Confucian Metaphors for Discerning Meaning

For those of us who care about guiding students along the path to finding meaning in their lives and work, it seems obvious why a person would want to find such a path. Unfortunately, a big part of that guidance is just convincing students that striving for “meaning” is worthwhile in the first place. That’s because to discern a more meaningful way of life, you must be willing to admit that some ways of life are not as meaningful, and thus not worth pursuing. Even more complicated yet, the ones most worth pursuing will almost certainly require accepting unpleasantness and constraint. Job number one in vocational discernment is identifying why you should even care to “aim higher.” Some metaphors from the early Confucian thinker Mencius (or Mengzi. who would have understood himself as a Ruist rather than as a Confucian) are helpful in working through this problem with students.

I think most traditions of moral self-cultivation would agree that to get better you have to actually care about getting better. Most of us are at least getting by, avoiding being terrible people. It’s easy to settle for that and a lot harder to take on the risk and responsibility of aiming higher. The same is true in making choices in one’s vocational journey. We can usually make do with what’s right in front of us, and if we can’t then it becomes difficult to see past the immediate problem of securing our livelihoods. So, it’s often hard to see why we should find a way to prioritize meaning-making—especially when most options to do so entail putting more secure sources of comfort on the line. Nevertheless, figuring out why and how to aim higher is at the heart of moral cultivation, and it’s foundational to vocational discernment as well.

I think Mengzi is talking about this problem in Mengzi 6A.11 when he says that people know to look for their lost dogs and chickens, but not to look for their lost heart (translated here as mind):

Mencius said, “Benevolence is man’s mind, and righteousness is man’s path. How lamentable is it to neglect the path and not pursue it, to lose this mind and not know to seek it again! When men’s fowls and dogs are lost, they know to seek for them again, but they lose their mind, and do not know to seek for it. The great end of learning is nothing else but to seek for the lost mind.”

Mencius, Book VI, Part A, 11 (Trans. James Legge)

The “lost heart” is the part of the intellect and emotion that is attuned to more “noble” things in life—the things that are meaningful and not merely pleasurable, while dogs and chickens represent things of immediate, tangible benefit that we notice more acutely when we lose. Nevertheless, because the sense of meaning derived from “nobler” values is humans’ “proper path,” we do notice when we don’t have it, and how it feels better when we’re able to hold onto it.

Mengzi uses the metaphor of taste to describe how people get a sense of which things are more meaningful. After observing in 6A.7 how humans in general share broad preferences for sense objects, he concludes that the human heart also shares broad preferences for nobility:

What is it that hearts prefer in common? I say that it is order and righteousness . . . Hence order and righteousness delight our hearts like meat delights our mouths.

Mencius, Book VI, Part A, 7 (Trans. Bryan Van Norden)

Mengzi didn’t have access to the evidence for wildly divergent tastes that we have with the internet, and we know that not everyone finds meat delightful, but the simpler point stands: we intuitively know the difference between something meaningful and something merely pleasurable because the meaningful just feels different, in an obviously good way.

I have found it helpful to frame the question of seeking meaning this way with students, and I pursue it in class with a simple question almost everyone can relate to. Most people have a favorite food, something they can easily call to mind as a clear object of pleasure. Most people also have at least one person in the world that they genuinely love and care about. First, I ask students to imagine the best version of the favorite food (the most delicious cheesecake ever), and then imagine the look on the loved one’s face when they’re given a thoughtful gift (a framed graduation picture for Grandma). Then, I ask them for a gut check: if you could only choose one, which of the two things would you prefer? Which one jumps out at you immediately as “better,” definitively and unambiguously? Almost everyone says the gift for Grandma. 

This is a great starting point for a larger conversation about ordering values and which goods in life matter more and which matter the most. Rather than convincing students that they should care about some things more, this approach starts with the observation that they already do care about some things more. From here, establishing a difference between what is meaningful and what is merely pleasurable or beneficial is relatively straightforward, but opens many avenues for further exploration. Not everyone shares the same tastes but noting that everyone really does have a taste for what is meaningful is an important first step. 

Matthew Duperon is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Susquehanna University. He studies and teaches comparative religious ethics, specializing in early Chinese religious thought and American Pragmatism. Matthew is a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

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