Chinese Philosophy – The Doctrine of the Mean

kongzi Confucius

The Doctrine of the Mean, also translated as the Middle Way, (like the doctrine of the Buddha) is another short chapter of the Book of Rites that teaches to never act in excess to either side of an opposition but always practice moderation.  Remember that Confucius in the Analects wondered if no one would leave a room without using the door (with the possible exception of the Incredible Hulk or the Kool-Aid guy), why people “walk outside the middle way” in their life practices.

The text says that the noble person embodies the course of the mean, the balance of extremes, while the crude person acts against the course of the mean, acting out of balance and “to the extreme”.  An old translation of the text I have says that the mean (lowercase: hateful) man acts against the course of the Mean (uppercase: balance), which is needlessly confusing.  The noble are cautious and thus stay balanced, while the crude are hasty and thus overact.  As we will see with Daoism, this is quite in accord with the Daoist concept of wu-wei, acting less to stay in accord with the way of things.  Speaking of the sage-king Shun, we read:

Emperor Shun

There was Shun.  He indeed was truly wise!  Shun loved to question others, and to study their words, though they might be shallow.  He concealed what was bad in them, and displayed what was good.  he took hold of their two extremes, determined the mean, and employed it in his government of the people.  It was by this that he was Shun!

The superior person “cultivates a friendly harmony without being weak”, and thus is firmly energetic without being overbearing.  This is associated with the principle of reciprocity, which is repeated in the text.  It is then extended to the five relationships, telling us to treat those above us as we would have those beneath us treat us.  We should refrain both from treating those beneath us with contempt as well as court favor with those above us.  The noble quietly work with their situation, while the crude look for lucky breaks.

Archer China

Another metaphor used is the noble archer, who after missing the target turns around and examines himself (rather than turning around and saying, “Somebody coughed” we assume).  Psychology experiments have found that in competition with others when we succeed at tasks we credit ourselves (internal attribution, looking to the self), and when we fail at tasks we blame the situation (external attribution, looking outside the self), but when others succeed at tasks we credit the situation, and when they fail we blame them.  Clearly, the noble have the wisdom to reverse this initial bias and work on themselves rather than blaming others.

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