There is a famous passage from Confucius that goes like this:
The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.”
This is section 2.4 of the Analects, Confucius’s selected sayings. The translation is an old one from James Legge, which is freely available online. I’m not claiming that Legge is a particularly good translation, but it’s adequate for my purposes today, because the details of the translation aren’t what I’m interested in.
Instead the point I want to make today is just this: this passage can be a real inspiration in middle age.
For me, I suppose you could say I was twenty-one when I first really “had my mind bent on learning”, in the sense that’s relevant to this text. Before that point I’d been interested in plenty of learned topics, but it was when I found Buddhism in Thailand that I realized the existential importance of that learning: I needed to learn to be better. My utilitarian mix of hedonism and political activism was leaving me miserable. I needed to tame my cravings and become wiser.
But what I learned in the quarter-century that followed was just how hard that was. I told that story on this blog’s tenth anniversary: you have to really work at being good (to yourself and to others!), and even then, it’s still going to be hard. Even now, on the eve of my forty-seventh birthday, I can hardly even count the number of times that anger and fear and self-pity cloud my mind on a typical day.
In a youth-worshipping culture like ours, 47 feels pretty old. And it is old in some significant respects: it is significantly older than the median age of the US population, let alone the world’s. Even the healthiest life expectancy at this age does not hit 90, so half of my life is probably now over. It’s called middle age for a reason. So it’s easy to ask: if I haven’t sorted myself out by now, when will I?
And that brings us back to Confucius. I wouldn’t describe my path the way he does; there’s a strong externalist note in the passage, of conforming yourself to a tiān 天 (heaven/nature outside yourself), which I don’t follow. But more importantly, regardless of the specific content, what this quote tells my fortysomething self is: you’ve got time.
In Confucius’s era, one would have been lucky even to make it to age 70; in an agricultural-urban society before modern medicine, most people would die before they reached the age I’m at now. And yet by his account, at 47, Confucius had performed only half the steps; he was only halfway there. He didn’t even know the decrees of tiān yet, let alone put them into practice: that would wait another few years until 50, and actually following the decrees well and effortlessly would take until 70. Getting from the initial intent to the mastery of it took him fifty-five years.
But he got there! So he tells us, anyway, and the account sure seems plausible to me. If becoming good requires repetition, then practising through old age is huge because gives you a chance for a lot more repetition. And for seventy-year-old Confucius it had all paid off. Moreover, there’s a certain pleasure in the story itself, the account of the journey: the life slowly, gradually spent seeking virtue. Those 55 years from 15 to 70 weren’t just a grinding exercise that paid off at the end; the process of cultivation was itself intrinsically worthwhile, and surely in its own way pleasurable. Even if he’d been like most people of his era and died well before seventy, it would still have been worth it.
I might be a lot less fond of this quote when I’m actually seventy, because it suggests that by that time I really should have figured everything out. But right now it feels very reassuring, to be only halfway up the list. The quote is perfect for middle age, because it reminds me that I still have so much of my life left to grow. And a life spent in that growth process is a life well spent.
Paul D. Van Pelt said:
Nice work, for now. Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me that Confucius was more attuned to his priorities than are the majority of us today. He likely would have been at least somewhat aware of lifespan limitations and things that prescribed or predicted them. Distractions were different, more daunting in some respects, less in others. At twenty-five, I had little interest in metaphysics or philosophy. Those sparks did not strike until after age fifty. So, yes, I am older and got a late start on the most interesting of life experiences and acquisition of knowledge. Regret is a pointless emotion and one should reserve it for those actions and decisions that were misdirected or ill-conceived. Growing up is a passage for everyone. A key turning point was, for me, resolving to try harder, think better and do the best possible with what I have and know. A mantra of sorts. Remembering it has been helpful.
Amod Lele said:
All good advice, I’d say.
Seth Zuihō Segall said:
Here is Robert Eno’s translation of Analects 2.4, also freely available online:
“The Master said: When I was fifteen I set my heart on learning. At thirty I took my stand. At forty I was without confusion. At fifty I knew the command of Tian. At sixty I heard it with a compliant ear. At seventy I follow the desires of my heart and do not overstep the bounds.”
I find this to be an important articulation of a commonality between Confucian, Aristotelian, and Buddhist virtue ethics—namely, that cultivating wisdom and virtue is a lifelong project engaged in through study and practice, and one in which we can expect or at least hope for improvement over time. I love that he describes his ultimate stage as one in which what he wishes to do and ought to do are finally (!) in alignment. May it be so for all of us!
Amod Lele said: