The Ancients on “Courage”

June 1, 2011 at 6:00 am | Posted in Culture, Discussion, Reflections | 6 Comments
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(Clearwisdom.net)

Confucius said, “A benevolent man worries not, a learned man is not perplexed, and a brave man fears not.” But “courage” does not mean being doggedly reckless or combative. Rather, “courage” is closely related to the cultivation of virtue and morality. Confucius recognized that his disciple Zilu was quite brave, but he also counseled Zilu that courage goes hand in hand with the sense of justice. Bravery without a sense of righteousness is of no value. Forgetting about righteousness at the sight of profit or taking no action when justice demands it cannot be called real “courage.” “Courage” that is in conformity with morality has always been a highly commended virtue in Chinese traditional culture.

“Shijing (The Book of Songs) – Daya (The Major Festal Odes) – Shumin (The common people) state, “Ingest not the soft, spit not the hard, bully not the weak and helpless, and fear not the powerful and despotic.” This poem was composed to extol and see off to war the famous General Zhong Shanfu from the Xizhou Dynasty. The general idea of the poem is that one should not be too easily tempted by things that are soft and tender, nor readily spit out things that are hard, bully the weak, and be intimidated by those who are powerful. The poem blessed the general, that he wouldn’t fail to carry out the imperial edict, and that he would settle the disputes of the warlords, and bring comfort to the common people. It expressed the admiration for high morality and the courage to refrain from bullying and bearing down on the meek and the weak, and to not be fearful of the tough and the powerful.

“Zuo Zhuan – Aigong Annals 16” states, “Courage is guided by righteousness.” It means that only by adhering to morality and righteousness can it be called courage. “Courage” must be based on “benevolence and righteousness.”

Confucius talked about the issue of “courage” quite often. He said, “A benevolent man worries not, a learned man is not perplexed, and a brave man fears not.” (“Lun Yu (The Analects of Confucius) – Xianwen (Constitution Questions”). According to Confucius, these are three qualities that a gentleman should possess, and it is also a perfect state of human life. A benevolent and moral person can treat others with kindness and generosity; that is why they have no worries. A learned person can distinguish right from wrong; therefore they won’t be perplexed. A courageous person will not be frightened when facing calamities, so he has nothing to fear. A person possessing just one of these three qualities is already hard to come by, and possessing all three is even harder. Confucius candidly said that he could not achieve all three either. But his disciple Zi Gong said, “Master speaks of himself,” meaning Confucius only described himself that way. In his disciples’ minds, Confucius was the embodiment of Benevolence, Wisdom and Courage. If even he did not possess the three qualities, who else did?

Confucius also said, “A benevolent person has courage for sure, but a brave person may not necessarily possess benevolence,” (“Lun Yu – Xianwen”) This statement expresses the relationship between “benevolence” and “courage.” A benevolent person will surely be brave for a just cause, sacrificing even their lives in the process, and this is real courage. Some people may appear to be very brave, but they may not be brave for the sake of justice. It could merely be an emotional outburst and not necessarily with a heart of caring and kindness.

Confucius also said, “One who does not act for a just cause when confronted, has no courage.” (“Lun Yu – Weizheng (For Government”) When a person dares not face the challenge that he should is a sign of cowardice. This statement illustrates the relationship between “righteousness” and “courage.” Taking no action for a just cause is not just cowardice, but is a very disgraceful matter. Gallantly facing the challenge for a just cause has been a highly commended moral behavior in Chinese traditional culture.

Thus, the “courage” the ancients mentioned was closely tied to morality and ethics. In his “Liu Hou Discourse,” famous author Su Shi of the Song Dynasty criticized the type of foolhardiness that got one into a brawl in a sudden rage. He praised those with visionary aspirations who could endure momentary humiliation, and believed that they had great courage. He said, “There are those with great courage, who are not frightened when facing sudden calamity and not enraged by gratuitousness.” It means that there are people with great courage in the world, and sudden calamity cannot frighten them, nor unwarranted injustice enrage them–just like Han Xin of the Han Dynasty, who endured the humiliation of crawling between a ruffian’s legs when he was young. If he could not endure such an unexpected insult and decided to kill the bully, how could he have achieved success later on? It is thus clear that when necessary, to endure is a wise choice for a courageous person.

Zhu Jia classified “courage” into “petty courage” and “great courage.” He said in his book, “Annotation on the verses of the Four Books – Annotation on Meng Zi”) “Petty courage is the consequence of hotheadedness, and great courage arises from just principles and reasoning.” It means that petty courage is impulsive, whereas great courage is based on morality and righteous principles.
Chinese version available at http://minghui.ca/mh/articles/2006/5/17/127866.html

Source: http://clearwisdom.net/emh/articles/2006/6/5/74111.html

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6 Comments »

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  1. It sounds like courage in ancient China involved standing up to corrupt officials (or finding the moral core necessary to avoid becoming a corrupt official). My favorite story of bravery in medieval China involves a petitioner who went to court with his own coffin to berate a tyrannical emperor. The petitioner explained to the emperor how much the avarice and cruelty of the throne was hurting the common people and then stepped into his coffin and awaited death: great courage based on morality and righteous principles!

    • Wow.. that petitioner is so brave… Great courage indeed!

      • That particular tale had a happy end. Emperor Hongwu was a tyrant who cruelly purged whole segments of Chinese society, but he admired bravery greatly and spared the scholar’s life (although the whole story may be propaganda).

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