WORDS X

“Skillful barking does not make a dog good, and skillful talking does not make a man even a worthy, much less a great man.” (24; p 105)

Taken somewhat out of its context this observation provides an opportunity to make yet another disclaimer. Sometimes after writing a post I feel genuine pleasure in having skillfully barked. Or at least so it seems to me.

Perhaps there are moments when this makes me feel like a good dog, but for the most part I suffer little from that particular delusion. For whatever personal reason I may wish the reader to know that, it is in point of fact important that she or he do so. It is doubtful that any would take me as “a worthy, much less a great man”; rather, the true point is that no one is, or at least that we must be very cautious—“like crossing a river in winter”—when admiring the barking of any dog, no matter how skillful.

The context of this sentence quoted above is a speech given by “Confucius” at a feast given in his honor. At his most “Daoist”, he proceeds to extol the virtues of “wordless words”. An example of this, he declares, can be seen in the “action” of one of the attendees. As his army was arrayed before another on the verge of battle, he fell asleep with “a feathered fan” in his hand. Seeing such apparent confidence (actually insouciance), the opposing army stood down. This was indeed a “wordless word”—a “good word”.

Confucius goes on to extol the virtues of the truly “Great Man”: “Nothing is more complete than heaven and earth, but do they become so by seeking to be so? One who understands the great completeness seeks nothing, loses nothing, abandons nothing, never letting mere beings alter who he is. He returns only to his own self, yet he finds it inexhaustible. He follows the ancients, but never becomes their mere copy”.

This is a truly wonderful passage, one worthy of our serious and prolonged imaginative engagement. In furthering my point regarding caution, however, I will only step back and suggest that we would do well to remember that such a Great Man is only an ideal—and understanding that is what allows us to “return to our own self”.

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