The Confucian Art of Living Well


What is the key to happiness? In classical Chinese philosophy there is as much disagreement about this as about any other big question, but the most startling assertion, the most bizarre, comes not from the wild men, Zhuangzi or Liezi,  but from the “straight guy,” Mencius:

Mencius said, “The substance [or fruit] of [humaneness] is nothing other than serving your family, and the substance of Duty nothing other than obeying your elders. The substance of wisdom is to understand these two things and [not to depart from] them always. The substance of Ritual is to shape and embellish these two things. And the substance of music is to infuse these two things with joy. Once joy wells up, how can it be stopped? And if joy can’t be stopped, hands and feet will soon strike up a dance of their own.” (Mencius, tr.Hinton, 7:27)

Each one of these five primary elements of the good life — humaneness, duty, wisdom, ritual, and music — is unfathomably deep and demands careful consideration, but for now I’ll offer a simplified version of Mencius’ thought in this passage. If you fulfill your inclination to humaneness by serving your family, your inclination to duty by serving your elders, your capacity for wisdom by understanding the meaning of these and keeping faith with  them, your feeling for ritual by making these beautiful, and then bring music to them — then, as happiness starts welling out of your soul and body, you will find yourself spontaneously dancing for joy. How can it be, one wonders, that the life of dutiful service can lead to spontaneous dance? How can a life of service, which to an individualistic society is almost synonymous with grim self-sacrifice, unleash unstoppable physical ebullience — something like the classical Chinese equivalent of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world” (which might actually be more willed, less spontaneous, than Mencius’ dance)?

In interpreting Confucius, one of the things Mencius draws into the foreground is that a good human life is built upon a foundation of well ordered primary relations: fundamentally, our relation to our parents and elders, and after this our relationships between siblings,  friends, and husband and wife. The relationship between ruler and ruled also ranks high in important human relationships, but Mencius usually talks about this as something that depends on the quality of the more “natural” relationships.This in turn depends on our conduct, our capacity for self-reflection, and how well we understand people; indeed, our social and political difficulties are always determined by what we understand and misunderstand about people. One of Confucius’ most piercing insights is that we can understand what is “far away” by investigating very carefully what is “near at hand”: that is, grand concepts such as “people,” “society” and “the state” are far away, abstract, but what informs them are the immediate relationships that we actually already have and live within, and these are all “near at hand.”When we count the hours, we find that we spend most of our mental and emotional energy on our parents, spouses, siblings, children, and close friends; even when our daily occupation involves losing ourselves in cogitations about other things, our thinking about these relationships lies simmering just under the surface waiting to bubble up, often in the form of regret, desires, frustrations. We are almost never alone; the small crowd of intimates is always with us.

Since this is so, and our individual lives are not only inextricable from but also somehow constituted by these close relationships, it is reasonable to infer that our happiness is dependent on the quality of our relationships. This is why for a Confucian an education in the primary relationships is more important than education about other things — and besides, if we don’t have a clear understanding of the “near at hand,” to which we have direct access in our own experience, how will we understand the “far away,” which is mostly available to us through a compendium of other people’s experiences? Nearly everything we need to know about living can be learned by paying attention, moment by moment, to our close relationships, and reflecting on them. With parents, siblings, and children, we know much more than we can handle, and entertain very few illusions; this is why it makes little sense to think about family members in terms of “like” and “dislike,” because those are categories that operate in a realm where we think we can pick and choose. We participate more superficially in our wider social world; there, people reach as as projections or personae, and it is only when we get to know them well — through money dealings, say, or through a major crisis, or a crime — that the surface wears off, and we can start to see into them more deeply. But we cannot reach this depth with people from the wider world if we have never reached it with our closest relationships, the “near at hand.”

It’s worth pausing to marvel at this insight: it seems obvious, but it wasn’t obvious to all. In the West, philosophy rarely addresses the closest relationships. Aristotle can talk at length about happiness as the “activity of excellence,”  and of friendship as founded in excellence, without seriously considering our relationships to parents, siblings, spouses, or children. It is as if philosophers have no biology, no society; they exist by themselves in a birthless world of ideas, with other philosophers. They are self-creating, or created by ideas, but the relationships they are in have made up no part of them. This lack is astonishing, and goes some way to explain the weirdly abstract feel that Plato and Aristotle can have: an “intellectualism” about the human soul that doesn’t pay much attention to most of what goes on there. If we have terrible relationships with parents, siblings, spouses, and children, we cannot be happy, no matter how excellent we are in other respects; our hearts will feel no satisfaction, let alone joy. We know that when a parent dies we can take years to heal, and the healing is much harder if the relationship is unreconciled. In contrast, our tragedians and novelists know that a family contains the whole world, if we look intelligently enough — but our dramas and novels usually present these relationships when they are at the point of breakdown (murder, adultery) and not in their ordinary, day to day state. Mencius would have enjoyed Jane Austen tremendously, and Austen might have enjoyed Mencius, since both are intensely interested in the apparently mundane decisions and interpretations on which all our happiness rests.

For Mencius the most essential of all relationships is that of child to  parents, which requires what in Chinese is called xiao and in English is often translated “filial piety.” I do not like this translation because it evokes the Roman veneration of statues of their ancestors, and perhaps even their veneration of their parents as living statues. It is not a religion, because it is based on the simplest fact of our lives — that we are not our own origin, but the child of these parents. We are born into relationships with specific people, who have personalities, histories, flaws, scars, open wounds; we are probably unable to change these people, but as we navigate and negotiate through our relationships with them, we have to understand and take account of their particularities, which are also changing all the time, often in response to what we say or do. From day to day this can encompass misunderstandings, perceived offenses, intricate cycles of blame and apology, evasions and denials. “Filiality,” outlined in countless texts, involves a complex activity of mind, and reflects the living, motile, risky relationship that we experience in actual, warm-blooded dealings with human parents.

Mencius is not naive about the parent-child relationship. He knows that it is often a very difficult relationship, and that parents and children can be impossible and harsh to one another. His hero was the Emperor Shun, a model of filiality, who would always approach his parents with respect; and yet these same parents, along with his brother, several times attempted to kill him, setting his house on fire and burying him in a well, and in almost all their actions both father and son appear to be thoroughly unpleasant, wicked pieces of work. Mencius describes how Shun, laboring in the fields, would weep in resentment and sorrow. Of course he would, says Mencius, because this is how a noble heart feels when his own parents disown and denigrate him; if Shun did not feel this way, he would not be fully human and therefore unqualified to be emperor. Yet to the bitter end Shun never ceased to engage with his parents as their best possible selves; even while knowing clearly that they have failed time and again, he never gives up on holding them up to the ideal. Mencius respects Shun for his strength of soul. His ability to love such parents, while seeing clearly what they are, is the foundation of his ability to love other people as they are given to us, not just as we wish them to be. Loving them only as we wish them to be is sure to end in disappointment, embitterment, and perhaps tyranny when we cease to regard other people as “worthy.” Mencius himself never gives up on the tyrants he talks with, no matter how evasive or threatening they may be; he never relinquishes hope that there is something good in them that can be built upon.


Relationships for Mencius are not things that we have and then contemplate as finished objects, but rather they are dynamic things that we live in  and that we can practice. The essence of this practice is serving: “The substance of humaneness is nothing other than serving your family.” The word “humaneness” translates the Chinese concept of ren, which is often translated “benevolence”; ren is an openness of heart through which we can be moved by other people, and without which we are not human. It is the root of compassion, love, fellow-feeling, but it has to be cultivated, just as a tree has to be fed and watered if it is to grow. For Mencius this cultivation occurs nowhere else than in the activity of “serving our family,” of doing what is best for them, taking care of them, helping them too to grow — and described in this way, it seems innocuous enough. But when we think about how difficult particular family  members can be, how resistant to all our efforts, and how hard their words and actions can be to interpret, then serving becomes another complex activity of intelligence and heart at the same time. Consider, for example, what it takes to care for a chronically ill family member, who may be in pain and crabby all the time. To know what is truly good for “the family” as a group of individuals, we need to think, ponder and weigh, and we need to have empathy with these people, who can be the most annoying, recalcitrant people we know. Serving the family  necessitates not only a caring heart, but also fortitude, toughness, patience, thoughtfulness, and insight — all of which are included in ren, which is thus much more than a feeling or disposition.

Similarly, Duty is much more than a set of injunctions, as we shall see in subsequent essays. Wisdom consists in understanding the meaning of Duty and Humaneness, and, when we understand, it is wise to persist in the practice. This is crowned with the arts of Ritual and Music, which bring beauty and refinement. If we do all of these well, we will naturally find ourselves spilling over with irrepressible happiness, and dancing for joy. It is a joy that lies deep in our organic being, because it can percolate up from the depths and move our limbs to our own delight and surprise. But it is a joy that I have not yet encountered in myself or in anyone close to me, but then — as Confucius himself remarked of his own contemporaries — no one I have known has tried this path wholeheartedly. On the other hand, if we take the advice to heart and consider what is “near at hand,” it is easy to see how our lives will feel unfinished, ragged, tormented, if we neglect or ignore our primary relationships.






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