Confucius and the Age of Anxiety

The Noble Person for Confucius was simply a person of moral goodness. This definition has a number of ramifications for our understanding of Confucian teachings within our own time as it is so dominated by feelings of anxiety and fear.
06/18/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

One of the greatest innovations of Confucius' teachings was to change the meaning of the Noble Person from one of inherited rank by birth to one of nobility by moral stature. The Noble Person for Confucius was simply a person of moral goodness. This definition has a number of ramifications for our understanding of Confucian teachings within our own time as it is so dominated by feelings of anxiety and fear.

Confucius points to the Noble Person, chün tzu, as the epitome of human development, a person of moral goodness who is described as having fulfilled a variety of the salient Confucian virtues including goodness, jen, righteousness, i, filial piety, hsiao, empathy, shu and other notable moral qualities.

For Confucius few ever measured up to the ideal of the Noble Person, but it remained the ideal of what all humanity should strive for and should attempt to learn and cultivate if the individual and the world are to be transformed to a moral order resembling the cosmic order of the universe itself, the Way of Heaven, T'ien Tao, in Confucian terms.

Given this new-found focus upon the moral qualities of the Noble Person, Confucius spends much time in the major text of his writings, the Analects, Lun yü, describing the nature of the Noble Person. Many of the passages are set up as a comparison between the Noble Person and its opposite, translated something like petty person, hsiao-jen. Some examples will suffice to show the contrast.

"The Noble Person cherishes virtue; the petty person cherishes comfort: the Noble Person cherishes the law; the petty person cherishes favors." Analects IV:11 (Taylor, Analects, p. 27)

"The Noble Person is conversant with righteousness; the petty person is conversant with profit." Analects IV:16 (Taylor, Analects, p. 27)

And one of the passages that I have always been particularly fond of: "The Noble Person is not a tool." Analects II:12 (Taylor, Analects, p. 23)

In the latter passage, not unlike its very modern usage, a "tool" suggests one who does not stand on their own. They will be used in whatever way someone else should desire. To not be a "tool" is to suggest that they stand on their own moral grounds. They are their own person, not someone being used by another.

As such the Noble Person became the paradigm for Confucian learning and teaching across the centuries.

There are several other features of the Noble Person that fit all we have said, but take the conversation in a different direction, bringing into focus one of the most dominant characteristics of our own age, a malaise that we as individuals as well as societies live with and struggle with day in and day out.

We live in an age of anxiety and fear. There is no need for examples. They are virtually ubiquitous in all we encounter in the world. This is not to suggest that there are not real anxieties and fears, but rather that for most a world of anxiety and fear has been created that has little to do with what is actually out there in the world.

So to the question - what does Confucius say about anxiety and fear and what role does it play in his understanding of the Noble Person?

Confucius suggests in Analects VII:36 that it is the petty person who has a high level of distress, ch'i, while the Noble Person is characterized by being peaceful and calm, tang. The peace and the calm of the Noble Person comes from their capacity to have developed their moral nature of goodness and their capacity to act upon that moral goodness in life situations, following their deepest inner nature.

"The Noble Person has neither anxiety nor fear." "Being without anxiety or fear!" said Niu. "Does this constitute what we call the Noble Person?" The Master said, "When interior examination discovers nothing wrong, what is there to be anxious about, what is there to fear?" Analects XII:4 (Taylor, Analects, p. 33)

Confucius treats anxiety, yu, and fear, chü, as internal feelings, but he also turns them toward an internal standard of right and wrong. The issue then is not what one fears as a source of anxiety out in the world, but the degree to which the individual has created the source of fear and anxiety in themselves by how they have constructed the world they inhabit.

From a Confucian perspective the Noble Person is one who addresses whatever anxieties or fears one feels. The critical element is separating the petty person from the Noble Person. Where in the petty person anxiety and fear live with dominating influence upon the life of the individual, in the Noble Person the individual is in touch with his larger self, what for Confucius would be the Way of Heaven, T'ien-Tao, the moral character of the universe itself. In this state of nobility there is no room for fear or anxiety because they are not part of that moral fiber of the universe.

What lesson does this teaching have for us today? Not unlike contemporary therapies that deal with anxiety and fear, Confucius is suggesting that the petty person is not the real self; it has created a self that is far removed from the capabilities of the true self. It has created its own world of anxiety and fear. It is as a therapist might say, not you, but your thoughts that have created the damage. The challenge is to put aside the thoughts, to put aside the petty person and dwell in the capacity that we all have to live in the reflection of our true and noble self, the self that connects us with all things. In this condition there is no room for anxiety or fear because it is simply not part of the Noble Person or the universal Way of Heaven that the Noble Person embodies.