Conception of Moderate Desire in Confucian Thought
Goodness and its Realistic Significance[i]
of Chinese language and literature,
Normal University, Guilin, China 541004)
(Ren) is the core of Confucian thought, in which the conception of
moderate desire is a crucial part. Moderate desire means harmony between
ritual (Li) and desire, avoiding deficiency of indulgence and mortification.
Confucian conception of moderate desire has a far–reaching realistic significance,
which could effect a radical cure of the social maladies such as desire
flooding and excessive dissipation.
words: Confucius; Goodness;
moderate desire; ritual; The Analects
to Yang Bojun’s statistic in The
Goodness (Ren) was mentioned 109 times in The
To a large
extent, Goodness is not only the core of Confucian thought, but the
ideal personality in his mind.
about what was the Goodness by Yan Yuan, a disciple of Confucius, he
replied, “To subdue one’s self and return to ritual is Goodness. All
will ascribe Goodness to a man who can someday control himself and
return to ritual (Li).
Whether or not to possess Goodness depends on a man himself, not
others.” [iii]（The Analects·Yan Yuan）In
other words, Goodness means meeting the requirement of ritual with
restrained desire .When requested specific steps of the process,
Confucius answered, “To look at nothing in defiance of ritual, to
listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, to speak of nothing in defiance
of ritual, and to make no movement in defiance of ritual.” [iv]（The Analects·Yan Yuan）For
Confucius ,the above-mentioned process shows that Goodness cannot exist
without ritual ,which is the criterion of behavior as well as the only
way to approach Goodness.
we should pay attention to is that “to subdue one’s self ” used by
Confucius was distinct from “to eliminate one’s desire” advocated
by scholars devoted to the study of the classics with a so-called
rational approach in the Sung Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty. While
acknowledging the reasonable existence of self(desire), Confucius
emphasized the importance of self-control .In fact, he admitted Goodness
was based on desire ,on the other hand , he also realized desire was not
Goodness and could not turn into Goodness of itself .To possess
Goodness, desire should be restrained so that all deeds could be in
conformity with ritual .A person able to attain this ideal was
considered a “Gentleman”, in the Confucian mind, namely “a man who
could cultivate himself”[v]
(The Analects· Xian Wen)
Effectively, this means one who could restrict himself in the
light of ritual. Confucius assumed the whole of society could live and
work in peace and contentment on the condition that each person
cultivated and subdued him/herself.
summarize the Confucian view of desire, it is neither indulgence nor
abstinence, but moderation, which is harmony between ritual and desire.
While acknowledging the rationality of desire, Confucius further claimed
desire should be restricted within the sensible limitation of ritual, so
as to be coordinated between individual and society.
the one hand, Confucius admitted rationality of satisfaction of desire,
just as he said in The Ritual
Usages, “Water, food,
men and women are vital desires of human.”[vi] (The Ritual
Usages·Ritual Movement)The meaning of desires for water and food
can be extended as pursuit for matter, “ Riches and honors are what
human desire…Poverty and meanness are what human dislike”[vii]
(The Analects· Li Ren) , said
Confucius, “To be poor without murmuring is difficult”[viii]
(The Analects· Xian Wen). The
meaning of desires for women and men can be extended as need for sex.
Obviously, Confucius affirmed the necessity of reasonable gratification
of two basic desires--matter and sex. Therefore he proposed that
governors should in a way suffice the worldly desires of people in order
to be well-off. Questioned by Zigong, one of his followers, how to
govern the state, the Master responded, “sufficient food, sufficient
weapons, and the confidence of the common.”[ix]
(The Analects· Yan Yuan)
Confucius also held enrichment first followed by teaching, saying
“Enrich them” ,then “Teach them”[x] (The Analects·
Zi Lu),which proves that Confucius was aware of the consequence of
contentment at the basic worldly desires to cultivation for the mass,
and believed that rational gratification at desires was the premise of
seeking after Goodness.
Confucius also emphasized, “Unless riches and honors can be obtained
in the proper way, they should not be held”[xi]
(The Analects· Li Ren),
“Riches and honors acquired in a unmoral way are to me as a floating
(The Analects·Shu Er) ,
and one should “pursue what he desires without being covetous”[xiii]
(The Analects·Yao Yue),which shows one must confine the expansion of
his desire to ritual in order to possess Goodness .
conception of moderate desire was embodied as thrift in appetite for
matter and anti-carnality for sex.
luxury, stating that “In festive rituals, it is better to be sparing
than extravagant” [xiv]
(The Analects·Ba Yi), Confucius adored frugality all along, even if
“With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and with bended arm as
a pillow, I have still enjoyed in the midst of these things.”[xv]
(The Analects·Shu Er) In the past, the caps were made of liner
prescribed by the rules of ritual, and afterwards of economical black
silk. Confucius approved this: “I follow the general practice.”[xvi]
(The Analects·Zi Han)
Confucius admired highly the thrifty character of his adherent Yan Hui
and acclaimed, “Admirable indeed was the virtue of Hui! With a single
bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd of drink, and living in his mean
narrow lane, others could not have endured the distress; but to Hui, he
did not make his joy affected by it. Admirable indeed was the virtue of
(The Analects·Yong Ye)
addition, Confucius despised covetousness for beauty and indulgence in
carnality all the time. He bemoaned “I have not seen one who loves
virtue as he loves beauty” [xviii]
(The Analects·Zi Han, The
Analects·Wei Ling Gong) as twice in The
Analects, he shows he was deeply anxious about the universal
conditions that morality and cultivation could not hold down the
expansion of lust for sex .When Confucius took charge of the minister of
justice in State Lu, State Qi sent 80 beauties and female entertainers
for the sake of catering to pleasure of the governor prince Ding of Lu,
who enjoyed wanton songs and seductive dance. As a result he abandoned
himself throughout the day in sensual pleasures, wine and beauties for
instance, paying no attention to affairs of the government. Confucius
objected repeatedly but in vain and finally had to resign the post,
leaving State Lu and starting to tour the various states with vagrancy.
advanced “There are three things which the Gentleman guards
against”, and “when young, he should guard against lust (desire for
sex); when strong, he should guard against strife (desire for attack),
when old ,he should guard against covetousness (desire for matter).”
(The Analects·Ji Shi) Based
on the characteristics of desires at different ages, Confucius cautioned
people not to pamper their own appetence.
Confucian opinion, only those who have few desires are perfect. Asked
how to be a COMPLETE (perfect) man by Zilu, a disciple of Confucius, he
returned, “as Gongchuo (a high official in State Lu) with freedom from
(The Analects·Xian Wen).Confucius deemed that the evils of human
resulted from the abandoned desire, because the more desire the less
straightforward. The Master rebutted, “Cheng (a adherent of Confucius)
is at the mercy of his desire, how can he be pronounced
straightforward?”[xxi] (The Analects·GongYe
Chang) He also emphasized, “The straightforward, the firm, the
simple, and the modest together are near to Goodness.” [xxii]
(The Analects·Zi Lu) The characteristics of Goodness are
incarnation of unyielding to desire.
view of desire means harmony
between ritual and desire, avoiding the deficiency of indulgence
and mortification, which incarnates ZHONG YONG-- the “way” of Golden
Mean he advocated, which Zhu Xi, a renowned philosopher in the Ming
Dynasty, explained in The Variorum Analects, “ZHONG means impartial,
neither exceed nor fall short; YONG means mediocrity.” [xxiii]
Confucius thought of the Golden Mean as the indispensable
character of Gentlemen, saying in The Doctrine of the Mean, “The
Gentlemen embody the course of the Golden Mean, the common act contrary
to it. The Gentlemen embody the course of the Golden Mean, because they
are superior men, and always maintain the Mean. The common act contrary
to it because they are inferior men, and have no caution.” [xxiv]Confucius
applauded, “How transcendent the moral power of the Golden Mean is!”[xxv]
(The Analects·Yong Ye)
This means the Golden Mean is the highest and perfect merit. “To
exceed is as bad as to fall short” [xxvi]
(The Analects·Xian Jing),
said Confucius, because they are not virtuous and both deviate from the
appropriate way. He also believed, “Pleasure not carried to the point
of debauchery, grief not carried to the point of self –injury”[xxvii]
(The Analects·Ba Yi).Thus
it can be seen that, as the excellent feature of Gentlemen, the Mean is
not only an impartial methodology, but also a moderate philosophy.
Confucius assumed that “He who keeps himself within the bounds of the
rules of ritual seldom errs.” [xxviii](The
Analects·Li Ren) This proves rational restriction can guarantee the
realization of Goodness.
mentioned Gain and Righteousness many times. Gain means personal
benefits, which can be regarded as the human pursuit for selfish desire,
while Righteousness means the morality of society, which can be
considered as the ritual constraint of selfish desire. Confucius held in
pursuit of selfish desire, people should maintain the moral principle
and be encouraged to be a man who “thinks of righteousness whenever
lured by gain”[xxix](The
Analects·Xian Wen), because righteousness serves as the yardstick
of all social acts. Confucius viewed whether or not to act in light of
righteousness as the standard of distinguishing the Gentlemen from the
common. He contended “The mind of Gentlemen is conversant with
righteousness, while the mind of the common is conversant with gain.”[xxx]
(The Analects·Li Ren)
which means the common only care their own selfish benefits, while the
Gentlemen are concerned about morality besides benefits. Indulgence of
selfish desire will bring about harmful consequences, just as Confucius
said, “He who acts in terms of his selfish desire will be much
murmured against.” [xxxi](The
Analects·Li Ren) When desire conflicts with righteousness, we
should “restrict gain with righteousness” [xxxii]
(The Works of Hsün-tzu·Wang Ba).Under the extreme conditions, one
even can devote his life to being an advocate for Righteousness. “The
perfect men will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their
virtue, even sacrifice their lives to preserve their complete virtue.”[xxxiii]
(The Analects·Wei Ling Gong),
said Confucius. Because of remonstrating against Zhou, the lord of Wei
fled, the lord of Qi became a slave and Bi Gan was sentenced to death.
The three men, for Goodness in the bottom of their heart, all gave up
their selfish desires such as seeking benefits and avoiding hurt.
Therefore, Confucius commended “The Yin dynasty possessed these three
men of Goodness.” [xxxiv]
(The Analects·Wei Zi)
established by Confucius has been regarded as the backbone and strain of
Chinese traditional culture. He is extolled as the spiritual chief and
ideal sage of ancient China, whose notion of sensible desire has been
ingrained into deep cultural psychology, determining the temperate way
that China developed. Confucianism we conceived is diametrically
different from the founder Confucian own thoughts, which have been
inconsistent with the Confucian original thoughts through notable
changes of many dynasties.
far as the conception of desire is concerned, which of Confucianism
generally experienced three periods: the original and indigenous
conception of moderate desire during the era before the Chin Dynasty as
well as the era of the Former and Later Han Dynasty; the one of
asceticism influenced by Buddhism during the era of the Sui Dynasty, the
Tang Dynasty, the Sung Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty; the one of
liberation of desire impacted by enlightened thoughts in West during the
era of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. The original thoughts of
Confucius have been distorted seriously by means of reconstruction and
castration of patriarchal clan system of feudalism for great
discrepancies among the three periods. However many scholars confound
them one with another, being apt to demote Confucius as the initiator of
inhumane asceticism, blaming the tardy development of Chinese economy on
the initiator of Confucianism--Confucius, and even alleging that China
is bound to flourish at the cost of sacrifice of Confucianism.
Nevertheless, the asceticism is exactly in contradiction with Confucian
view of modest desire. The writer Zhang Wei held “Confucius is
temperate and sober fundamentally, and the ‘Way’of the Golden Mean
is a dialectic culture.”[xxxv]
But it is a pity that in the process of practical operation of the
theory, people sometimes abnegate the “Way” of the Golden Mean and
fail to enter the interior of dialectic, which causes history collide
with the two poles of asceticism and carnalism and wander from one
extreme to another.
world-famous Jewish novelist Saul Bellow stated in his novel More
Died of Heart “The deficiencies of the undeveloped countries in
the Orient lie in shortage of matter, while the maladies of the
developed countries in the Occident consist in expansion of desires.”[xxxvi]
Perhaps the conclusion is to the point and profound. The Orient is
indeed not the same as a whole, where there are some richer countries,
however, the large majority of poorer countries in which were influenced
by asceticism from religions. The countries in the cultural circle of
Buddhism and Islam are definitely such cases, and it is hard to say the
comedown of China since the Ming Dynasty has nothing to do with it. The
attitude of holding back need for matter has caused the slow progress of
material civilization in these countries. The Western world transferred
the mortification of Christianity into the adoration to lust and
enjoyment through the Enlightenment Movement, opposing divinity by
humanity, because they believe humanity is the incarnation of desire,
and the goal of life is the fulfillment at desire. The attitude of
indulging desire led to the rapid improvement of material civilization
of the West, but on the other hand, resulted in the terrible flooding of
worldly desires. Nowadays, the developed capitalist countries have
entered into the age when desires dominate lives, and the production of
subsequent desires is as fast as or even faster than the appeasement of
previous desires. The excessive consumption of matter makes for
destructive disasters to environment, and the unlimited chase for sex
gives birth to falling apart of families. If the situation of indulgence
continues, people will never step out of the abysm of desire, and the
spiritual paradise of the whole of human will be destroyed by ourselves.
a matter of fact, the desire itself is not faulty, hence reasonable
contentment of some basic desires is necessary and essential, and
“elimination of desire” is extremely merciless. Nevertheless, the
deep desire is boundless and endless, as after one is fulfilled, another
produced naturally, and after the fulfillment, appeared the newer…The
desire is quite difficult to be gratified ultimately. The German
philosopher Schopenhauer ever compared the desire to a forever-hungry
and never-full stomach, or a forever-open mouth. The pursuit for
limitless desire will not only cause the periodical disappointment after
the relative affluence of matter, but also induce the breakdown of
natural and cultural environment. Accordingly, human will bury them in
the sea of desire after all unless we can contain ourselves. Although
desire is the drive of social development, uninhibited hankering is
merely a moment’s relief or pleasure but can bring never-ending
sufferings, just like drinking poison with the aim of quenching one’s
thirst. The history has witnessed neither of indulgence and
mortification conducive to fit the evolution of social ecosystem, just
as Oscar Wilde put forward, “Extravagance is the same with oppression,
which will both incur punishment. ” As to environment, mortification
causes barrenness, while indulgence induces ruination, and nothing but
moderation can create paradise. As to economy, mortification causes
poverty, while indulgence induces luxury, and nothing but moderation can
create the continuous prosperity. As to spirit, mortification causes
oppression, while indulgence induces covetousness, and nothing but
moderation can create a healthy mind.
it can be concluded that, the conception of moderate desire is
definitely good medicine which could effect a radical cure of the social
maladies such as desire flooding and excessive dissipation. In this
point, Confucian conception of moderate desire has a very far–reaching
realistic significance. Therefore, we should enhance and glorify the
value and wisdom of Confucius once again, holding back the flood of
unrestrained desire, putting production and realization of desire into
the rational range, and adjusting the rising rhythm of the desire chain,
so as to achieve the healthy and sustainable development of human being.
This English version is based on the original in Chinese with some modification and supplement of notes, which was published in The Eternal Way, Volume 2（2003）edited by Ju Xi.
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[xxvi] Ibid., p.99.
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