“Yi was a skillful archer, and Ao was a powerful naval commander, and yet neither of them met a natural death. Yu and Hou Ji, on other hand, did nothing but personally tend to the land, and yet they both ended up with possession of the world.”
As the world becomes more dangerous—both the world far away and the world down the street—we naturally wonder what such evils demand of us. Especially men; especially fathers. Many are investigating reasonable ways of training in martial competence and arming themselves. This can make sense—as long as we steadfastly put first things first.
I am struck by an anecdote about Confucius. The words quoted above are reported as spoken to Confucius by a visitor. The sage remained silent; but after the visitor left Confucius says, “What a gentlemanly person that man is! How he reveres Virtue.” Commentators suggest that the visitor intended to compare Confucius with Yu and Hou Ji—two great practitioners of agriculture, and so Confucius remained silent in his presence out of modesty.
It seems the point is that the world is not won by martial strength, but rather by a patient practice of other arts. It is noteworthy that Yi and Ao were military men known as having questionable morals. No condemnation is implied here of the upright practitioners of the martial arts. Indeed, the cultivation of the fields, as well as other and even more noble arts culminating in the pursuit of wisdom, sometimes demand the martial arts in their defense.
The nearly unanimous view in East and West from times of old is this: the more one knows the true goods of human life, the more one is willing to die in their defense. The greatest Roman generals were loath to leave their household and farm to go to battle; but when they did, whether they won or lost, they exercised a manliness well-established prior to their martial endeavors.
The Confucius story directs us to the manliness behind the martial. It warns of a classic human mistake so common among us men: to reach for the fruit and miss the root; to reach for the sign and omit the reality signified. The man who wants to have relations with a woman too easily skips the sacrificial, permanent love that is the only real basis for that act, that sign. Or, a man who wants to be seen as physically dominant forgets that manly character is the real strength that gives direction and glory to bodily prowess.
Confucius points to the absolute centrality of the cultivation of our souls, and this especially by fidelity in our daily work. Agriculture here is but an archetype. It’s not really about earth and plants. It’s about a disposition of soul—one that can be well cultivated by cultivating the earth, or by cultivating any of a number of other crafts.
Manliness is always about growing true human greatness, especially moral character, in self and others; and a man does this primary task in and through whatever daily ‘art’ is his to exercise. The man who crafts the human every day in the ‘little things’ has the fundamental prerequisite for defending the human, in any time of crisis. History has shown this again and again in the great men of every age.
Confucius said, “How could I dare to lay claim to either sageliness or Goodness? What can be said about me is no more than this: I work at it without growing tired and encourage others without growing weary.”
Ah, there is a man. Work at it, every day, in acting with integrity and excellence in the works given him to do: always for the sake of people, and their true good.
So what then of defending the good in dangerous times? A few thoughts. The military or martial arts can and should be a sign and an exercise of manhood. For some men this is their profession; here special vigilance is required to remember that prowess is no end in itself. Real bodily strength flows from and serves moral strength.
All men who have a position of authority or responsibility for others should be defenders of the good. This begins with the dangers most proximate and most powerful—those undermining human life by taking aim at moral character, religion, relationships, and the simple richness of human life. The defense of these must be intentional and coordinated, with attention to strategy and tactics.
And then also, all men, unless physical condition or special state in life dictate otherwise, can take reasonable steps to prepare for the physical defense of human life, according to our concrete situation. While secondary, this is real, and goes hand in hand with the prior.
We know that what we do may not be seen. This is hard. Confucius encourages us: “Do not be concerned that no one has heard of you, but rather strive to become a person worthy of being known.”
Cultivate the roots and the plant. We have much hidden work to do every day, including being prepared for doing things we may or may not ever do. In due time the fruits will come. They always do. And they will not only be seen; they will be tasted and enjoyed by many.
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