The Excellence of Jūnzǐ (Gentleman)

To achieve “humanness” you have to live a life of virtue towards others. When you do so, you become excellent as a specimen of humanity.

Article contribution by Chris Panza

Picture: Young Lady and Gentleman (credit: Viki)

Many people have asked me over the years to what extent my study of ancient Chinese texts has influenced my own way of thinking about life. It most definitely has, I always say, in lots of ways. That doesn’t mean that I’m a “good Confucian” – in fact in myriad ways I would come up horribly short in the eyes of Confucius, and no doubt if he were alive today and nearby he would seek me out, whack me on the shins with his staff, and call me a pest (Analects 14:43).

In this post I’d like to take some time to talk about one lesson that I take to be at the heart of Confucianism, one that is exceedingly hard to follow in life, even for people who recognize its importance. The lesson is summed up in a very cryptic saying in the Analects, 2.12. It reads:

子曰:君子不器。(jūn 君 zi 子bu 不 qì器). Translation: The Master said, “The exemplary person (jūnzǐ) is not (bu) a tool ().”

This mysterious passage has two parts (and yes, it definitely does have a fortune-cookie sound to it, but no it does not come with “your lottery numbers numbers”).

The first part refers to the “exemplary person” (jūnzǐ), who in Confucianism stands for the person who strives for the highest degree of excellence in the difficult task of “being human.” Different from us in the modern West, Confucians don’t see “being human” as a given determined by biology. Instead, “being human” is an achievement one needs to work toward. In short, to achieve “humanness” you have to live a life of virtue towards others. When you do so, you become excellent as a specimen of humanity. So, in short, the jūnzǐ the 2:12 mention are persons working towards human excellence.

The second part mentions qì – and these are implements, tools, or devices. Think here of a cup, or a knife, or a pencil, as different kinds ofthat share a common feature: they don’t have excellences that are innate to them. I may use a knife to cut, and when it cuts well, I might say that it is an excellent knife. But the “excellence of the knife” is something I project onto it given what I want it to do, and then in accordance with how well it does what I want it to do. It’s not that “cutting well” is the innate excellence of a knife. If we decide that knives should serve as paperweights, then we’ll call excellent knives the ones that do that well. In a sense, with  excellence is “external” to the thing.

The excellence of the jūnzǐ is very different, as each person has the natural potential to develop into something excellent, namely a human being. This excellence isn’t projected onto persons; rather this excellence is a innate part of what that kind of thing is. To help, you might think that a willow seedling has within it the potential to grow into an full growth and flourishing willow tree. That doesn’t mean they all do, but they all have the natural potential to, and when they do, we call them “excellent specimens” of that type of thing. So unlike qì, the excellence of a person is linked to the development of the potential the person has from birth. In contrast to qì, we might say that the excellence of person is “internal.”

So one reading of jūnzǐ bu is very simple: the kind of excellence we associate with persons is radically different from the kind of  excellence we associate with various qì.

With that behind us, let’s think briefly about the two ethical consequences of this cryptic passage, because that’s what Confucius really cares about.

Consequence One: Excellence Shared is Excellence Acquired.

It is fundamental to Confucianism that we should never behave towards other persons in ways that frustrate the development of their human excellence (their potential to be full humans). Instead, we should always try to harmonize our own pursuit of human excellence with their need for human excellence. Often we forget this, and we are tempted to expect that others should instead subordinate their own excellence to ours – in a way, expecting them to become that we can employ for our own purposes and then evaluate them with respect to how well they do what we want them to do. When this happens, we see others as knives or cups, and we start talking about the value of those persons in terms of how well they perform the job we have assigned them to further our own interest. Confucius is adamantly opposed to this, and sees this way of living as fundamentally in opposition to human excellence. In fact, when talking about the pursuit of human excellence, he says:

Now the person of ren, wishing to establish himself, sees that others are established, and, wishing himself to be enlarged, sees that others are enlarged. To be able to take what is near at hand as ones guide may be called the art of ren. (Analects, 6:30)

Confucius’ point here is that treating others properly requires that we “enlarge” or “establish” them – which here just that we must harmonize our own need for excellence (what is “near at hand”) with their human need for the same. A later Confucian, Mengzi (372 – 289 BCE), explains this as “delighting” in something as opposed to merely desiring it. When you delight in something, you truly value that thing as something apart from your own narrow uses of it – remember, the value of a  is exhausted by your narrow use of it. When you delight in something, it’s value is not exhausted by your own desire. As a consequence, you want to see it everywhere, far beyond your narrow purposes. If you think this through, what Mengzi is doing is drawing out a Confucian point: that in order to pursue excellence, you have to delight in excellence (see it in others) as opposed to merely desire it (for oneself).

Unfortunately, people who pursue excellence in ways that end up treating others as do not delight in excellence because their way of interacting with others blocks them from developing excellence on their own. Moreover, what this argument shows is that Mengzi thinks that if you block the excellence of others, you frustrate your own pursuit of excellence. When you pursue excellence in ways that extend it to others, you acquire it. When you try to keep it for yourself, you fail to acquire it. This brings us to the second consequence of the passage.

Consequence Two: Tool-hood Applied is Tool-Hood Embraced.

The second point is related to the first. Confucius thinks that if you deny the excellence of other people by treating them as qì, in the end you wind up treating yourself as a qì – whether you know it or not. If you think about it, many people do just that. A good example might be when a person pursues the accumulation of money or “stuff” as a central aim of life. If a person does this, they start thinking of the value of others in terms of how they can best serve the person in their materialistic pursuit of money or “stuff.” As a result, the person then pretty soon starts to view himself and his own worth in terms of how much money or “stuff” he has acquired. If you think of others as tools, it isn’t long before you think of yourself as a tool as well.

Where do we go from here?

When I think critically about my own dealings with people, and even my own dealings with myself, I often think of jūnzǐ bu qì. I think about it when I consider my actions, the policies I set as a teacher, the rules I think are important to follow, and even the leadership style I think is essential to take on (or for others to take on). I always ask myself the same questions – do these actions, or policies, or styles promote the excellence of others, or treat others as qì?

If all of us reflected critically on these things more often, we’d be living in a more human world – one filled with the delight of excellence, and its presence. But it’s tremendously difficult to do this, partly because we don’t spend much time thinking about questions like “what is human excellence?” (Go Humanities!) and then secondly because, even if we have an idea of what it is, we grow weak kneed when delighting in excellence ends up requiring that we make adjustments to our own plans and projects to promote others (in a later post I’ll expand on how I worry that contemporary challenges to higher education have led to temptations that threaten to embrace a view of students and teachers as qì – but that’s for a separate occasion). So really making sure that you don’t treat others as qì requires a lot of self-criticism, a lot of mindfulness, and a lot of inner strength (of which collectively I come up short, and thus comes Confucius with his stick to hit me).

I’d like to close with a quick reflection on one character in the Analects who fails to get this message. His name is Zigong – one of Confucius’ students. Confucius is always warning him that he is insufficiently open to the excellence of others, and is unwilling to make the necessary adjustments to his own plans to accommodate and promote shared excellence. As a result, Zigong is harsh with others and does not treat them properly. He is always judging the value of others in terms of his own projects and as we have seen, Confucius thinks that how you tend to see others, you will also see yourself. In this case, Zigong evaluates others in terms of their value and use to his own projects. He sees them as tools. So he sees himself in the same way. In an amusing interaction, Confucius criticizes Zigong by playing on this point, but his clueless disciple misses the criticism and sees it wrongly as compliment.

Zigong asked, “What do you think of me, Master?” The Master said, “You are a tool.” Zigong replied: “What kind of tool?” The Master responded: “A precious and sacred tool!” (Analects, 5.4)

One imagines Zigong walking away, pleased and smiling that the Master says he is an extremely valuable, even sacred, tool. One can also imagine Confucius shaking his head, rolling his eyes, and tightening his grip on that stick as Zigong misses the point that human excellence is the excellence we should shoot for, and that with this in mind — remember that jūnzǐ bu qì.


Christopher Panza is the Chair of the Humanities Division, and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Drury University.

Now the person of ren, wishing to establish himself, sees that others are established, and, wishing himself to be enlarged, sees that others are enlarged. To be able to take what is near at hand as ones guide may be called the art of ren.

Analects, 6:30

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