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Masters of Chiasmus: Confucius

(c. 551-479 B.C.)


This month we look at chiasmus in the life and works of the Chinese sage known as Confucius. Chinese names—and in fact the entire language—have always been a challenge for Westerners. As people in the West have moved away from Latinized spellings and adopted more phonetic ways of presenting Chinese names, we've had to change the way we pronounce (and spell) many famous names. For example, Mao Tse Tung has become Mao Zedong and Peking is now called Beijing. But the name Confucius is so deeply embedded in Western consciousness that we will forever call him by that name, even though he is known in the East as Kung Fu-Tse. Many Asians refer to him as "Master Kung."

The facts about the early life of Confucius are sketchy. It is believed that he was born in 551 B.C. Historians have debated his exact birth date, but many Asian countries celebrate his birth on September 28 (in Taiwan it's an official holiday called "Teachers' Day," since Confucius is often described as the greatest teacher in history).

Confucius tried his entire life to find a Chinese prince who would heed his advice about how to rule (the historian Will Durant called him "the sage in search of a state"). Unsuccessful in his quest, he began teaching students, who immortalized him by recording his responses to their questions. Many of his students eventually became high government officials and advisors to later Chinese rulers, thus helping the great sage posthumously achieve his lifelong dream. Confucian influence in Chinese government went on to last more than 2,000 years.

Confucius is known to the world primarily through the Analects, a collection of "sayings" put together by his disciples. The Analects were written after his death, in the same way that the Gospels were written after the death of Jesus. Like the Gospels, they were written down by many different people, and there are varying versions, some even contradicting each other. There are also widely—sometimes wildly—differing translations (more on this in a moment).

A reading of the Analects reveals that Confucius was fond of chiasmus. I'll present a number of his chiastic sayings below (with some of the varying translations), along with some occasional commentary from me.

"Don't worry that other people don't know you;
worry that you don't know other people."


I do about fifty seminars every year on the topic of "Effective Leadership for CEOs" and am always looking for ancient wisdom to share with modern-day leaders. This is a perfect example, serving as a reminder that a deep and genuine concern for the needs of followers is the best way to govern. While ineffective CEOs often wonder why followers don't understand or buy into their vision, effective ones seem to almost intuitively grasp the significance of this example of Confucian wisdom. The same underlying sentiment is embedded in a currently popular chiastic saying: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." A saying from the Talmud is in the same vein: "Happy is the time when the great listen to the small, for in such a generation the small will listen to the great."

As mentioned earlier, the sayings of Confucius have been translated in such widely divergent ways it's sometimes hard to believe the different renderings all come from the same original source. This quote has been presented in a number of different ways, but all of them reflect the chiastic nature of the original thought:

"Grieve not that men do not know you;
grieve that you do not know men."

"It is not failure of others to appreciate
your abilities that should trouble you,
but rather your failure to appreciate their abilities."

"The good man does not grieve
that other people do not recognize his merits.
His only anxiety is lest he should fail to recognize theirs."

Many of the sayings of Confucius came in response to questions from his followers. When his disciple Tzu-Kung asked, "What is a true gentleman?" the Master offered a thought that bears a striking resemblance to our modern notion of "walking the talk":


"He acts before he speaks,
and afterwards speaks
according to his actions."


Many Confucian sayings refer to a "true gentleman" or "superior man." The original Chinese word is chun-tzu, and generally corresponds to the English concept of a gentleman: one who is not merely a member of the upper classes, but who also exhibits great moral character and proper demeanor. I've also seen the saying translated this way:

"He does not preach what he practices
until he has practiced what he preaches."

A number of Confucian observations contrast the superior person with the inferior person (or the true gentleman with the small man). And some are a little difficult to grasp without some serious thought:

"The superior man is liberal
towards the opinions of others,
but does not completely agree with them;
the inferior man completely agrees
with the opinions of others,
but is not liberal towards them."


When I first came across this saying, I thought, "It's a nice example of chiasmus, but what the heck does it mean?" I searched around and found a couple other translations, but they didn't help much:

"Ideal people are universal and not clannish.
Small-minded people are clannish and not universal."

"The superior man is universally minded and no partisan.
The inferior man is a partisan and not universal."

"A gentleman can see a question from all sides without bias.
The small man is biased and can see a question only from one side."

I think what Master Kung is saying here is that exceptional people primarily see themselves as members of a larger human race, and only secondarily as members of a particular nation or group. As a result, they're more tolerant and accepting of divergent opinions or differing life styles. Inferior people, by contrast, are so wedded to their group's beliefs and customs that they see everybody else as either wrong or inferior to them.

Confucius was one of the founders of formal education. The philosopher Karl Jaspers said of him, "He laid the groundwork of school education, first of all with his own private school in which he strove to shape young men into future statesmen." His pedagogical method required students to exhaustively study the knowledge and traditions of the past, and also to engage in rigorous, independent thinking about what they were learning. His approach is captured in one of his most famous sayings:

"Study without thought is vain;
thought without study is dangerous."


This is an example of something that I have been calling "chiastic piggybacking" for the first clause is a very ancient saying (sometimes translated as "To learn without thinking is fatal"), and the second is the Master's chiastic reversal of it.

When taken as a whole, the entire construction follows a classic chiastic formula: "A without B is bad; as is B without A. Both A and B are necessary." In the Confucian view, both study and thought were essential, and neither one alone was sufficient. Here are some other translations of the passage:

"Learning without thought is labor lost;
thought without learning is perilous."

"Study without thinking, and you are blind;
think without studying, and you are in danger."

"He who learns but does not think, is lost.
He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger."

At one point, the Duke of Lu (the province where Confucius was born) asked, "What should be done to make people loyal and win their allegiance?" Confucius answered:

"Promote the honest over the crooked,
and the people will obey.
Promote the crooked over the honest,
and the people will not obey."


I often mention this saying in my seminars, for CEOs and business owners often make the mistake of promoting people who, while very talented, are extremely selfish, incredibly immature, or of very questionable character. When people at lower ranks see this kind of thing happen, it almost always leads to a "disconnect" with the leader. Here are a few other translations:

"Exalt the straight, set aside the crooked, the people will be loyal.
Exalt the crooked, set aside the straight, the people will be disloyal."

"If you raise up the straight and set them on top of the crooked,
the commoners will support you.
But if you raise the crooked and set them on top of the straight,
the commoners will not support you."

Like Aristotle and a number of ancient Greek thinkers, Confucius believed that people should shun extremes and live their lives according to what we in the West call a Golden Mean, a preferable middle course between two unacceptable extremes (e.g., courage is a noble middle course between the extremes of cowardice and rashness). When it came to personal qualities, Confucius also liked to see a blending of many qualities in the same person, as opposed to the development of just one. When a person was overdeveloped in one way, and underdeveloped in another, he saw a problem:


"When nature exceeds culture,
we have the rustic.
When culture exceeds nature,
we have the pedant."


In this passage, he argues that a reliance on natural abilities to exclusion of formal learning—and vice versa—are both to be avoided. I've also seen the passage translated as follows:

"Nature outweighing art begets roughness;
art outweighing nature begets pedantry.
Art and nature well blended make a gentleman."

"When natural substance prevails over ornamentation,
you get the boorishness of the rustic.
When ornamentation prevails over natural substance,
you get the pedantry of the scribe.
Only when ornament and substance are duly blended
do you get the true gentleman."

"When one has more substance than culture, one is a rustic;
when one has more culture than substance, one is a literatus.
Only when one has both substance and culture is one an exemplary person."

Check out the word literatus in the last translation. I did a double-take when I first saw it; and then I realized it was the singular form of a familiar word: literati. This particular translation comes from Thomas Cleary's 1992 book, The Essential Confucius.

"Nature is no more than art;
art is no more than nature."


Here, Confucius returns to the theme of the prior entry, as he answers the question, "A gentleman is all nature; what can art do for him?" (sometimes presented as, "A gentleman is a gentleman by virtue of the qualities he is born with; what role does culture play?"). His point is that natural gifts and cultural knowledge are both essential, and neither one alone is sufficient. In the language of Western psychology, he is saying that both heredity and environment are important. To remind his disciples that good birth is not in itself sufficient to make a gentleman, he added: "Remove the fur from a tiger or panther, and what is left looks like the hairless hide of a dog or sheep."

Another translation of his reply goes this way:

"Culture is just as important as inborn qualities;
and inborn qualities no less important than culture."

Every language is capable of something I have been calling chiastic shorthand, which is a way of signaling a chiastic inversion without using all of the actual words. In English we do it with expressions like vice versa or "the reverse is true." The Chinese language enables people to do it as well:

"Cultivated people foster what is good in others,
not what is bad.
Petty people do the opposite."


That is, petty people foster what is bad in others, and not what is good. I've also seen the passage translated in these ways:

"A gentleman shapes the good in man;
he does not shape the bad in him.
Contrariwise the vulgar."

"The nobler sort of man emphasizes
the good qualities in others,
and does not accentuate the bad.
The inferior does the reverse."

Here's another chiastic Confucius saying that had me scratching my head when I first came upon it:

"Cultivated people harmonize without imitating.
Immature people imitate without harmonizing."


When I went to some other translations for help, I became even more confused. Look over these additional renderings and see what they do for you:

"A gentleman is pleasant, not fulsome;
the vulgar are fulsome, but not pleasant."

"The superior man is polite but not cringing;
the inferior man is cringing but not polite."

"The true gentleman is conciliatory but not accommodating.
Common people are accommodating but not conciliatory."

I'm still not sure of the exact meaning, but I believe Confucius may be saying that exceptional people can have smooth and harmonious relationships with others without being phony or disingenuous. Inferior people, on the other hand, can have superficially good relationships with people because they say and do the proper things, but it doesn't go much deeper than that. Expressed in modern-day language, we might say it this way:

"The best people are nice without being phony;
the worst are phony without being nice."

Or maybe he means:

"Exceptional people can be agreeable even when disagreeing
Inferior people can be disagreeable even when agreeing."

These are only speculations on my part, but they illustrate another interesting thing about chiasmus. Once you get into a chiastic frame of mind, you can go on and on (and while this can drive other people nuts if carried to excess, it can be a wonderful trip to take on your own). By the way, if you know any Confucian scholars, ask them what they think about this particular passage. If you learn anything new, please send it along.

Here's another Confucian saying that has clear implications for the effective management of people:

"A gentleman is easy to serve, and hard to please …
The vulgar are hard to serve, and easy to please."


This chiastic sentiment is actually embedded in a slightly longer passage. Here are a few translations of the complete passage (I'll highlight the chiastic portion):

"The superior man is easy to serve, but difficult to please, for he can be pleased by what is right, and he uses men according to their individual abilities. The inferior man is difficult to serve, but easy to please, for you can please him (by catering to his weaknesses) without necessarily being right, and when he comes to using men, he demands perfection."

"Cultivated people are easy to work for but hard to please. If you try to please them in the wrong way, they are not pleased. When they employ people, they consider their capacities. Petty people are hard to work for but easy to please. Even if you please them by something that is wrong, they are still pleased. When they employ people, they expect everything."

"The true gentleman is easy to serve, yet difficult to please. For if you try to please him in any manner inconsistent with the Way, he refuses to be pleased; but in using the services of others he only expects of them what they are capable of performing. Common people are difficult to serve, but easy to please. Even though you try to please them in a manner inconsistent with the Way (of virtuous living), they will still be pleased; but in using the services of others they expect them (irrespective of their capacities) to do any work that comes along."

What do all these translations suggest? And what are the management implications? To me it's fairly obvious, and here's how I might express it in modern parlance:

"Good bosses are easy to work for, but difficult to please. They have an easy, agreeable manner, but are not fully pleased unless we perform to the best of our abilities. Bad bosses are difficult to work for, but easy to please. Their emotional immaturity makes them susceptible to fawning or flattery, which is easy to do, but can be very distasteful."

Notice the two separate examples of chiasmus in this next observation, which also has many implications for modern life:


"A man of worth can always talk, but
talkers are not always men of worth.
Love is always bold,
though boldness is found without love."


In the first portion, Confucius is saying that talk is cheap unless it comes from people who can back up their beautiful words with action. I believe Shakespeare had the same thing in mind when he penned the words: "Action is eloquence." In the second portion, Confucius cautions against action for action's sake, especially when some form of caring or compassion does not accompany it.

I've also seen the passage translated as follows:

"A man who has a beautiful soul
always has some beautiful things to say, but a man who says beautiful things
does not necessarily have a beautiful soul.
A truly great man will always be found to have courage,
but a courageous man will not always
be found to have true manhood."

"Those who have virtue have something to say,
but those who have something to say
do not necessarily have virtue.
Humanitarians are courageous,
but the courageous are not necessarily humane."

"One who has accumulated moral power
will certainly also possess eloquence;
but he who has eloquence does not
necessarily possess moral power.
A Good Man will certainly also possess courage,
but a brave man is not necessarily Good."

I also found a quote book a few years ago that included a translation of the second sentence only, and presented it this way:

"Men of principle are sure to be bold,
but those who are bold may not always be men of principle."

The disciple Tzu-Kung once asked the Sage, "Can one word cover the whole duty of man or serve as a principle for guiding the conduct of man?" Confucius thought for a moment and answered:

"Fellow-feeling …
Do not do unto others
what thou wouldst not
they should do unto thee."


This ancient ethical maxim is strikingly similar to an ethical precept that has emerged independently in every culture of the world. We in the West, of course, call it the Golden Rule. It's one of the most famous chiastic sayings in history:

"Do unto others
as you would have
others do unto you."

Sometimes the rule is laid out in positive form, as when Aristotle said, "We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave to us." And sometimes it's laid out in negative form, as when Jesus said, "Judge not, that you be not judged," or when Hillel said, "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor." The Confucius version is also laid out in negative form, as is clear in these two additional translations:

"Reciprocity …
Do not do unto others
what you do not want others to do unto you."

"Perhaps the saying is about consideration:
Never do to others
what you would not like them to do to you."

Chiastic versions of the Golden Rule show up twice more in the Analects. In 5.12, a pupil of Confucius says, "What I don't want others to do to me, I do not want to do to others." And in 12.2, Confucius says that one way to define love is "not to do unto others what we would not they should do unto us."

Here's another Confucius quote that puzzled me at first:


"It is not truth that makes man great,
but man who makes truth great."


This is the way the quote has been traditionally translated, and here are some similar translations:

"It is man that makes truth great,
and not truth that makes man great."

"The man can exalt the truth;
truth cannot exalt the man."

"It is humans that make truth great,
not truth that makes humans great."

These translations were puzzling to me because Confucius was not the kind of guy to talk about ultimate Truth, as he was more interested in ethics, the way people lived their lives on this earth. Then I found a few more translations of the same passage:

"It is not the Way that broadens people,
but people who broaden the Way."

"A man can enlarge his Way;
but there is no Way that can enlarge a man."

Now things began to make a little more sense. In China, "The Way" is the English translation of the word Tao, as in the famous Tao Te Ching ("The Book of Changes"). "The Way" is somewhat difficult to translate into English, but is probably most easily understood as meaning "The Virtuous Way" or "The Way in Which Life Is Best Lived." With these translations, it became apparent that Confucius was not speaking so much about Ultimate Truth as he was about The Virtuous Life. His point, I believe, is that the most wonderful ethical precepts are only a blueprint, and that people must translate those designs into action as they live out their lives with other people.

This brings our examination of "The Chiastic Confucius" to an end.