The Great Learning

The Great Learning (大学) is one of the four Confucian books, and its significance in both ancient and modern Chinese culture would be difficult to overstate. Modern translations and interpretations are widely available but the American poet Ezra Pound put together an inspired version that, while arguably not completely authentic, is a brilliant blend of ancient Chinese philosophy with Ezra Pound’s penetrating intelligence.

As a comparison here is an excerpt from a traditional English translation:

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one’s bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

When you know where to stop, you have stability.

When you have stability, you can be tranquil.

When you are tranquil, you can be at ease.

When you are at ease, you can deliberate.

When you can deliberate you can attain your aims.

This touches on some of the central themes of The Great Learning, achieving a state of balance and refining one’s moral self as a reflection of the Tao (道), and ample rest and reflection to achieve piece of mind so that the Tao is revealed.  These are sound teachings from the Confucian perspective, but Ezra Pound offers an alternate translation based on his unique reading of Chinese characters. While widely not considered faithful to the original, it is in my opinion more compelling, at least to western sensibilities.

Ezra Pound photographed in Kensington, London, October 22, 1913

Ezra Pound photographed in Kensington, London, October 22, 1913

Excerpts from Ezra Pound’s translation:

The Great Learning takes root in clarifying the way wherein the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results.

Know the point of rest and then have an orderly mode of procedure

Given the extreme knowable points the inarticulate thoughts were defined with precision

From the emperor down to the common man singly and altogether this self-discipline is the root.

The Confucian text was in some way a guide to state officials and on how to govern their lives according to the way (taught by Confucius). The Confucian way is filled with consciousness for the well-being of society and the people within it, and as such is admirable. Most translations maintain a very formal and reserved tone, common to modern views on the writings of antiquity. It is impossible to say what tone The Great Learning would have had to ancient people, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that translators, in trying to be faithful to the words, miss the opportunity to focus on relaying the same meaning and intent to modern readers.

Reproduction of a calligraphy of Great Learning

Reproduction of a calligraphy of Great Learning

Pound’s translation however, reads like a call to action. A call to engage in self-examination and face the consequences without fear, and is perhaps more relevant to modern society. He saw Confucians in general as being a group of individuals highly charged with a sense of duty to society as a whole. Pound may have been seeing the Confucians as he wanted them to be, but he brings that thinking into his interpretation of the text.

Portrait of Confucius, 685-758

Portrait of Confucius, 685-758

He opts for an imperative style, over the more rhetorical one of other translation and assumes the viewpoint of someone imparting other people of action with the philosophy they need to properly govern. Having read the text in both English and Chinese I personally do not feel he is so far off, but in either case his version of The Great Learning has the spirit I want it to have. He knew that Confucianism is the wisdom in the mundane, and still manages to capture the sense great courage needed in order to actually live by these principles.

[The Great Learning is] the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results

How many of us actually have the courage to do this? To admit that they have reached this place in life by falling into it backwards. Took the job that was available, married the person who was there, said the things that were expected, chose the path that was easiest to walk along.

What courage it would take to look into one’s own heart, and face the possibility that this life, so far as it has been lived, is not the one we wanted, but still the one we deserved? And how much better off would we be if we actually did so?

Portrait of Ezra Pound

Portrait of Ezra Pound


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