Philosophy #1: Great Learning


The book The Great Learning (Traditional Chinese: 大學) was selected as one of the “Four Books” in Confucianism. The book had come from a chapter in the Classic of Rites, also known as the Li Chi or the Li Ji. The Classic of Rites formed one of the 5 classics. Up until 1905 starting from the mid 12th century the “Four Books” had been used in examinations for state civil service (China). These books were the core of the curriculum for 1500 years.
The “Four Books” were selected by a neo-Confucian, Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) during the Song Dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism. His commentary of the book provided additional support to Confucius’ ideals. The book itself consists of a short main text attributed to the teachings of Confucius and then ten commentary chapters accredited to one of Confucius’ disciples, Zhen Xi.

The ideals of the book were Confucius’s; however the text was written after his death. Literary analyses have suggested that the text dates back to the Song Dynasty. In the 19th century the text was translated into English by a Scottish sinologist by the name of James Legge.

Principle teachings of the Great Learning
* Achieving a state of balance and refining one’s moral self such that it is a reflection of the Dao (Way).
* Ample rest and reflection such that one achieves peace of mind. When one is calm and reflected, the Way will be revealed to them.
* Setting priorities and knowing what is important is essential in one’s quest for moral refinement, for it allows one to focus on that which is of the greatest importance and that which is in line with the Way as outlined in Confucian teachings.
* One must brings one’s affairs and relationships into order and harmony. If one hopes to attain order in the state, one must first bring his/her own family and personal life into order through self-cultivation and the expansion of ones knowledge and the “investigation of things.”
* Each and every person is capable of learning and self cultivation regardless of social, economic or political status. This, in turn, means that success in learning is the result of the effort of the individual as opposed to an inability to learn.
* One must treat education as an intricate and interrelated system where one must strive for balance. No one aspect of learning is isolated from the other and failure to cultivate a single aspect of one’s learning will lead to the failure of learning as a whole.

A term used in the text, “qin-min” (親民) which James Legge, following Zhu Xi, amended to “xin-min” (新民) and translated “renovating the people” instead of “loving the people”. It became the name of the People First Party (Republic of China), one of the minor parties in Taiwan (Legge).

The Main Text of the Great Learning
* The Way of the great learning involves manifesting virtue, renovating the people, and abiding by the highest good. (…) 大學之道在明明德,在親民,在止於至善 (…)

* The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the world, first ordered well their own States. 古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其國

* Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. 欲治其國者,先齊其家

* Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. 欲齊其家者,先修其身

* Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. 欲修其身者,先正其心

* Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. 欲正其心者,先誠其意

* Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge. 欲誠其意者,先致其知

* Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. 致知在格物

* Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. 物格而後知至

* Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. 知至而後意誠

* Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. 意誠而後心正

* Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. 心正而後身修

* Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. 身修而後家齊

* Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. 家齊而後國治

* Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace. 國治而後天下平

* From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. (…) 自天子以至於庶人,壹是皆以修身為本 (…)

The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. Government, self cultivation and investigation of things are linked. It links together individual action in the form of self-cultivation with higher goals such as ultimate world peace as well as linking together the spiritual and the material. By defining the path of learning (tao) in governmental and social terms, the Great Learning both links the spiritual with the practical, and creates a vision of tao that is radically different than that presented by Taoism.

In particular, the Great Learning sets Confucianism as being this-worldly rather than other-worldly. Instead of basing its authority on an external deity, the Great Learning bases its authority on the practices of ancient kings. The text also sets up a number of controversies that have underlain Chinese philosophy and political thinking. For example, one major controversy has been to define exactly the investigation of things. What things are to be investigated and how has been one of the crucial issues of Chinese philosophy.

The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. The Great Learning represented a key aspect of the Chinese curriculum for nearly 1500 years and can be found in virtually all aspects of Chinese culture. The Great Learning within the Chinese curriculum acted as a “springboard” for further learning, “self cultivation and investigation of things.” Through self-cultivation one can bring order and harmony to one’s mind, personal life, family, state and the world as a whole. By defining the path of learning (Dao) in governmental and social terms, the Great Learning links the spiritual realm with daily life, thus creating a vision of the Way (Dao) that is radically different than that of non-action as presented by Daoism.

The Great Learning, on the other hand, requires action on the part of the individual towards the ultimate goal of self-cultivation through the “expansion of knowledge and the investigation of things.” The Great Learning presents Confucianism as being this-worldly rather than other-worldly. As opposed to basing its authority on an external deity, the Great Learning bases its authority on the practices of ancient kings.

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