'Tis the Season -- With Confucius

12/20/2011 04:34 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012

As we come into the holiday season, regardless of one's background or perspective, thoughts have a way of turning to the ideals we all seek, ideals that would make us all better people and the world a better place, ideals of generosity and love.

Sure, there are the Grinch and Scrooge, but they are presented as images of how not to act.

And in this respect they differ from the memorable tale of O'Henry, "The Gift of the Magi," an exquisite tale of the simple gift of love that overcomes the hardships and limits of a life of poverty. It is a tale for all seasons, but it is especially a tale for this season -- "tis the season," as they say.

And so, in turning toward Confucius we will look for what he believed to be that highest ideal of which he felt each and every person was capable. Such an ideal was captured for Confucius in the term chün tzu, Noble Person, a term at the very center of all Confucian thought and writings.

Lets begin with the term itself. Confucius did not invent the term chün tzu: he inherited it. The term has a long history of use in the society of his day. In that context the term meant a noble person, as in nobleman, i.e. a member of the nobility. In the feudal hierarchy of his day, chün tzu was a term for nobility by birth.

Confucius dramatically changed the meaning of the term from nobility by birth to nobility by character, i.e. nobility by moral character. As such the term came to mean an embodiment of jen, goodness and humaneness, and represented in Confucian thought the highest ideal of which a person was capable.

This change in the use of the term by Confucius from nobility by birth to nobility by character created a goal that could now be pursued by any person. Anyone could become a chün tzu, a Noble Person.

This universal accessibility to moral character was Confucius' greatest teaching.

Do not, however, mistake access to the goal for ease of attainment; it was not a goal of easy acquisition. In fact it is a goal perhaps best captured by the expression from the Western philosopher Spinoza, "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare."

To pursue the goal of the Noble Person meant nothing short of a life devoted to learning and inculcation of the cardinal Confucian teaching of jen, goodness and humaneness, into everything one did, every aspect of ones life and being.

So how does Confucius describe the goal of the Noble Person? A number of passages in the Analects are given over to descriptions of the nature of the chün tzu. Often such passages will contrast the goal of the Noble Person with that of the way people too often act in the world, the latter captured in the term hsiao jen, petty person.

Here are just a few examples of the Confucius' description of the Noble Person and by contrast the character of the petty person:

"The Noble Person is conversant with righteousness; the petty person is conversant with profit." (Analects IV:24)

"The Noble Person is calm and composed; the petty person is anxious and distressed." (Analects VII:36)

"The Noble Person seeks to perfect the admirable qualities of people, and does not seek to perfect their bad qualities. The petty person does the opposite of this." (Analects XII:16)

"What the Noble Person seeks is in himself. What the petty person seeks is in others." (Analects XV:20)

Perhaps this last is a good passage with which to stop, though many others could be quoted. It sets out much of the character of the Noble Person. It's meaning suggests that the Noble Person takes responsibility for his or her own actions. The petty person by contrast always finds an excuse: it is someone else's fault, someone else's responsibility. Someone else is to blame, always someone else (and in the best American tradition of litigation, we can always find someone to sue!).

Each of these passages sets out a description of a figure that has charted a life with a moral rudder and, though never ending in effort and commitment, finds comfort and ease in the pursuit of the goal of goodness. Such a figure finds the best in others and seeks to exemplify the best in themselves. He is motivated by what is morally good, not by what brings expediency or profit. For Confucius, these are standards of righteousness by which one lives and these are standards of goodness by which all society can grow and prosper.

We see in these passages Confucius' focus upon working for the betterment of self and society and utilizing the goal of the Noble Person as the exemplification of such a path. Confucius illustrates the ideal by suggesting the singular focus of the Noble Person upon the development of what is best in both oneself and all other people. Such a thought is summarized in his statement, "The Noble Person is anxious lest he should not acquire the Way; he is not anxious lest poverty should come upon him." (Analects XV:31) Love and generosity are sought, even in hardship. No different than the Gift of the Magi.

The message from Confucius on this season of love and giving is that which we can all strive for, the goal of the Noble Person. After all, even the Grinch and Scrooge come to recognize the goals of love and giving, transforming themselves toward the teaching of jen, goodness and humaneness, for all!