Chow Yun Fatt as the aging philosopher in Confucius the movie. The passage (reading vertically right to left) sums up Confucius’s own spiritual and intellectual milestones: “The Master says: At 15, I set my heart on learning. At 30 I know where I stand (my character has been formed). At 40, I have no more doubts, at 50, I know the will of Heaven, at 60 my ears are attuned (i.e. my moral sense is well-developed), at 70, I follow my heart’s desire without crossing the line (without breaking moral principles).”
At 50 I know the will of Heaven
The text above, from the Analects 2.4, is a much-quoted summing up of Confucius’s key developmental milestones, from age 15 to 70 (Confucius died at 72).
At 15, Confucius began acquiring an education — not classroom study but lifelong active learning based on a systematic and intelligent reading of ancient texts and applying the insights that he gleaned into his relationship with his pupils, fellow philosophers, state officials and rulers.
With such an education as his intellectual base, he was able, by age 30, to say that he has formed his character, and knew where he stood in the affairs of the world.
At 40, he could say confidently, “I have no more doubts.” This was important because in his days the empire was fragmented into hundreds of warring states, each with its own political and moral system. In this chaotic situation, anyone who had read a few old books and possessed a glib tongue, could hire himself out as an expert on state and military affairs. You really need a thorough grounding in philosophy, history, the Classics and spiritual values, in order not to be duped by these snake-oil gurus.
When he was 50, Confucius was appointed Minister of Public Security in his home state. The phrase, “know the will of Heaven” would therefore mean knowing the correct way (according to Heaven’s mandate) to govern or manage.
For most folks, the will of Heaven could be understood as Destiny or Life’s Purpose that Heaven has mandated to each of us. In youth and early adulthood, we go through a long gestation of learning and development. By 50, we should be able to say confidently that we know what our life’s purpose is. Do you?
Men who have arrived
Apparently some successful male Singaporeans don’t. Age 50 is where they feel they have “arrived”, after decades of ruthless striving and beating down career and business rivals. They believe they are now entitled to their share of the smile and pleasure of the world.
This is the typical thought process of these mindless individuals: I’ve arrived! It’s time I enjoy my rewards before old age, weak joints and incontinence catch up with me! (Incontinence for Singapore and Chinese men implies being impotent, a fate worse than death.)
Male rewards at 50 are usually perceived to be saccharine female models, pricey cars (with curtains drawn so one can fornicate inside comfortably), dining in smart restaurants, jet-setting to exotic destinations, and generally indulging in the flesh pots of the world.
That’s the litany of desires from middle-aged males (fortunately, women at this stage in life express quite different, saner wants). Such men with testerone-driven urges, have no understanding of Heaven’s will, and little sense of shame. There are no brazen deeds they will not commit, no lines of misconduct they will not cross.
Clarifying life’s purpose
What can you do to clarify your understanding of life’s purpose, and strengthen your spiritual resolve?
The obvious solution is to study the Master’s own thoughts, as expressed in the Analects or Lun-yii 論語. This slim anthology of memorable epigrams, crystallises Confucius’s core philosophy on cultivating and regulating the AUTHENTIC life, i.e. the life led by the chun-tzi 君子 or true man.
The ideas and ideals that the Master discussed in the book are still applicable in our day-to-day relationship with friends, co-workers, superiors, family members, and society at large. The Analects helps us develop a long-term personal strategy to creating and sustaining a virtuous cycle of blameless behaviour (as opposed to a vicious cycle of lies, thievery and corruption).
Some people, without even so much as opening the book, regard any teaching of Confucius to be passé (not relevant to modern life). On the contrary, because we live in a morally adrift world, full of conflicts and dangers, we urgently need solid values and guidance to anchor our lives.
The Analects of Confucius provides such an anchor, indeed.
Because every line is a meditation, every passage a masterpiece, the Analects can’t be skimmed or read at one go. A reviewer on Amazon.com suggests we read the Analects the way we examine a set of carvings:
I took each paragraph out of the box, examined it, and returned it again. Some parts entranced me. Other bits I want to reconsider more later. Still other sections feel as though they will speak to a different me at a different point in my life.
The English translations by either Lin Yutang or DC Lau are recommended for the Analects.
—This essay was triggered by revelations that a Singapore film producer, age 50, was keeping a string of mistresses, each young enough to be his daughter, March 2010