A Catechism of Confucianism: The Absolute Good (至善)

The first paragraph of the Great Learning (大學)says that the ultimate goal of Confucian self-cultivation is "to abide in the absolute good"(止於至善). So what is this absolute good?

The absolute good in Confucianism is the cosmic creation of Heaven (天). Heaven creates everything; its creativity permeates everything. Heaven creates without cease; its creativity is dynamic. Heaven creates the cosmos as a whole and endows a unique nature to each creature; its creativity integrates everything. Created by Heaven, every creature itself also creates. All creatures under Heaven are, become and grow along with each other; the Heavenly creativity is thereby harmonious. What is most marvelous is that Heaven creates all of these without effort! There is no predestined plan, no contrived will, no long-delayed purpose! Everything is achieved spontaneously, naturally and in a mode called "non-action" (無為).

Non-action is indeed one of the most baffling concepts in Chinese philosophy for a Western audience. But given the "non-agency" feature of Heaven (please see my blog: "A Catechism of Confucianism: Confucianism as a Religious Humanism"), it is easy to understand why ancient Chinese philosophers love to use this category to describe the marvel of the creative cosmic process. Heaven is not any person, so the Heavenly creation is conceived as a spontaneous and continuous creative act without an actor! Accordingly, the "non-action" of the Heavenly creation means that there is nothing pertaining to the existential status of a human actor which can be attached to this act: no plan, no will, no purpose, no anxiety, no contrivance, no anticipation, no repentance. Nevertheless, even lacking any of these, Heaven still persists in its creating! This is the ultimate mystery of the cosmic creation for Confucians!

Therefore, the Heavenly creation is dynamic (元 ), permeative(亨), harmonious(利), integrative(貞), and without effort(無為)! Insofar as this is the most transcendent mode of creation, conditioning other realities without itself being thus conditioned, the Heavenly creation is absolutely good! Insofar as this Heavenly creation is beyond human expectation, beyond value in terms of human standards, and ultimately unfathomable since it is constantly breaking through every established form of human understanding, the Heavenly creation is neither good nor is it evil (無善無惡).

This Heavenly creation is the transcendent "One" principle of creation in Confucianism. When embodied within human beings as creatures among "Many", this "One" principle has its specific manifestation. In line with the Confucian sensitivity to the human-cosmic continuum, human creation must also achieve similar transcendent values to those of the Heavenly creation; only then can it be called "good." But humans are finite; they can never fully realize the absolute goodness of the Heavenly creation. At best they must start from what is nearby, and then extend to what is afar.

As concerns one's own family, behavior must be judged concerning whether it attends to the specific character of each member of the family (integrity), whether it promotes the well-being of every individual (permeability), whether it harmonizes the needs of all of them (harmony), and whether it makes the whole family better and better in all respects of familial life (dynamic). It is especially critical that one's own behavior be more spontaneous and fluid so as to create less chafing and striving within the family (non-action). If we are able to learn and continue to nurture our moral sensitivity and capacity in our own families according to these transcendent Confucian values, we can then extend them to our communities, to our nation states, even internationally, and then to the earth itself and finally throughout the entirety of the cosmos. But remember, human beings are not Heaven, they are finite; they can never reach the effortless, absolute goodness of the Heavenly creation. So human beings must always continue to struggle! This means that, first, we must accept the radical finitude of human life, and then never fail to correct, to cultivate and to educate ourselves, both by ourselves and with the support of one another. Fortunately, so long as we orient our behavior to these Confucian teachings, we will immediately be rewarded, both physically and spiritually, by our good intentions and our good behavior. This is so because goodness given to our family members and communal fellows is simultaneously delivered to ourselves, just like the physical therapy delivered by my left hand to my right one immediately benefits itself. After all, we are all brothers and sisters under Heaven, and as such we share one body together with Heaven!

Bin Song is also the founder of Boston University Confucian Association (www.bostonconfucianism.org) and is active in the Facebook group "Friends from afar: a Confucianism Group": https://www.facebook.com/groups/confucian.friends/