Kung Fu Exercise Book Entry # 4

4) The wise not thinking become foolish; the foolish not thinking become wise.

This is the fourth statement in the KFEB, and I remember distinctly the issues I had with it at first.  It seemed so circular that it couldn’t mean anything… there was nothing that could be gleaned from this particular fools gold nugget of ‘wisdom’.  Interestingly, as I got older, it did give me pause.  As I have mentioned before, I have hand written these pages many times since I have received them – partially to preserve the originals by having a copy I could flip through regularly, and also to study them one line at a time…  and every time I encountered this statement, I would always try to justify it; to try and find the glimmer of something from it.  I mean, it couldn’t be in the list if it meant nothing…

Whenever my thoughts would trace the apparently ‘logic’ of this statement, it would always find a circle.  The wise must think lest they become foolish, and the foolish think impractically or unwisely…   It was circular, like the taijitu (Tai Chi or Yin/Yang symbol), and each was dependent on the other.  The Yin and the Yang were circling each other, and the “thinking” was the innate connection between the two.

Oh, and yes, I was that teen who would use the word “lest”… I know; I was a geek before it was cool.  I still missed the “cool” step though.

So, the circular nature seemed to have an ultimate lesson that was “don’t be a fool”.  It started to make sense with every review, so I expanded on the lesson every time based on that understanding.

It wasn’t until about six years ago when I met a very influential professor when I went to university.  Truthfully, this blog is in part due to a bug he put in my ear.  During one of his classes in an Asian Philosophy course, this quote came up with regards to the Confucian value on learning and wisdom.

It didn’t sit well with me though… it was a statement from Confucius’ ‘The Analects’ – “The wise, not thinking, become foolish.  The foolish, when thinking, become wise.”

Confucius was an advocate of learning and knowledge, which was the purpose of the lesson, but it didn’t mesh with what I had learned before.  So then I had to revisit my pages… and my previous understanding.

Confucius – or K’ung Fu-tzu – was a very influential scholar from the 6th century BCE (BC) whose writings were the foundation for Chinese government for centuries.  Anyone who wished to have a position in the Chinese government had to study the Analects and other writings, taking multitudes of tests just to even be considered for a job.  One of the key points to Confucius’ works was that knowledge ultimately prevailed – and those who didn’t think or advance their studies were fools and not worthy of higher position, etc.

There is a heavy notion of ‘human-ness’, and created a path of benevolence and humanity that was to be followed, and ultimately Confucius’ teachings were in learning for advancement of knowledge.  He believed that it was through knowledge that a person gained wisdom, and thus the ultimate practice was learning.  His concepts of religions was more practical than practicing, as he realized a necessity for religious rites, etc.,  but he stated that the only person who would truly know if someone believed in the religion was the practitioner.

There were ideas of the Tien Tao (Way of Heaven), but mostly as a thing to mirror on the Earthly realm.  The author known as Lao Tzu, brought an alternative interpretation to the concept of the “Tao” (Way), and consequently brought “Taoism” into the world while simultaneously creating a rival school of thought for Confucianism.  (On a side note – there are disagreements into who “Lao Tzu” was in the academic community.  Some say the man did not exist, but instead was a compilation of a bunch of different authors; others say that he did exist, but earlier than when the Tao te Ching was written, so the book wasn’t written by him.  Just wanted to share those interesting historical factoids…)

So, my redefined understanding of the quote had a serious shift – but it was okay, because this shift tied directly into how I saw the world.  I have always been one to seek out information, learn new knowledge, and apply it in the most positive manner possible (admittedly based on my own interpretation of moral positives…), so this new interpretation fit nicely.  But I didn’t completely shed the previous understanding…

“The foolish, when thinking, become wise” is based on Confucius’ idea of knowledge, and continual learning.  A wise man who stops thinking becomes foolish because they have the knowledge and should be using it at all times.  A foolish person is assumed to never have been educated, and once they are they would become wise.  A fool who was once a wise man must re-engage that learning to become wise once more…

What I have kept from the original KFEB write-up was this – Wise actions can incorporate ideas of compassion, and the consideration of others.  To be wise, it is in part due to the thought of others in the wise persons actions.  Once they stop thinking, they become selfish and not benevolent… The foolish, being selfish, would have to stop thinking of being selfish, consider the benefit of others, in order to become wise…


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  1. […] Confucian practice, the “will of heaven” is, as previously discussed (KFEB #4), a way to discuss the natural order of things – and it’s one of the driving forces for social […]

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