The Great Learning
Category: Confucian
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The Great Learning or Daxue was one of the "Four Books" in Confucianism. The Great Learning had come from a chapter in the Book of Rites which formed one of the Five Classics. It consists of a short main text attributed to the teachings of Confucius and then ten commentary chapters accredited to one of Confucius' disciples, Zengzi. The ideals of the book were supposedly Confucius's, but the text was written after his death.

The Great Learning


Translated by James Legge

© 2009, Stephen R. McIntyre

What the Great Learning teaches, is — to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.

The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end.

Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. Their States being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

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.

It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for.

Chapter 1.

The illustration of illustrious virtue.

In the Announcement to K’ang, it is said, “He was able to make his virtue illustrious.”

In the Tâi Chiâ, it is said, “He contemplated and studied the illustrious decrees of Heaven.”

In the Canon of the emperor (Yâo), it is said, “He was able to make illustrious his lofty virtue.”

These passages all show how those sovereigns made themselves illustrious.

Chapter 2.

The renovation of the people.

On the bathing tub of T’ang, the following words were engraved: — “If you can one day renovate yourself, do so from day to day. Yea, let there be daily renovation.”

In the Announcement to K’ang, it is said, “To stir up the new people.”

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “Although Châu was an ancient State, the ordinance which lighted on it was new.”

Therefore, the superior man in everything uses his utmost endeavors.

Chapter 3.

On resting in the highest excellence.

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “The royal domain of a thousand lî is where the people rest.”

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “The twittering yellow bird rests on a corner of the mound.” The Master said, “When it rests, it knows where to rest. Is it possible that a man should not be equal to this bird?”

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “Profound was king Wan. With how bright and unceasing a feeling of reverence did he regard his resting places!” As a sovereign, he rested in benevolence. As a minister, he rested in reverence. As a son, he rested in filial piety. As a father, he rested in kindness. In communication with his subjects, he rested in good faith.

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “Look at that winding course of the Ch’î, with the green bamboos so luxuriant! Here is our elegant and accomplished prince! As we cut and then file; as we chisel and then grind: so has he cultivated himself. How grave is he and dignified! How majestic and distinguished! Our elegant and accomplished prince never can be forgotten.” That expression — “As we cut and then file,” indicates the work of learning. “As we chisel and then grind,” indicates that of self-culture. “How grave is he and dignified!” indicates the feeling of cautious reverence. “How commanding and distinguished!” indicates an awe-inspiring deportment. “Our elegant and accomplished prince never can be forgotten,” indicates how, when virtue is complete and excellence extreme, the people cannot forget them.

In the Book of Poetry, it is said, “Ah! the former kings are not forgotten.” Future princes deem worthy what they deemed worthy, and love what they loved. The common people delight in what delighted them, and are benefited by their beneficial arrangements. It is on this account that the former kings, after they have quitted the world, are not forgotten.

Chapter 4.

Explanation of the root and the branches.

The Master said, “In hearing litigations, I am like any other body. What is necessary is to cause the people to have no litigations.” So, those who are devoid of principle find it impossible to carry out their speeches, and a great awe would be struck into men’s minds; — this is called knowing the root.

Chapter 5.

On the investigation of things, and carrying knowledge to the utmost extent.

This is called knowing the root.

This is called the perfecting of knowledge.

Chapter 6.

On having the thoughts sincere.

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

There is no evil to which the mean man, dwelling retired, will not proceed, but when he sees a superior man, he instantly tries to disguise himself, concealing his evil, and displaying what is good. The other beholds him, as if he saw his heart and reins; — of what use is his disguise? This is an instance of the saying — “What truly is within will be manifested without.” Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

The disciple Tsang said, “What ten eyes behold, what ten hands point to, is to be regarded with reverence!”

Riches adorn a house, and virtue adorns the person. The mind is expanded, and the body is at ease. Therefore, the superior man must make his thoughts sincere.

Chapter 7.

On personal cultivation as dependent on the rectification of the mind.

What is meant by, “The cultivation of the person depends on rectifying the mind,” may be thus illustrated: — If a man be under the influence of passion, he will be incorrect in his conduct. He will be the same, if he is under the influence of terror, or under the influence of fond regard, or under that of sorrow and distress.

When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat.

This is what is meant by saying that the cultivation of the person depends on the rectifying of the mind.

Chapter 8.

The necessity of cultivating the person, in order to the regulation of the family.

What is meant by “The regulation of one’s family depends on the cultivation of his person,” is this: — men are partial where they feel affection and love; partial where they despise and dislike; partial where they stand in awe and reverence; partial where they feel sorrow and compassion; partial where they are arrogant and rude. Thus it is that there are few men in the world who love and at the same time know the bad qualities of the object of their love, or who hate and yet know the excellences of the object of their hatred.

Hence it is said, in the common adage, “A man does not know the wickedness of his son; he does not know the richness of his growing corn.”

This is what is meant by saying that if the person be not cultivated, a man cannot regulate his family.

Chapter 9.

On regulating the family as the means to the well-ordering of the State.

What is meant by “In order rightly to govern the State, it is necessary first to regulate the family,” is this: — It is not possible for one to teach others, while he cannot teach his own family. Therefore, the ruler, without going beyond his family, completes the lessons for the State. There is filial piety: — therewith the sovereign should be served. There is fraternal submission: — therewith elders and superiors should be served. There is kindness: — therewith the multitude should be treated.

In the Announcement to K’ang, it is said, “Act as if you were watching over an infant.” If a mother is really anxious about it, though she may not hit exactly the wants of her infant, she will not be far from doing so. There never has been a girl who learned to bring up a child, that she might afterwards marry.

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