Notes on The Great Learning

The Great Learning is the first of the “Four Books” of ancient China, which represent the holistic teachings of ancient Confucianism. It is the natural introduction to the Analects. At one point The Great Learning, attributed to Confucius, was included as a chapter in the Book of Rites (one of the “Five Classics” of ancient China). The Great Learning is a very short text. It is intended to be read by prospective students as an existential text, advising people on proper ontology. It is a text on the nature of teaching. The short text is also typically accompanied with another short commentary from Cengzi.

The opening line is ‘the way of great learning consists in manifesting one’s bright virtue’ -these are themes explored in Plato. What is knowledge? Can knowledge, or virtue, or wisdom be taught? ‘When you know what comes first and what comes last, then you are near to the Way’ -this section reminds us of Aristotle’s four causes discussed in the Physics, and elsewhere, however the text continues and takes a political turn at verse 4.

In summary: the way to know great things is to manifest one’s bright virtue, by loving people and pausing in perfect goodness. The key is to calm the mind and body in order to deliberate on your ultimate objectives, the first things and the last things. In order to manifest bright virtue, the ancients first politically governed their states well. Therefore, the art of politics is primary. In order to govern their states well they sought harmony in their clans, families, minds, and in the “investigation of things” -perhaps not unlike Aristotle’s life of pure contemplation. Thus, in order to govern a state well with the ultimate objective of peace, kings and common-people must first cultivate the self which requires self-control, as the Cengzi states in his commentary.

For this reading, I used the A. Charles Muller translation, completed in 1992.

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