On 智

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

This round started with linguistic confusion. The process has been this: I found a digital version of the Analects, and used the search function to select passages where the virtue that I was practicing, using the browser search function. But when I put in ‘智’, wisdom, nothing turned up. I remained perplexed for a while, but as I scanned through the text, I wondered: there is another character with the same pronunciation – 知, to know – what if the two got somehow bundled. Bingo! now there was over 100 occurrences to scan through, which I filtered as best I could – and selected a few passages that seemed more particularly to reflect on the virtue that I was aiming to understand.

This passage offered a simple starting point, showing potential overlap between 知 – knowledge – and 智 – virtue: “I listen widely, select the good and follow their ways. I observe broadly and contemplate. This is the second level of knowledge.” [7-28] (多闻、择其善者而从之。多见而识之。知之次也。).  Wisdom is explicitly presented as derived from experience, more specifically from a process of observation, selection and imitation, applied to people.

Wisdom, indeed, appears not to be derived from the natural world, but other people. “Fan Chi asked about the meaning of ren. Confucius said “love others.” He asked about the meaning of “knowledge.” The Master said, “Know others.” [12-22] (“樊迟问仁。子曰。爱人。问知。子曰。知人。” But it goes beyond, and entails judgement, discrimination, followed by action.

Something about wisdom has to do with effectiveness: it is about doing the most we can with our time and energy. ” The Master said: “When a person should be spoken with, and you don’t speak with them, you lose them. When a person shouldn’t be spoken with and you speak to them, you waste your words. The wise do not lose people, nor do they waste their words.” [15-8] (子曰。可与言、而不与之言、失人。不可与言、而与之言、失言。知者不失人、亦不失言。) At first reading, this may sound harsh, but the passage echoes the fundamental optimism of all educators – and managers – that with the right attention, by carefully guiding our interaction with others, and identifying their passions and characters rightly, it is actually possibly to transform situations and the people themselves. Following the passage above, we read: “Fan Chi couldn’t get it. The Master said, “If you put the honest in positions of power and discard the dishonest, you will force the dishonest to become honest.” [12-22] (樊迟未达。子曰。擧直错诸枉、能使枉者直。)


Before starting reflection on this virtue, I had been attending an international conference on governance innovation. The key message was that it is easier to criticise than constructively develop – but that our collective goal at the conference was to do the difficult thing, and start building. At the conference, and later when I spoke about it with friends and family, I noticed a certain recurring type of response: people – often intelligent people – harnessing their analytical skills to demonstrate that the work we were doing was impossible, and why. When digging through their underlying assumptions, I found this: a belief that ‘human nature’ is ultimately both dark and unchangeable, that ‘people are like that’ or ‘things are like that’. Analytical cynicism then becomes an easy refuge for strong egos – and offers a rhetorical position from which they can avoid the difficult question – ‘so human nature is dark and unchangeable, people will not cooperate or rationally try to do good together – does that apply to you?’

By contrast, Confucian wisdom signals a fundamental optimism about humanity. Some people may be led by dark negative purposes, situations may be adverse. But if we can identify the character of people around us, and if we can wisely choose who receives power from us – starting with the more fundamental power that we have, the power of giving attention – then we can change not only the shape of a situation, but a person’s very character – including our own.

Wisdom perceives the world as liquid, changeable, and a space for joyful human activity : “The Master said: “The wise enjoy the sea, the humane enjoy the mountains. The wise are busy, the humane are tranquil. The wise are happy, the humane are eternal.” [6-23]  (子曰。知者乐水、仁者乐山。知者动、仁者静。知者乐、仁者寿。) The practice I derived from this analysis was a deliberate attempt to exert a sharper form of discernment in my interactions with people – a difficult task, I realised. It revealed that I could err on the side of softness, and invited me to think more about the tension between benevolence and wisdom – and in the Catholic framework that I explored last year, between prudence, justice and charity.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

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