the situation. As vast as Heaven, as deep as an abyss, when he shows himself, there are none who do not respect him. When he speaks, there are none who do not believe him. When he acts, there are not who do not appreciate him. Therefore you can hear his name overflowing from the central kingdoms out to the uncivilized regions. Wherever boats and wagons go, wherever human power can reach to; in every place supported by the Earth; those places illuminated by the sun and moon; wherever dew and frost fall; wherever there are breathing beings, there are none who do not respect him and cherish him. Therefore he is associated with “Heaven.”
32. Only that person who has fully actualized sincerity is able to adjust the strings of the Great Net of the World; is able to establish himself in the Great Root of the World; is able to understand the transformations and the nurturing of Heaven and Earth. So sincere is his ren; so unfathomable is his depth; so vast is his spaciousness.
Who is able to understand this, but one who has the firm, acute, luminous sagely intelligence—who is permeated with Heavenly Virtue?
33. The Book of Odes says:
She covered her brocade gown
With a plain robe.
She did not want to show off her finery. Therefore the Superior Man acts in a way such that he conceals himself, yet every day gains in luminosity. The inferior man shows himself and every day loses luminosity. The Way of the Superior Man is tasteless, yet you never get sick of it. Simple, yet refined; warm-hearted, yet principled. He knows the closeness of the distant, knows the origin of customs. He knows the manifestation of the subtle and can enter into virtue.
The Book of Odes says:
Though the fish dive to the bottom
They can be seen.
Hence the Superior Man, finding no perversity within himself, has no evil in his intentions. Those things that the Superior Man is unable to attain to are exactly the things that others cannot perceive.
The Book of Odes says:
While in your own room,
You should not be ashamed if it were
Opened to the world.
Therefore the Superior Man does not move, and yet is respected. He does not speak, and yet is believed.
The Book of Odes says:
Make your offerings without words,
And there will never be any disagreement.
Therefore the Superior Man receives no awards, yet the people promote him. He is not angry, yet they are more in awe of him than they are of lethal weapons.
The Book of Odes says:
Only if you don't show it
Can you develop virtue.
All the princes are constrained by this.
Therefore the Superior Man, through his generosity and courtesy, pacifies the realm.
The Book of Odes says:
I cherish shining virtue
Not big noises and flashy colors.
Confucius said: “In terms of transforming people, sounds and appearances don't amount to much. The Book of Odes says:”
Virtue is as light as a hair,
Yet even a hair possesses the great principles.
In the functions of Supreme Heaven, there are no sounds or smells.
It is “perfect.”
2. There is a pun here, since “humanity” is also pronounced ren. Thus, in Chinese, this phrase says “ren 仁 is ren.”
3. Used in Yijing divination.
4. An ancient method of divination where tortoise shells were heated over a fire until they cracked. The cracks were read according to their patterns to diagnose a situation.
5. At this point in the text, one would expect a clear enumeration of three essential points. But following this are only a set of two, followed by a set of four. James Legge and Wing-tsit Chan, following Zhuxi, say that these three essentials should be the ceremonies, regulations and formation of ideographs mentioned in the prior passage. This judgment may be questioned, since in Confucian texts, errors in rulership are generally shortcomings in the personal character or errors in judgment on moral issues. Since these are three essentials of rulership, we might look to the end of section 20 above, which says: “Loving study, you approach wisdom; loving energetic practice, you approach ren. Understanding shame, you approach courage. If you understand these three, you know how to polish your character; knowing how to polish your character, you know how to handle others; knowing how to handle others, you know how to govern a state or clan.”
6. This is another passage which seems to be deficient in the necessary contextual background for solid interpretation. But again, I must differ with Zhuxi's interpretation which reads shang 上 as “former times” and its antonym xia 下 as “low position.” Since shang and xia are so clearly contrasted here in consecutive sentences, it seems much more sensible and natural to read them as antonyms. Furthermore, though to read shang as “formerly” or “antiquity” may be possible in Classical Chinese, we rarely see it used in that way in the Analects, Great Learning or Doctrine of the Mean. The two terms almost always mean “superior” or “above” and “inferior” or “below,” usually in terms of societal rank, or level of personal enlightenment.