What if we became honorable men (and women)?


Today’s “Day of the Thinker” will be focusing on none other than Confucius!  Taking advantage of a six hour-long flight between Dubai and Rome I tucked into Yu Dan’s Confucius from the Heart.  This slim volume has received rave reviews from The New York Times, Le Monde and the London Times.  In China, the book is a best seller, selling over 10 million copies!  This small manual of universal wisdom that I highly recommend can change your outlook on the world, and encourages you to become a junzi (an “honorable man”) and a shi (“erudite man”).

Yu Dan is a media studies professor at Beijing Normal University.  She became a national celebrity in China by presenting a series of lectures on Confucius’ Analects on the CCTV (China Central Television) network.  These lectures were able to dust off Confucian teachings and made them relevant to the general public. The book is a natural progression of this lecture series.  Yu Dan has adapted a 2500 year-old philosophy to the Internet era, through an enlightened, modern reading, illustrated by many Chinese parables.

Confucius, China’s most celebrated philosopher was born in the Lu State in 551, BCE.  At the same time, the Zhou dynasty fragmented into over 140 independent regions.  The Lu State, situated between the warring Qi and Song provinces, developed culturally and artistically instead of militarily.  However, a civil war broke out between various ministers and the king, forcing Confucius into exile.  He returned to his native land at the age of 68, and he died there at 73 years old, unaware that his writings would influence China to this day.  Despite condemnation by Chairman Mao (who judged the philosophy as being too conservative), Confucianism has once again gained popularity in China, thanks to its timelessness.  At the heart of this deeply humanist philosophy lies the notion of the “rite”, whose social purpose is to create distinctions thus establishing a social order.

Confucius sees three fundamental rites: those linked to birth and death, reminding humans of their ephemeral condition; those linked to the earth and the sky, of which humans are at the junction; and those linked to the worship of ancestors, placing humans in a descending order—the beginning and the end, the high and the low, the before and the after, the dignified and the undignified.  His philosophy centers on the “ren”, the Chinese notion of humanity (of which he emphasizes the relational dimension) and the sense of fairness, or “yi” in Chinese (that incorporates justice and accuracy).  For him, the authentic man is a work of art, an educated man is a “junzi” (that we translate by a “noble or honorable man”) and each one of us, poor or rich can become this.  The “junzi” is etymologically “he who orders the word”, in this context, “order” means “organize”.  For Confucius, the junzi are the conscience of a society.

Confucius said that life is ordered in 6 steps.  This is also the organization of Yu Dan’s book.  The first part, called “The Path of the Sky and the Earth”, reminds us that “idealism and realism” are our sky and earth (Yin and Yang), and that the goal is to unite sky (spirituality), earth (materialism) and humanity into one perfect being.  She reminds us that men must respect nature and its rhythm and confidence is at the heart of politics.  In the second part, titled “The Voice of the Heart and Soul”, the author insists on the importance of our attitude towards life’s setbacks to better overcome them: “Do not cry for losing the sun, your tears will stop you from seeing the stars”, said the Indian poet Tagore.  “Growing our aptitude for happiness is the biggest thing we could learn.”  I will let you discover a wonderful lesson for self confidence illustrated by a beautiful parable.  The third part called “The Voice of the World”, harks back to the virtues of balance, between excess and penury and the importance of maintaining tactful human relationships.  This part focuses on what Buddhists call “the flower not fully opened, or the not quite full moon”, which leaves a space for aspiration.  I will let you also discover the parable of the nail in the heart, as well as that of the three tailors.  The fourth part called “The Voice of Friendship”, reminds us, in the era of Facebook, of what Confucius characterized as the types of true friends: the upright friend, the faithful friend, the cultivated friend.  The fifth part, “The Voice of Ambition”, is devoted to the importance of actions (which speak louder than words) and the role of ambition.  This is illustrated by the parable of the actor.  The last part, “The Voice of Existence” opens the voice of wisdom and the secret “ear of unity”—perfect tolerance that allows us to enter in resonance with the world and all who people it.  2500 years later, Confucius continues to enlighten us…

Here is the parable of the actor: “A man, fearing a depressive breakdown, goes to see a psychiatrist.  ‘Everyday’, he says to the doctor, ‘I am terribly afraid of going home after work.  When I am working, all is well, but as soon as I get home, I am filled with doubts and apprehensions.  I don’t know what my profound ambitions are I don’t know what choices I need to make.  As the night comes on, I become more and more tense, sometimes I can’t even sleep the whole night through.  But the next morning, when I leave for work and I enter into my professional role, everything’s fine and the symptoms disappear.  If this continues to go on, I fear madness.’  After listening to him, the doctor responds with the following analysis: ‘There is a famous actor in our city, he’s a prodigious artist.  All who see him double over with laughter and forget their troubles.  Why don’t you go and see one of his plays?  Come back afterwards and tell me if you feel better.  Then, we’ll create an action plan for you.’ The man was silent for a long while.  When he raised his head, the doctor saw that his eyes were full of tears, blubbering the man replied ‘I am the famous actor…’

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