Dà Xué (大學 or 大学), usually translated as The Great Learning, refers to a short text of indeterminate authorship that is primarily concerned with the regulation of the state and, concomitantly, of the self. The text is of both philosophical and sociological import, as it crystallizes many disparate themes (concerning the role and function of praxis) into a discrete and coherent whole. In the socio-political sphere, the text was named by the scholar Zhu Xi as one of the Four Books of Confucianism, a designation that eventually led to their acceptance as the official curriculum for the Imperial examination system.
Prior to this popularization, the Da Xue had previously been a single chapter in the Classic of Rites.
The Da Xue, originally a chapter of the Classic of Rites (Li Ji), was relatively unrecognized as a discrete unit until the Neo-Confucian period, when Sima Kuang (1019-1086 C.E.) "wrote a commentary on it, treating it as a separate work for the first time." After that point, it began to attract ever increasing scholarly attention, until its formal canonization by Zhu Xi (as discussed below).
There is little scholarly consensus on its authorship, with some arguing for Confucius, Zengzi (a disciple of Confucius who lived from 505-432 B.C.E.), an unnamed, syncretic redactor from the late Warring States/early Han period (ca. 200 B.C.E.), or for an agnostic position (that the original writer and date of composition are relatively unknowable).
Given the text's relatively short length, its potent argumentation and its significance for understanding Confucianism, much of it is reproduced below:
As can be seen, the Da Xue represents a progressive and programmatic approach to life and learning, with a stress on the interrelationship between the various facets of the human experience (from the ordering of the socio-political realm to the cultivation of the person). Though not attributed to any particular figure, the text is definitively Confucian in its emphases.
The first of these themes is the idea that manifesting order in one sphere will inherently impact all related aspects of life: "Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. // Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons." As summarized by Angus Graham, this moral framework suggests that "you extend to state and Empire the virtues learned inside the family."
This discussion of the extensibility of virtue strongly parallels a similar theme in the Analects, where the personal enhancement of one's ethics is seen to provide an immediate benefit to all members of society. In conversation with a political leader, Confucius suggests that "if you want to be truly adept, the people will also be adept. The excellence (de) of the exemplary person is the wind, while that of the petty person is the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend." From the perspective of the Analects, virtuous (and ritual proper) conduct was so efficacious that positive values would be instilled through a process that could be described as "social osmosis":
This osmotic character of virtue is, in both the Analects and the Da Xue, specifically tied to the promulgation of virtues within the family:
This same emphasis on the "ripple-like" extension of virtue from the family to the entire society, is strongly echoed by Mencius:
An additional point of congruence with the early Confucians can also be seen in the Great Learning's stress on making "cultivation of the person the root of everything." Whether this implication is being read into the stress on learning and ritual in the Analects, or directly argued for, as in Mencius and Xunzi, it is undeniable that praxis, especially in service of personal cultivation, was a central concern during this phase of Confucian development.
Despite the notable points of continuity between the Great Learning and the classical Confucian corpus, the text remained relatively obscure until the Neo-Confucian period (ca. 1100 C.E.) when it was thrust into the philosophical limelight by a succession of increasingly illustrious commentaries. In all of these, the text's emphasis on personal cultivation was profoundly resonant with the philosophical and religious needs of the Chinese literati, who were actively competing with the well-developed praxis path of the now-prevalent Buddhist tradition. Indeed, the appeal of this text to the Neo-Confucians was its "support for the focus on inner cultivation—on the task of 'making oneself good' through constant self-scrutiny—a focus which they do not find in the five classics taken by themselves." As the text stresses the role of making thoughts sincere and extending knowledge, "the focus shifts ... dramatically to the moral inner life of the individual." This new focus colors all aspects of Neo-Confucian thought.
However, the increasing importance of the Great Learning also led to some controversial developments. Most importantly, when Zhu Xi was preparing his commentary on the text, he also "rearranged the ancient text of the Classic to have the sections on the investigation of things appear before those on the sincerity of will." This transposition allowed him to base his entire praxis orientation upon the process of exploring "things" (often classic texts) as a means of delving into ultimate principles (li). However, this editorial alteration was not universally accepted, especially by the idealist school of Wang Yangming, who argued that "sincerity of the will, without which no true knowledge is possible, must come before the investigation of things. Therefore he rejected both Chu Hsi's rearrangement of the text and his doctrine of the investigation of things, and based his whole philosophy on the Great Learning, with sincerity of the will as its first principle." This debate, which raged for hundreds of years between the followers of the Cheng-Zhu School and the Lu-Wang School, was never adequately resolved, to the extent that modern Confucians often find it necessary to simply side with one of the two positions.
As mentioned above, the Da Xue, despite its continuity with many elements of classical Confucian philosophy, remained a relatively unimportant chapter of the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) until the Neo-Confucian period. When it attracted the patronage of Zhu Xi, however, its scholarly fortunes reversed in a startlingly abrupt manner. Specifically, Master Zhu, in analyzing the entire Confucian corpus, argued that this text (along with three others: the Analects, the Mencius, and the Doctrine of the Mean) represented the sum-total of Confucian thought and that studying them intensively was the key to success in other studies. Zhu's introduction to the book is highly indicative of his general perspective on its role and influence:
For this reason, he produced and canonized an updated version of these Four Books with commentaries, which in 1310 C.E. became the standard textbook for the Imperial examination system. This official endorsement meant that hundreds of thousands of aspiring scholars and bureaucrats, from 1313 C.E. to early twentieth century, became intimately familiar with this text.
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