The Great Learning

Translated by Charles Muller.

* Due to limitations in character support for HTML, all diacritical renderings of Chinese pronuciation are here given in simple ASCII format.

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The Text

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

When you know where to stop, you have stability.

When you have stability, you can be tranquil.

When you are tranquil, you can be at ease.

When you are at ease, you can deliberate.

When you can deliberate you can attain your aims.

Things have their roots and branches, affairs have their end and beginning. When you know what comes first and what comes last, then you are near the Tao.

The ancients who wanted to manifest their bright virtue to all in the world first governed well their own states.

Wanting to govern well their states, they first harmonized their own clans.

Wanting to harmonize their own clan, they first cultivated themselves.

Wanting to cultivate themselves, they first corrected their minds.

Wanting to correct their minds, they first made their wills sincere.

Wanting to make their wills sincere, they first extended their knowledge.

Extension of knowledge consists of the investigation of things.

When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.

When knowledge is extended, the will becomes sincere.

When the will is sincere, the mind is correct.

When the mind is correct, the self is cultivated.

When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized.

When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed.

When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.

From the king down to the common people, all must regard the cultivation of the self as the most essential thing. It is impossible to have a situation wherein the essentials are in disorder, and the externals are well-managed. You simply cannot take the essential things as superficial, and the superficial things as essential.

The traditional commentary, attributed to Confucius, through the transmission of Tseng Tzu

1. In the "Announcement to K'ang" it is said, "He was able to manifest his virtue."

The "T'ai-chia" says, "He contemplated Heaven's unveiled mandate."

The "Canon of Yao" says, "he was able to manifest his lofty virtue."

2. The inscription of the bath of King T'ang said, "If you renew yourself for one day, you can renew yourself daily, and continue to do so."

In the "Announcement of K'ang" it says, "carry out the renewal of the people."

The Book of Odes says, "Even though Chou was an ancient state, its mandate was sustained anew." Therefore there is nothing in which the Superior Man does not fully exert himself.

3. The Book of Odes says, "The people only stay (comfortably) in a state where there is security."

The Book of Odes also says, "The chirping bird only rests in the wooded part of the hill." The Master said, "When it rests, it knows where to rest. Can a person possibly be unequal to a bird?"

The Book of Odes also says, "How sublime was King Wen! He abode in clear, shining reverence." As a ruler, he abode in jen, as a minister, he abode in reverence, as a son, he abode in filial piety, as a father, he abode in loving compassion, and in his interactions with the people of the land, he abode in trustworthiness.

The Book of Odes also says,

Look at the bend in the Ch'i River,

And how green and luxuriant the bamboo trees are there!

Here is our refined prince,

Who is like a gem cut and filed,

Carved and polished!

How dignified he is, and how awesome!

How majestic and distinguished!

Our illustrious prince will never be forgotten.

'Like a gem cut and filed' refers to the way of study. 'Like a gem carved and polished' refers to self-cultivation. 'How dignified and awesome,' refers to a cautious respect. 'How majestic and distinguished,' refers to his awe-inspiring way of handling himself. 'Our illustrious prince will never be forgotten,' means that the Tao flourishes in him and his virtue reaches excellence, hence, the people will be unable to forget him.

The Book of Odes also says, "Aah, the ancient kings are not forgotten!" The Superior Man treats the worthy as worthy and loves his family. The inferior man enjoys his enjoyment and grabs profit whenever he has a chance. It is in this way that they are not forgotten after their death.

4. Confucius said, "In hearing legal cases I am just like anyone else. What we really need is to not have these legal cases."

Those who lack sincerity should not be allowed to speak on and on. They should also have a great awe for the will of the people. This is called knowing the basis.

5. This is called, 'Knowing the root.' This is called 'The extension of knowledge.'

6. 'Making the will sincere,' means 'no self-deception.' Like when we allow ourselves to be disgusted by a bad smell or become infatuated with a beautiful face. This is called 'self-satisfaction.' Therefore the Superior Man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

When the inferior man is at leisure, there is no limit to the extent of his evil. But when he sees a Superior Man he will be ashamed; he will cover his evil and show off his goodness. When people observe you, they see right to your core. So what's the use of being deceitful? Therefore we say: "internal sincerity expresses itself outwardly without obscuration." Therefore the Superior Man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

Tseng Tzu said, "What ten eyes are seeing, what ten fingers are indicating, isn't it sublime? Riches adorn a house, virtue adorns the person; the mind is expansive and the body is at ease. Therefore the Superior Man must make his will sincere."

7. "The cultivation of the person lies in the correction of the mind."

When you are angry, you cannot be correct. When you are frightened, you cannot be correct; when there is something you desire, you cannot be correct; when there is something you are anxious about, you cannot be correct. When the mind is not present, we look, but do not see. We listen, but do not hear, we eat, but don't taste our food. This is the meaning of "the cultivation of the person lies in the correction of the mind."

8. "The regulation of the family lies in the cultivation of the person."

When there is someone you love, you are biased. When there is something you hate, you are biased. When there is something you are in awe of, you are biased. When there is someone you pity, you are biased. When you are lazy, you are biased. Those who love someone and yet know their bad points, or who hate someone and yet know their good points, are few and far between. Hence there is the proverb: "The man does not know of his own son's evil, or the richness of his own corn." This shows that if you do not cultivate yourself, you cannot regulate your family.

9. "Before governing the country, you must first regulate your family."

There has never been a case where a man could not educate his own family, and yet could educate others. Therefore the Superior man perfects the education for the country without leaving his own home. Filial piety is the means by which you serve your ruler. Fraternal submission is the means by which you serve your elders. Compassion is the means by which you deal with everyone.

The "Announcement of K'ang" says: "It is like a mother completely giving herself to the care of her baby." She may not be perfect, but she won't be far off, even though she never took a course on child-rearing before having the baby.

When one family becomes jen, the whole country will be stimulated to jen. When one family becomes easy to get along with, all the people in the country are stimulated to become easy to get along with. If one man greedily upsets things, the whole country can be plunged into chaos. Its function is really like this. Hence there is the saying "one word can win the whole affair, one man can settle the whole kingdom." Yao and Shun led the realm by jen and the people submitted to them. Chieh and Chau led the realm with aggression, and the people submitted to them, but did not go along with laws that they didn't like.

The Superior Man looks for good in others only after possessing it in himself. He negates the evil in others only after ridding it from himself. There has never been a case where a person was able to teach others the things he had learned, if he lacked fairness (shu). Therefore, the governing of the country lies in the regulation of the family.

The Book of Odes says: "The peach-tree so ripe, its leaves so luxuriant. The girl is going to her husband's house, and she will harmonize the household." Once the household is harmonized, the people of the realm can be taught.

The Book of Odes says: "He treated his elder brothers right, he treated his younger brothers right." If you can treat your brothers right, then you can teach your countrymen.

The Book of Odes says: "His manner unchanging, he rectifies his whole state." Only when the ruler has actualized the harmonious relationships of father/son, elder brother/younger brother in himself will the people take him as a model. Thus, it is said: "The ability to govern the country lies in harmonizing the family."

10. "Bringing peace to the realm lies in the ability to govern the country."

If you respect the aged, the people will be encouraged to be filial. If you respect your elders, the people will be stimulated to respect their elders. If you pity the weak and defenseless, the people won't hurt them. Therefore the Superior Man has a Way of Correcting. What he hates in his superiors, he does not give to his inferiors. What he hates in those below him, he does not pass up to those above him. What he hates in those who are in front, he does not pass on to those behind; what he hates in those behind, he does not pass on to those in front. What he hates on the right, he doesn't transfer to the left. What he hates on the left, he doesn't transfer to the right. This is his Way of Correcting. The Book of Odes says:

How wonderful is the prince!

The parent of the people.

What the people likes, he likes. What the people hate, he hates. Thus he is called 'the parent of the people.'

The Book of Odes says:

How high, the Southern Peaks

The cragged rocks jutting in the air.

Magnificent is the Teacher Yin;

All look up to you!

He who possesses the country must be prudent. If he errs, he will be the embarrassment of the realm. The Book of Odes says:

Before the Yin lost its teachers

They could appeal directly to the Lord on High.

Learn from the Yin:

The lofty mandate is not easy to maintain.

The Way is to win the people, then win the country. If you lose the people, you lose the country. Therefore the ruler must be concerned about his own virtue first. If he has virtue, he will have the people. If he has the people, he will have the land. If he has the land, he will have wealth. If he has wealth, he will be able to function.

Thus, virtue is the 'root' and wealth is the 'branches.' If you put the roots outside and the branches inside, you will struggle against your people, and make them grab for anything they can. If you gather the wealth, you will scatter the people. If you scatter the wealth, you will gather the people. Therefore, the wrong words going out will result in the wrong words coming back in. Wealth taken wrongly will also leave wrongly. The "Announcement of K'ang" says:

Even destiny is not changeable, since

When our ways are good

We obtain it.

When our ways are not good

We lose it.

The Ch'u Record says:

The state of Ch'u does not treasure that.

It treasures its good men.

Uncle Fan (maternal uncle to a prince in exile) said:

Our exiled prince has no treasure.

To be good to his parents is his only treasure.

The "Oath of Ch'in" says:

I would like to have just one decisive man, without all kinds of specific abilities, whose mind was broad and easy, such that he could utilize the talents of others as if they were his own. Finding sages, he would sincerely love them with his heart, and not just give them lip-service. By being able to accept and utilize everyone in this way, he would be ensuring safety for me, my sons, grandsons and all the people. Wouldn't the benefits be great? But what can you do when you have a man who gets jealous of the abilities of others and hates them? When he hates the sagely, creates disturbances for them and keeps them from advancing? Since he cannot protect me, my son, grandsons or the common people, isn't he quite dangerous?

Only a man of jen can banish such a minister and send him out to live with the barbarian tribes away from the middle kingdoms. Thus the saying: "Only the jen man can love people and hate people."[1]

To see a worthy and be incapable of promoting him; to promote him, but not to the top--this is avoiding responsibility. To see someone evil and not remove him; or to remove him, but not completely get rid of him--this is a fatal error.

To love that which the people hate, and hate that which the people love: this is to ignore human nature, and you are sure to bring great harm to yourself. Therefore the ruler attains the Great Way through loyalty and trust, and loses it with pride and arrogance.

There is also a clear Way for the production of wealth. When producers are many and consumers are few; when production is rapid and use is s 3, then there will always be enough. The jen man expends his wealth to expand himself. Lacking jen, one expends himself to expand his wealth.

There is no such case where those in power loved jen and those below disliked Justice. And there is no case where a man loves Justice and is not thorough in his work. In this situation, there are no treasure houses in the state which do not belong to the ruler. Meng Hsien Tzu said:

The man who keeps horses and chariots

Does not look after chickens and pigs.

The family that stores ice[2]

Does not raise cattle and sheep.

A hundred-chariot clan

Does not keep a tax-collector.

If they are going to have a tax-collector,

They might just as well have a thug.

Thus, the saying: "A state does not benefit by profiteering, it benefits by its Justice."

One who rules a state or a clan who sacrifices himself to wealth and its usage must be under the influence of an inferior man. He may regard him as good, but if this man handles the affairs of the state or clan, calamities from Heaven and harm from men will be visited upon him. Even if a good man is finally found, what can he do? Thus the saying: "A state does not benefit from profiteering, it benefits from Justice."


1. This saying can be found in Analects 4:3.

2. The procurement and storage of ice in ancient times was extremely difficult, and therefore extremely expensive proposition.