In Practice

Table of Contents: Simple Wisdoms Overview

Simply put, the best way to be is to have good explanations for the things that one does; to help one another understand the personal advantage that comes from so basic an idea as that.

Behind Confucius' pursuit of the ideal moral character lies the unspoken, and therefore, unquestioned, assumption that the only purpose a man can have and also the only worthwhile thing a man can do is to become as good a man as possible. This is something that has to be pursued for its own sake and with complete indifference to success or failure. Unlike religious teachers, Confucius could hold out no hope of rewards either in this world or in the next.1 

It is in our own best interest to generate the skill to recognize, examine and justify conclusions; to be unafraid to continually review a decision from the point that it is made; to create individual rafts of stability in seas of uncertainty; to unfailingly help each other outgrow difficulties.

Whenever walking in a company of three, I can always find my teacher among them (or one who has something to teach me). I select a good person and follow his example, or I see a bad person and correct it in myself.2 

It is not ourselves, our family, race or nation that deserve to survive, but good ideas – our own or others – that do. They deserve to survive, not for our sakes, but for the ideas themselves. As previous ideas help us, further refinement helps more – helps ourselves, our family, and so on.

One can be as much a teacher as a student. And a teacher is not the same as a lecturer. Practice having happy memories. Some beauty must be squeezed from life. Life consists not of trying to have a good time. A good time is having whatever time there is.

To fail to speak to a man who is capable of benefiting is to let a man go to waste. To speak to a man who is incapable of benefiting is to let one's words go to waste. A wise man lets neither men nor words go to waste.3 

Dealing with people: practicing judgment.

We think we are right, not because we are right, but simply because we think we are right. If one gets into an ambiguous or seemingly not well-thought-out position, it is up to another to ask them a question that points out inconsistency. Say something that will give them pause to reconsider.

Practice in making judgments is important. Practice in re-making them even more so. Certainly no one will say "Now we are going to have practice in making judgments." But that is what is done discussing things among ourselves.

Writing is significant. Writing freezes each thought for further scrutiny. Furthermore, deciding – judging – what words to put down is practicing judgment. "Is there another word that more accurately represents my thought?"

As Bacon said:

Reading maketh a full man, conversation a ready man, and writing an exact man.

How good is our judgment? If we are susceptible to error while we think ourselves correct, how can we figure out what is right? Is "the way things are" sufficient? Is "the way things have always been" adequate? Are history and tradition good and sufficient justification? Probably not. Today people are examining their traditions – their social and cultural experience – and concluding that simply because things have been a particular way for so long is not sufficient justification to keep things that way for ever more. Can polygamy or adultery be considered tolerable? Simply because something is illegal does not make it wrong.

However, it would be ridiculous to reject tradition out of hand and without thought. Perhaps there were good and sufficient reasons why these traditions arose in the first place. Are those reasons still valid? Are their other good reasons to continue the traditions if the original reasons no longer hold up? There are reasons to oppose adultery. An adulterer is required to keep secrets from the partner. Forced into a situation constantly on guard to edit conversations lest some secret be revealed. Stress and tension are generated. But what are the disadvantages of polygamy? People can be treated equally and openly.

We have so far no uniform, common, intelligent basis for making moral decisions. Everyone is for reason, but no one recognizes when they, themselves, abuse it. People contrive justifications for what they do that have no means of verification – "Because God said so." or "Because you will appreciate it after you are dead." Each of these justifications requires that someone else be trusted: some prophet, some scientist, some teacher. Even in the face of Richard Nixon's "I am not a crook!" and the Watergate cover-up or propaganda about the Vietnam war, people will blindly follow. History is replete with examples; strewn with the souls of people who left judgment to others.4 

In all our prophets, few have heard God say "I am not a God." Yet some will say that you must have faith to be worthy. I see that as only one way – and not a very good one – to make death easier to face.5 

In Iran God is on their side. They have no fear. We see only their "senseless" dedication. We have no tradition to help people see themselves as others see them. We have no tradition to help ourselves see as others see us. Mark Twain in The War Poem pointed this out.

Presentation for the people

No one wants a sermon. Lectures do not seem to have the same effect as lessons learned from personal experience. Successful teachers listen to people relate personal experiences and then associate that experience with general principles involved.

Guiding without pulling makes the process of learning gentle; urging without suppressing makes the process of learning easy; and opening the way without leading the students to the place makes them think for themselves.6 

Such general principles are not usually newly-discovered. More frequently, they are just not frequently taught. Confucius mentions lesson after lesson. There are things in Confucius that are not applicable today. Some of them have not stood the test of time. There are things that are wrong because he did not understand what we can understand today. But Confucius did not have the 2000 more years of history that we have to assist us. Confucius' lessons can be sifted through the insights provided by our more recent experience and development of language and thought.

Confucius was not alone extracting general principles to help with the simple problems of daily living. Traditions are full of the threads of wisdom. Thomas Jefferson, Michel de Montaigne, Seneca, Mohammed, Jesus, Marx, Lincoln, H. L. Mencken, amongst others, have turned their powerful thoughtfulness towards the simple daily problems of living. We take advantage of their experience when we sift what they wrote through the filter of our experience to select the ideas that are still applicable today.



People are best helped when they are helped to discern for themselves as clearly as possible what paths might be most appropriate for them to follow; to weigh for themselves keeping their own frailties in mind; to understand why it is in their own best interest to be their own good person – even when it might not seem in their own immediate interest.

"Today's assignment, class, is to explain why people ought to be good." And no one has done a very convincing job yet:

  1. Some religions insist you'll fry in hell if your not good.
  2. Totalitarian governments say "we understand why, you don't have to. Just do what you're supposed to or we'll make it uncomfortable for you to live."
  3. Schools are unsuccessful, if they are trying to teach the methods at all.

For the rest, when I wish to size a man up, I ask him how far he is satisfied with himself, and how much what he says and does pleases him. . . . And again: 'What do you think best in your work? Is it this feature or that? Its style, its matter, its originality, its judgment, or its learning?'7 

Collective wisdoms of living.

The basics of reading, writing and arithmetic are returning to schools. Literature emphasizes style. And sciences are busy with technical detail. While much history is taught in schools, it consists mostly of names and dates. The lessons of the history of living are seldom studied. In churches, the emphasis on dogma in organized religion alienates new members who would prefer an emphasis on the lessons of living.

If not to schools, if not to churches, where should one turn to study the collective experience of dealing with people? Who has distilled the collective wisdom of the great men of history?

Perhaps we don't know what to teach. If we know what to teach, perhaps we don't know why. It would then be no wonder we don't know how.

Sift through the historically wise thinkers about simple daily living. Their questions. Their observations. Their wonderings. Select the things that have stood up and continue to be useful and reasonable even today. Reject those things with clear and substantial reasons to reject.8 

These help develop perspective. If, from a single point of view, we fool ourselves into assuming we are correct in what we do, these processes that encourage perspective help our mind to be self-correcting. they provide additional information and analysis to assist in making better judgments.

Helping others – How much help and of what kind

Train the needy to successfully compete for the same resources we compete for rather than give them any particular things.

The framework for this competition – perhaps it is better called a relationship rather than a competition – is a morality. It is in one's own long-term best interest to be able to deal with everyone within a framework of a morality that is blind to favoritism. Otherwise the complexity of interrelationships are such that one could not guarantee a favored son status in the future.

Create a self-correcting process that will stand up even though you might be wrong.

We have no socially acceptable way to say "Help is offered, refusably."

It is important to appear to other people not so different from them lest they pay more attention to your presentation than to the content of your lesson. As both Seneca and Confucius agree, you want to present yourself to them in a manner they can understand. Don't confuse them with language, dress, attitude, manners, style.

Take them into consideration before acting. Try to present a face they can understand. Curse mightily in the locker room and not at all at Rotary meetings. Manners are modified accordingly when feedback is received that a message has not been understand.

You should come down to the level of those in whose company you are, and sometimes feign ignorance. Lay aside your strength and subtlety; in common conversation it is enough to preserve coherence. For the rest, keep close to the ground, if that is what they like.9 

When the people are humble and respectful and frugal in their habits, that shows the teaching of li (the principle of social order). When the people are cultivated in their speech, ready with expressions and analogies, that shows the teaching of prose, or Spring and Autumn. The danger in teaching too much poetry is that people remain ignorant, or too simple-hearted. The danger in the teaching to history is that people may be filled with incorrect legends and stories of events. The danger in the teaching of music is that people grow extravagant. The danger in the teaching of philosophy is that the people become crooked. And the danger in the teaching of Spring and Autumn [a chronicle of political events in the centuries preceding Confucius], is that the people get a sense of the prevailing moral chaos.10 

Confucius and Seneca clearly emphasized that, if you see room for development on their part, one shouldn't want to be identical to those people you are with. Help them grow in ways that you can see would be useful to them. But avoid being an obnoxious lecturer: "Do this! Do that!" In good society this process is not one way. As they grow, so they might show you opportunity for improvement, returning your favor.

This is no consuming process. It is not carried on to the exclusion of living. Neither try to push people beyond their limits of comfortable understanding. Confucius said that you should not appear to be either identical to people or so different from them that they cannot relate to you. I should not support a level of action I see to be a mistake. Neither is it necessarily appropriate to ignore the mistake as "Well, it's their life".

Neither should I point out every error. MASH's Colonel Potter wisely noted "There is a right way and a wrong way of doing something. And sometimes the wrong way is telling someone the right way."

Tzu-kung asked about how friends should be treated. the Master said, `Advise them to the best of your ability and guide them properly, but stop where there is no hope of success. Do not ask to be snubbed.'11 

But I have no right to go on the cathedral steps on Sunday morning when the Catholics are coming out of High Mass and make a speech denouncing them. I don't think there is any such right. Nobody's got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors.12 

The policy of always pronouncing moral judgment does not mean that one must regard oneself as a missionary charged with the responsibility of `saving everyone's soul' – nor that one must give unsolicited moral appraisals to all those one meets. It means: (a) that one must know clearly, in full verbally identified form, one's own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals and act accordingly; (b) that one must make one's moral evaluation known to others, when it is rationally appropriate to do so.13 

Philosophy is good advice, and no one gives advice at the top of his voice.14  15 


Information useful to the lives of people deserves to be in a form accessible to them. People have to be trained to access it. They have to learn the value to themselves of accessing it. Something becomes accessible not when someone tells you that it is so but rather when they explain to your satisfaction why something is so.

1 Confucius. The Analects. Translation and introduction by D. C. Lau. Harmondsworth,. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979. Pg. 12. Introduction by the translator.
2 Confucius. The Wisdom of Confucius. Lin Yutang, ed. New York: Random House, 1938, 1966. Pg. 162.
3 Confucius. The Analects. Translation and introduction by D. C. Lau. Harmondsworth,. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979. Pg. 133.
4 ++++Quotation 2 139
5 ++++Re-work.
6 Confucius. The Wisdom of Confucius. Lin Yutang, ed. New York: Random House, 1938, 1966. Pg. 247.
7 Montaigne, Michele de. Essays. Translation and introduction by j. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1958. Pg. 306.
8 ++++Re-work.
9 Montaigne, Michele de. Essays. Translation and introduction by j. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1958. Pp. 254-255.
10 Confucius. The Wisdom of Confucius. Lin Yutang, ed. New York: Random House, 1938, 1966. Pg. 212.
11 Confucius. The Analects. Translation and introduction by D. C. Lau. Harmondsworth,. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1979. Pg. 117.
12 Fecher, Charles A. Mencken: A Study of his Thought. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1978. Pg. 193.
13 Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library, 1961, 1964. Pg. 73.
14 Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Letters from a Stoic. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969. Pg. 81.

Table of Contents: Simple Wisdoms Overview