Day 4:
Reflective Control

Live Like a Confucian

After completing the assigned exercise for today, click here to access the prompt for tonight’s reflection and to submit your 1-2 paragraph journal entry.


It is not the function of the ears and eyes to reflect (si 思), and they are misled by things. Things interact with things and simply lead them along. But the function of the heartmind is to reflect. If it reflects then it will get it. If it does not reflect, then it will not get it. This is what Heaven has given us. If one first takes one’s stand on what is greater, then what is lesser will not be able to snatch it away. This is how to become a great person. 

– Mengzi 6A15

Engaging in reflection is an important part of Confucian teachings about living a good life. The “reflection” they have in mind is not just a matter of thinking. As the contemporary scholar Bryan Van Norden emphasizes, in some contexts it is quite explicit that to “si 思” something is to long for it, as in an ancient Ode describing a gentleman as “longing for” his bride-to-be. After considering some other evidence, Van Norden concludes that to si (i.e., reflect on) the sprouts is “to focus one’s attention on the sprouts in a way that involves longing for their proper development.”[1]

As Mengzi 6A15 emphasizes, reflection is a voluntary capacity that we can exercise whenever we want: we have the ability to do it. Not exercising that capacity is to “take one’s stand” on what is “lesser” (i.e., the physical desires rather than the moral ones). Using our capacity of reflection, that is, should be thought of in the context provided by Mengzi 7B24 (see Day 2): if one aims to be a superior person, one should “take one’s stand” on the greater.

We can reflect—as in Mengzi’s famous thought experiment—on how we would respond to suddenly seeing a baby about to fall into a well, or reflect back on actual experiences. Maybe you recently encountered a panhandler on a city street and then turned away, walking on without a word. Does later reflection reveal some inner turmoil around this event? Mengzi would encourage each of us to employ reflection to seek to “extend” those reactions about which we feel good to other circumstances in which we are less proud of how we responded. It’s easy to feel compassion for a baby, and probably to seek to save him or her from falling into the well—especially when all of this is in your imagination. When you’re in a hurry, maybe frustrated about something at home or at work, it’s harder to treat the panhandler like a person in need.

[1] Bryan Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (Cambridge, 2007), 232.

Today's Exercise

At least three times today—ideally at moments when you’re faced with a decision about what to do—pause and try “reflecting” in the Confucian sense. That is, see if you can reflectively engage your moral feelings with the question at hand. If you want, you can focus on the same “sprout” you chose on Day 1, or a different one, or on all three. Mengzi’s suggestion of looking for an analogy (a similar-enough situation in which your moral reactions were engaged) may help. Or, if there is no immediate choice to be made, think back on the last hour or two and see whether there were moments when your moral feelings were engaged … or, perhaps weren’t and now you feel regret about that. Take some notes on each of these three occasions.