Teacher, politician, and philosopher Confucius walked the earth 70 years before Plato, 100 years before Aristotle, and 500 years before Christ. But like these other great thinkers, his teachings continue to be studied and shared by millions around the world. His exact birthday isn’t known, but each Sept. 29 is recognized as Confucius Day. What better day could there be to take to heart a wise saying or two from this master of ethics, morality, and personal enlightenment to share with a friend. Here are 15 worth passing on.
1. “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”
One of the world’s first iterations of the Golden Rule, this sage advice is enlightened enough to govern everything from kindergarten classroom behavior to international relations between countries. Practically every major religion and system of ethics incorporates the idea of “doing unto others” in some way, shape, or form.
2. “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
You’ve probably heard this saying, but may not have realized it is a Confucius original. How amazing to think that this two millennia-old advice is still being passed along to college graduates and others pondering their careers. But it’s true, work only feels like work when you’re not doing something you’re passionate about.
3. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
There is much to be gleaned from this simple axiom. Diamonds are the toughest material on earth and are much more useful (and obviously valuable) than simple pebbles, flawless though they may be. Besides, who’s looking close enough at pebbles to search for flaws anyway? The world gives only diamonds such attention. So forget your shortcomings and aim for being a diamond.
4. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in getting up every time we do.”
Variations of this thought have been credited to both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nelson Mandela, but as Confucius lived about 2,300 years before either of them, he gets the credit. The saying encapsulates the necessity of never giving up that speakers from Winston Churchill to Jimmy Valvano have echoed.
5. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Mark Twain once quipped that at the age of 14 he thought his father was an idiot, but by 21 he couldn’t believe how much his father had learned in seven years. It’s a funny line that proves Confucius’ point: the more one learns, the more one recognizes how much he doesn’t know.
6. “If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.”
Even a man as wise as Confucius knew everyone around us has something to teach us (although the percentage of people with bad points is probably much higher than 50%). It’s also worth noting that Confucius did not say he would set the man with bad points straight, rather he would just take what he could and go on his way.
7. “To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.”
He didn’t have the scientific evidence, but Confucius knew long ago that letting go of an offense is a much more sensible route than holding onto a grudge. Only then does it become something truly harmful. In recent times scientists have begun to recognize the health dangers of holding on to anger, including depression, insomnia, emotional instability, and heart problems.
8. “Instead of being concerned that you have no office, be concerned to think how you may fit yourself for office. Instead of being concerned that you are not known, seek to be worthy of being known.”
Reality TV as we know it would cease to exist if everyone followed these wise words. Instead of aping famous people who are known only for being famous, we should heed Confucius’ words and try to develop a skill or talent that makes us worthy of people’s attention.
9. “Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.”
This cryptic saying has been interpreted different ways by different readers, but to us it is a wise comment on the responsibility of power. A man who can’t dance is not graceful or fluid and is in danger of colliding with others on the dance floor. In the same way, a man with no grace or tact should not be entrusted with military might, as he is apt to use it haphazardly.
10. “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
In the vein of giving a man a fish versus teaching him how to catch his own, Confucius uses three simple statements to demonstrate the nature of learning. Anyone who has ever tried to master a skill simply by listening can attest to the wisdom of this saying. It truly is practice makes perfect.
11. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
By September, 99% of people’s New Year’s resolutions have been left on the floor at the back of the closet. The 1% of people who are still going with theirs are the ones who didn’t try to move the mountain all at once, but instead slowly and surely chipped away at their goal.
12. “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.”
With wages down in a bad economy, and the benefit of the experiences of divorce they saw their parents go through because of spending too much time working, today’s college grads are more focused on fulfillment, and this is a trend Confucius would have supported. In work or personal life, you need to be able to give your all while you’re there, and leave everything else in its proper time and place.
13. “If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.”
It’s practically unheard of today to have a thought without sharing it. Everyone is tweeting, posting, commenting, reviewing, messaging. But time and again the wisdom of the ages has filtered down to us in sayings like this one. For more, see “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
14. “A lion chased me up a tree, and I greatly enjoyed the view from the top.”
It often takes a setback or hardship to spur us to a revelation. What we originally see as a major problem could be the start of a whole new experience. And while the journey of escaping the problem may be full of painful branches, if we carry on all the way to the end we just might be rewarded by a vision unlike anything else we’ve ever seen.
15. “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
Confucius said this before cell phones, before the Internet, before reverse mortgages and credit default swaps. But even in his time, people were managing to complicate their lives with worry, stress, lies, and greed. We have all those pitfalls today, plus a plethora of 21st-century innovations to further muddy the water. The truth is life is as simple as we make it.