Confucius rarely spoke of profit, fate, or humaneness.
A man from Daxiang said, “How great Confucius is! His learning is so broad, but he hasn’t made a name for himself in anything in particular.”
When Confucius heard this, he remarked to his students, “What should I specialize in? Charioteering? Archery? I think I’ll go with charioteering!”
Confucius said, “The linen cap is prescribed by the rites, but these days they use a silk cap. That’s thrifty—I’ll go with the consensus on that.
“Bowing at the bottom of the stairs is prescribed by the rites, but these days they bow at the top of the stairs. That’s arrogant—I’ll go against the consensus on that and bow at the bottom of the stairs.”
There were four things Confucius kept away from: speculation, demanding absolute certainty, stubbornness, and selfishness.
When Confucius’ life was under threat in Kuang, he said, “King Wen is dead, but culture lives on in me. If Heaven intended for that culture to die off, those of us who came after wouldn’t have it. If Heaven doesn’t want to kill off this culture, what can the men of Kuang do to me?”
A high minister asked Zigong, “Is your master really a sage? Then why does he have so many skills?”
Zigong replied, “It’s Heaven that made him a sage and allowed him to develop many skills besides.”
When he heard about this, Confucius said, “What does the high minister know about me? When I was a boy, my family was poor, so I had to learn many skills. Does a noble person need to have many skills? I don’t think so.”
Lao said, “Our teacher once said, ‘I didn’t have an official position, so I developed many skills.’”
Confucius said, “Do I have wisdom? No, I don’t. But if a simple person asks me a question and I come up empty, I’ll look into it from one end to the other.”
Confucius said, “The phoenix hasn’t come and the river hasn’t produced its chart. It’s all over for me, isn’t it?”
If Confucius saw someone in mourning, or in full ceremonial dress, or a blind person— even if they were younger than him—he would arise. If he had to pass by them, he would do so quickly.
With a deep sigh, Yan Hui said, “The more I look up at it, the higher it gets. The more I drill into it, the harder it gets. I catch a glimpse of it in front of me, and all of a sudden, it’s behind me.
“My teacher is skilled at leading me forward, one step at a time. He broadens me with culture and restrains me with ritual. I couldn’t quit, even if I wanted to, but it still towers over me. I want to get there, but I can’t find a route up.”
When Confucius became ill, Zilu told the other students to act as if they were Confucius’ “ministers.”
During a remission in his illness, Confucius said, “Ah, Zilu, you’ve been carrying on this charade for a long time now, haven’t you? You want to make believe that I have ‘ministers?’ Who are you fooling? Heaven?
I’d much rather die in the arms of my students than in the arms of ministers. Besides, even though I won’t get a grand state funeral, it’s not like I’m dying on the side of the road.”
Zigong asked, “If you have a beautiful piece of jade, would you hide it away in a locked box or try to sell it for a good price?”
Confucius replied, “Oh, I’d sell it! I’d sell it! But I’m waiting for the right offer.”
Confucius wanted to go and live with some barbarian tribe. Someone said, “But they’re so uncouth? How could you stand it?”
Confucius replied, “If a noble person lives among them, how could they be uncouth?”
Confucius said, “It was only after I returned to Lu from Wei that the music got straightened out, with the odes and the hymns being played at their proper places and times.”
Confucius said, “When out in the world, serving the rulers and ministers. When at home, serving my elders. Not slacking off during funerary rites and not getting drunk. These things aren’t a problem for me.”
Standing on the banks of the river, Confucius said, “On and on it flows, never ceasing, day or night!”
Confucius said, “I’ve never met a man who loves virtue as much as he loves beauty.”
Confucius said, “It’s like building a mountain. If I stop just one bucket shy of completion, then I’ve stopped. It’s like filling in a pit. Even if I’ve only just dumped in the first bucketful of dirt, I’m making progress.”
Confucius said, “If there was anyone who could listen to my teaching without slacking off, that was Yan Hui, wasn’t it?”
Confucius said about Yan Hui, “Such a shame. I saw him strive forward, but I never saw him stop.”
Confucius said, “There are some seedlings that never flower, and some flowers that never bear fruit.”
Confucius said, “We should look on the younger generation with awe. How are we to know if the coming generation won’t be our equals? Only after a person reaches forty or fifty and they haven’t been heard from should we not be in awe of them.”
Confucius said, “How can we disagree with exemplary sayings? But the real value is in reforming yourself according to those sayings. How can we not be pleased by gentle and tactful words of correction? But the real value is understanding the point of those words.
“To agree with sayings but not try to understand their point, to agree with advice but not follow through with actions—what can I do with people like that?”
Confucius said, “Stand firm in doing your best and sticking to your word. Don’t make friends with people who aren’t your equals in this. When you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to correct it.”
Confucius said, “You can take away the general of the Three Armies, but you can’t deprive even a lowly commoner of their purpose.”
Confucius said, “Wearing only tattered work clothes while standing among gentlemen in their fineries, yet feeling no embarrassment. That’s Zilu, isn’t it?
‘Free of resentment, free of craving,
How could he do wrong?’”
On hearing this praise, Zilu took to repeating these lines over and over again.
Confucius said, “Is this really enough to be considered good?”
Confucius said, “It’s only after the cold of winter sets in that we realize that the pine and the cypress are the last to fade.”
Confucius said, “The wise are not confused, the humane are not anxious, and the brave are not afraid.”
Confucius said, “Just because someone can learn with you, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can walk the Way with you. Just because someone can walk the Way with you, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can walk by your side. Just because someone can walk by your side, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can join you in acting with moral discretion.”
‘The petals of the wild cherry tree,
How they wave and turn,
It’s not that I don’t think of you,
But your home is so far away.’
Confucius remarked, “He wasn’t really thinking of her. If he was, why would the distance bother him?”