The Virtuous Character of a Superior Man

Confucius ( 551 - 479 BC)
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on whatsapp

By Zhizhen |

Confucius ( 551 – 479 BC) once said, “The orchids grow in the woods, and they let out their fragrance even if there is no one around to appreciate it. Likewise, men of noble character will not let poverty deter their will to cultivate in the Dao (道) and establish virtue.”

A superior man knows the truth about life. Regardless of what his circumstances are, he adheres to moral principles and conducts himself by following the teachings of sages. Wherever he goes, he spreads his kindness and influences those around him, so that others also respect and value ethics and justice. The effectiveness of his teachings and influence exemplifies his virtuous character.

Even under siege, Confucius remained calm. He first looked at himself to see if he was at fault.

The following are a few stories about Confucius (孔子) and his disciples that were documented in The Analects of Confucius and The Family Sayings of Confucius.

A Superior Man Speaks Through Actions

Confucius was once asked by his student, Yan Hui (颜回), “Are there any common characteristics in what inferior men say? A man of virtue has to be perceptive.”

Confucius replied, “A superior man speaks through his actions. His words are matched by his deeds. In everything he says and does, he practices the principles promoted by the sages.

“An inferior man only shows off his eloquence. He is quick at making demands on and finding fault with others while contributing nothing.

“A superior man treats others with sincerity. When he sees his friends violating ethics, he warns them of the consequences and persuades others to act out of conscience. His words come from his heart because he genuinely cares about the wellbeing of others. As a result, his friendships tend to deepen with time.

“Inferior men appear to have formed an alliance for making trouble. They cannot help but quarrel and pull knives on each other’s back.”

Confucius continued: “The superior man thinks of virtue; the inferior man thinks of comfort. The superior man thinks of the sanctions of law; the inferior man thinks of favours which he may receive.”

This describes the difference in the minds of these two types of men.

The superior man does not follow the crowd, let alone conspire with others. All he thinks about is how to practice virtue and justice. The inferior man worries about himself all the time. The superior man adheres to rules and exercises self-discipline. The inferior man places personal gains ahead of everything else, and his mind is filled with minor advantages and convenience. In the Qing Dynasty text Standards for Students, “Remind the other party with kindness; virtue is established on both sides. Turn a blind eye to another’s a mistake; principles are lost on both sides.” This is another example of how an inferior man acts differently from a superior man.

A man’s words and deeds are based on his thoughts. A superior man cherishes and nurtures kindness and rationality. His words and acts are consequently full of love, kindness, and generosity. When a superior man appears, his pure, kind thoughts influence people around him, awakening the conscience of others and planting the seeds of integrity and kindness.

Using Wisdom to Avoid a Fight

Confucius and his disciples once visited Kuang, a region in the Kingdom of Song. However, when they arrived, the local people mistook Confucius for Yang Hu (阳虎), a man who had brutally attacked the Kuang people. They immediately alerted Jianzi (简子), the chief of the Kuang region, who immediately gathered his army and besieged Confucius and his followers.

Upon seeing that they were surrounded by the fierce Kuang army, Zilu (子路), one of Confucius’ disciples,  seized a weapon in preparation to fight.

But Confucius stopped him and said, “How can men who are cultivating and practising kindness and justice lack the ability to stop this kind of brutality? It is my fault for not having widely taught the ancient poems and great works, and promoted etiquette and music […] Come over, Zilu. You play the zither and sing the lyrics, and I will join you.”

Zilu put down his weapon and brought out a zither. He and Confucius started playing and singing. After three rounds of singing, the people of Kuang realised that Confucius was a sage, not the brutal Yang Hu. Touched and ashamed, they took off their armour and retreated peacefully.

Even under siege, Confucius remained calm. He first looked at himself to see if he was at fault. He then carried on with his teaching and influence through etiquette and music. His actions demonstrated the difference between him and Yang Hu.

Confucius changed people with his virtue; he turned a dangerous situation around and exemplified the kindness of a man with a good heart.

Focusing on Key Issues

One day, Duke Ai of the State of Lu asked Confucius, “In ancient times, what type of hat did King Shun (舜王) wear?”

Confucius did not reply. The Duke asked again, “I am trying to learn from you. Why do you not reply?”

Confucius bowed and replied, “Because the question Your Majesty raised was not focused on key issues. That is why I was thinking about how to reply.”

The Duke became curious and asked, “What are the key issues?”

Confucius replied, “During King Shun’s reign, he loved his people as his own children. He promoted the virtuous and appointed the capable. His virtue overflowed across the land.

“Yet he remained modest and humble. He changed things gently, just like the four seasons change living beings in nature. He encouraged the growth of people’s character. His kindness spread to other living beings as well. That is why his teachings reached far and wide. Even the legendary phoenix and mythical kirin showed up in the land that he ruled, testifying to his mighty virtue.

“All this occurred because of King Shun’s encouragement of life and growth. Your Majesty was asking about the type of hat that King Shun wore rather than these issues of primary importance, and that was why I did not reply right away.”

Living with Kind People Is Like Entering a Room of Orchids

Confucius once told his disciple Zeng Chan (曾参) “Zi Xia (子夏) (another disciple of Confucius) will improve quickly because he enjoys spending time with those who are more virtuous than he. To stay with kind people is like living in a house with orchids blossoming. One assimilates to the environment. So a superior man has to be careful in choosing who he stays with.”

The Standards for Students also states, “It is immensely beneficial if one stays close to those with kind hearts. With the passing of each day, one’s virtue increases, and one’s mistakes are reduced. To stay away from kind people is harmful. One is drawn to inferior men, and will meet with ruin.”

By remaining close to people of kindness and virtue and by taking them as friends and teachers, a person can expand his knowledge as well as improve his integrity.

A superior man sets a good example. He “frequently looks for his own shortfalls rather than blame others”, and he is completely transparent and honest with his words and actions. He applies strict moral standards to himself, yet he is tolerant of others, reflecting a character of generosity. Others around him will learn to look inward for their shortcomings and constantly set higher standards for themselves.

Confucius also said, “A superior man learns the Dao and loves other people.” He was highlighting that a superior man needs to care about others if he studies the Dao, applying the principles he has learned from the Dao to his daily interaction with others. The greatest kindness is like water — it facilitates everything while contending nothing.

The virtuous character of a superior man brings about harmony and peace. It helps to remind everyone to exercise self-discipline and to not act against conscience. In today’s material world, where too many people are driven by greed in the pursuit of fame and fortune, it is all the more important to adhere to one’s innate goodness.


Subscribe for Newsletter

Scroll to Top