Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Sunday, December 30, 2018


The above characters, in spoken Chinese, are "Wǔshí ér zhī tiānmìng"--but I can't speak Chinese, so that is irrelevant. What is relevant is the phrase's meaning: "At 50 I knew the mandate of heaven." It is the fifth clause in perhaps the most famous passage from Confucius's Analects, found in Book 2, Line 4: "The Master said: 'At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I was unperturbed; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing the norm.'" The master is Confucius, of course (the photo above is of a statue of him in Nanjing, China, which I took in 2014). Did he actually express this personal biography. Doubtful, but it's really impossible to say.

I'm 50 today. How does my biography compare? By 15, if not earlier, I was pretty certain that mine was to be a life of reading, writing, thinking, and speaking, though whether that was going to be through teaching or journalism or some other vocation remained to be seen. By 30 I was in graduate school, and firmly committed to the path I'd chosen, though there were going to be a lot of difficult times and doubts ahead. At 40? By then I was here at Friends University, and content to stay; though the decade to come was going to involve the some of the hardest and most painful times in my family's life, it did not fundamentally challenge what I'd taken as my vocation. And now...50. Do I know heaven's mandate--or, depending on how you translate the line, its command, its decrees, its destiny, its will?

I know I don't have the confidence in my own person, or my own intellectual or religious traditions, that this line suggests Confucius himself had--which I guess implies, if I want to use the Analects as my standard, that I never really managed to get past 40. But my own doubtful nature may not mean that I, nonetheless, can't claim something of the connection he supposedly felt by the time he got to my age, a connection with something higher, something older, something truer. I've always been blessed--thanks to my upbringing, my family, my wife, my children, and so many other people and events in my life, including some pretty terrible ones--with a degree of sehnsucht, a longing that, however inchoate it may be, I've nevertheless also always been able to understand as connecting me to something real and meaningful. Consequently, I've never been able to understand those who think there's nothing above us, nothing around us, nothing in, or of, heaven, of Tiān (天). So maybe, on one level or another, I am hitting Confucius's 50-year benchmark. Or so I hope. Anyway, I guess I still have 20 years yet to improve, right? Time to get going.

1 comment:

Abe Fox said...