Class #36

"The Great Learning"

Reading: "The Great Learning," in: The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, pp. 1-20

Lecture PowerPoint Deck

Our text for Monday is "The Great Learning," an anonymous Confucian text dating from the decades following Xunzi's active period. No text was more influential in traditional China -- it achieved special canonical status in the twelfth century CE, and was thereafter memorized at an early age by every literate male in society as a framework for personal self-cultivation and human understanding.

"The Great Learning" is not like the texts we have read to this point - texts like the Mencius or the Dao de jing, which present a picture of the philosophies they advocate, but are short on practical instruction. The principal function of "The Great Learning" was most likely to guide self-cultivation in the absence of a teacher, and much more than any other text we have encountered (except, perhaps, "The Inner Enterprise") it is a self-help manual. That does not, however, mean that it is easy to understand, like today's self-help books. "The Great Learning" is still written for a limited audience, one that would be capable of grasping the significance of its many textual references, and also one that would find a deeper learning experience in puzzling through the often oblique way in which the text presents its ideas. (The fact that the text seems to have been damaged at some point in transmission, leaving a few passages unintentionally obscure, does not make the text easier.)

As the introduction to the online translation states, it's very important to read the text with an understanding of its text/commentary structure.  You should refer regularly to the "map" on the initial page. The key to finding value in the text lies in re-imagining its practical reference -- its real entailment with ordinary living.  For this reason, I suggest that you focus your attention on sections II.B.1-6, most of which include some notes that point you in this direction.  If you read these sections with attention as the core of a "self-help" manual, I think it will help bring the rest of the text to life.