Conception of Moderate Desire in Confucian Thought

on Goodness and its Realistic Significance[i]

Wang Yan

(Department of Chinese language and literature,

Guangxi Normal University, Guilin, China 541004)


Abstract: Goodness (Ren) is the core of Confucian thought, in which the conception of moderate desire is a crucial part. Moderate desire means harmony between ritual (Li) and desire, avoiding deficiency of indulgence and mortification. Confucian conception of moderate desire has a far–reaching realistic significance, which could effect a radical cure of the social maladies such as desire flooding and excessive dissipation.

Key words: Confucius; Goodness; moderate desire; ritual; The Analects


According to Yang Bojun’s statistic in The Variorum Analects, Goodness (Ren) was mentioned 109 times in The Analects. [ii] To a large extent, Goodness is not only the core of Confucian thought, but the ideal personality in his mind.

Asked about what was the Goodness by Yan Yuan, a disciple of Confucius, he replied, “To subdue one’s self and return to ritual is Goodness. All will ascribe Goodness to a man who can someday control himself and return to ritual (Li). Whether or not to possess Goodness depends on a man himself, not others.” [iii]The Analects·Yan YuanIn other words, Goodness means meeting the requirement of ritual with restrained desire .When requested specific steps of the process, Confucius answered, “To look at nothing in defiance of ritual, to listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, to speak of nothing in defiance of ritual, and to make no movement in defiance of ritual.” [iv]The Analects·Yan YuanFor Confucius ,the above-mentioned process shows that Goodness cannot exist without ritual ,which is the criterion of behavior as well as the only way to approach Goodness.

What we should pay attention to is that “to subdue one’s self ” used by Confucius was distinct from “to eliminate one’s desire” advocated by scholars devoted to the study of the classics with a so-called rational approach in the Sung Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty. While acknowledging the reasonable existence of self(desire), Confucius emphasized the importance of self-control .In fact, he admitted Goodness was based on desire ,on the other hand , he also realized desire was not Goodness and could not turn into Goodness of itself .To possess Goodness, desire should be restrained so that all deeds could be in conformity with ritual .A person able to attain this ideal was considered a “Gentleman”, in the Confucian mind, namely “a man who could cultivate himself”[v] (The Analects· Xian Wen)  Effectively, this means one who could restrict himself in the light of ritual. Confucius assumed the whole of society could live and work in peace and contentment on the condition that each person cultivated and subdued him/herself.

To summarize the Confucian view of desire, it is neither indulgence nor abstinence, but moderation, which is harmony between ritual and desire. While acknowledging the rationality of desire, Confucius further claimed desire should be restricted within the sensible limitation of ritual, so as to be coordinated between individual and society.

On the one hand, Confucius admitted rationality of satisfaction of desire, just as he said in The Ritual Usages, “Water, food, men and women are vital desires of human.”[vi] (The Ritual Usages·Ritual Movement)The meaning of desires for water and food can be extended as pursuit for matter, “ Riches and honors are what human desire…Poverty and meanness are what human dislike”[vii] (The Analects· Li Ren) , said Confucius, “To be poor without murmuring is difficult”[viii] (The Analects· Xian Wen). The meaning of desires for women and men can be extended as need for sex. Obviously, Confucius affirmed the necessity of reasonable gratification of two basic desires--matter and sex. Therefore he proposed that governors should in a way suffice the worldly desires of people in order to be well-off. Questioned by Zigong, one of his followers, how to govern the state, the Master responded, “sufficient food, sufficient weapons, and the confidence of the common.”[ix] (The Analects· Yan Yuan) Confucius also held enrichment first followed by teaching, saying “Enrich them” ,then “Teach them”[x] (The Analects· Zi Lu),which proves that Confucius was aware of the consequence of contentment at the basic worldly desires to cultivation for the mass, and believed that rational gratification at desires was the premise of seeking after Goodness.

Meanwhile, Confucius also emphasized, “Unless riches and honors can be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held”[xi] (The Analects· Li Ren), “Riches and honors acquired in a unmoral way are to me as a floating cloud” [xii] (The Analects·Shu Er) , and one should “pursue what he desires without being covetous”[xiii]  (The Analects·Yao Yue),which shows one must confine the expansion of his desire to ritual in order to possess Goodness .

The conception of moderate desire was embodied as thrift in appetite for matter and anti-carnality for sex.

Against luxury, stating that “In festive rituals, it is better to be sparing than extravagant” [xiv] (The Analects·Ba Yi), Confucius adored frugality all along, even if “With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and with bended arm as a pillow, I have still enjoyed in the midst of these things.”[xv] (The Analects·Shu Er) In the past, the caps were made of liner prescribed by the rules of ritual, and afterwards of economical black silk. Confucius approved this: “I follow the general practice.”[xvi] (The Analects·Zi Han) Confucius admired highly the thrifty character of his adherent Yan Hui and acclaimed, “Admirable indeed was the virtue of Hui! With a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd of drink, and living in his mean narrow lane, others could not have endured the distress; but to Hui, he did not make his joy affected by it. Admirable indeed was the virtue of Hui!”[xvii] (The Analects·Yong Ye)

In addition, Confucius despised covetousness for beauty and indulgence in carnality all the time. He bemoaned “I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty” [xviii] (The Analects·Zi Han, The Analects·Wei Ling Gong) as twice in The Analects, he shows he was deeply anxious about the universal conditions that morality and cultivation could not hold down the expansion of lust for sex .When Confucius took charge of the minister of justice in State Lu, State Qi sent 80 beauties and female entertainers for the sake of catering to pleasure of the governor prince Ding of Lu, who enjoyed wanton songs and seductive dance. As a result he abandoned himself throughout the day in sensual pleasures, wine and beauties for instance, paying no attention to affairs of the government. Confucius objected repeatedly but in vain and finally had to resign the post, leaving State Lu and starting to tour the various states with vagrancy.

Confucius advanced “There are three things which the Gentleman guards against”, and “when young, he should guard against lust (desire for sex); when strong, he should guard against strife (desire for attack), when old ,he should guard against covetousness (desire for matter).” [xix] (The Analects·Ji Shi) Based on the characteristics of desires at different ages, Confucius cautioned people not to pamper their own appetence.

In Confucian opinion, only those who have few desires are perfect. Asked how to be a COMPLETE (perfect) man by Zilu, a disciple of Confucius, he returned, “as Gongchuo (a high official in State Lu) with freedom from covetousness”[xx] (The Analects·Xian Wen).Confucius deemed that the evils of human resulted from the abandoned desire, because the more desire the less straightforward. The Master rebutted, “Cheng (a adherent of Confucius) is at the mercy of his desire, how can he be pronounced straightforward?”[xxi] (The Analects·GongYe Chang) He also emphasized, “The straightforward, the firm, the simple, and the modest together are near to Goodness.” [xxii] (The Analects·Zi Lu) The characteristics of Goodness are incarnation of unyielding to desire.

Confucian view of desire means harmony between ritual and desire, avoiding the deficiency of indulgence and mortification, which incarnates ZHONG YONG-- the “way” of Golden Mean he advocated, which Zhu Xi, a renowned philosopher in the Ming Dynasty, explained in The Variorum Analects, “ZHONG means impartial, neither exceed nor fall short; YONG means mediocrity.” [xxiii] Confucius thought of the Golden Mean as the indispensable character of Gentlemen, saying in The Doctrine of the Mean, “The Gentlemen embody the course of the Golden Mean, the common act contrary to it. The Gentlemen embody the course of the Golden Mean, because they are superior men, and always maintain the Mean. The common act contrary to it because they are inferior men, and have no caution.” [xxiv]Confucius applauded, “How transcendent the moral power of the Golden Mean is!”[xxv] (The Analects·Yong Ye) This means the Golden Mean is the highest and perfect merit. “To exceed is as bad as to fall short” [xxvi] (The Analects·Xian Jing), said Confucius, because they are not virtuous and both deviate from the appropriate way. He also believed, “Pleasure not carried to the point of debauchery, grief not carried to the point of self –injury”[xxvii] (The Analects·Ba Yi).Thus it can be seen that, as the excellent feature of Gentlemen, the Mean is not only an impartial methodology, but also a moderate philosophy. Confucius assumed that “He who keeps himself within the bounds of the rules of ritual seldom errs.” [xxviii](The Analects·Li Ren) This proves rational restriction can guarantee the realization of Goodness.

Confucius mentioned Gain and Righteousness many times. Gain means personal benefits, which can be regarded as the human pursuit for selfish desire, while Righteousness means the morality of society, which can be considered as the ritual constraint of selfish desire. Confucius held in pursuit of selfish desire, people should maintain the moral principle and be encouraged to be a man who “thinks of righteousness whenever lured by gain”[xxix](The Analects·Xian Wen), because righteousness serves as the yardstick of all social acts. Confucius viewed whether or not to act in light of righteousness as the standard of distinguishing the Gentlemen from the common. He contended “The mind of Gentlemen is conversant with righteousness, while the mind of the common is conversant with gain.”[xxx] (The Analects·Li Ren) which means the common only care their own selfish benefits, while the Gentlemen are concerned about morality besides benefits. Indulgence of selfish desire will bring about harmful consequences, just as Confucius said, “He who acts in terms of his selfish desire will be much murmured against.” [xxxi](The Analects·Li Ren) When desire conflicts with righteousness, we should “restrict gain with righteousness” [xxxii] (The Works of Hsün-tzu·Wang Ba).Under the extreme conditions, one even can devote his life to being an advocate for Righteousness. “The perfect men will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their virtue, even sacrifice their lives to preserve their complete virtue.”[xxxiii] (The Analects·Wei Ling Gong), said Confucius. Because of remonstrating against Zhou, the lord of Wei fled, the lord of Qi became a slave and Bi Gan was sentenced to death. The three men, for Goodness in the bottom of their heart, all gave up their selfish desires such as seeking benefits and avoiding hurt. Therefore, Confucius commended “The Yin dynasty possessed these three men of Goodness.” [xxxiv] (The Analects·Wei Zi)

Confucianism established by Confucius has been regarded as the backbone and strain of Chinese traditional culture. He is extolled as the spiritual chief and ideal sage of ancient China, whose notion of sensible desire has been ingrained into deep cultural psychology, determining the temperate way that China developed. Confucianism we conceived is diametrically different from the founder Confucian own thoughts, which have been inconsistent with the Confucian original thoughts through notable changes of many dynasties.

As far as the conception of desire is concerned, which of Confucianism generally experienced three periods: the original and indigenous conception of moderate desire during the era before the Chin Dynasty as well as the era of the Former and Later Han Dynasty; the one of asceticism influenced by Buddhism during the era of the Sui Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty, the Sung Dynasty and the Ming Dynasty; the one of liberation of desire impacted by enlightened thoughts in West during the era of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. The original thoughts of Confucius have been distorted seriously by means of reconstruction and castration of patriarchal clan system of feudalism for great discrepancies among the three periods. However many scholars confound them one with another, being apt to demote Confucius as the initiator of inhumane asceticism, blaming the tardy development of Chinese economy on the initiator of Confucianism--Confucius, and even alleging that China is bound to flourish at the cost of sacrifice of Confucianism. Nevertheless, the asceticism is exactly in contradiction with Confucian view of modest desire. The writer Zhang Wei held “Confucius is temperate and sober fundamentally, and the ‘Way’of the Golden Mean is a dialectic culture.”[xxxv] But it is a pity that in the process of practical operation of the theory, people sometimes abnegate the “Way” of the Golden Mean and fail to enter the interior of dialectic, which causes history collide with the two poles of asceticism and carnalism and wander from one extreme to another.

The world-famous Jewish novelist Saul Bellow stated in his novel More Died of Heart “The deficiencies of the undeveloped countries in the Orient lie in shortage of matter, while the maladies of the developed countries in the Occident consist in expansion of desires.”[xxxvi] Perhaps the conclusion is to the point and profound. The Orient is indeed not the same as a whole, where there are some richer countries, however, the large majority of poorer countries in which were influenced by asceticism from religions. The countries in the cultural circle of Buddhism and Islam are definitely such cases, and it is hard to say the comedown of China since the Ming Dynasty has nothing to do with it. The attitude of holding back need for matter has caused the slow progress of material civilization in these countries. The Western world transferred the mortification of Christianity into the adoration to lust and enjoyment through the Enlightenment Movement, opposing divinity by humanity, because they believe humanity is the incarnation of desire, and the goal of life is the fulfillment at desire. The attitude of indulging desire led to the rapid improvement of material civilization of the West, but on the other hand, resulted in the terrible flooding of worldly desires. Nowadays, the developed capitalist countries have entered into the age when desires dominate lives, and the production of subsequent desires is as fast as or even faster than the appeasement of previous desires. The excessive consumption of matter makes for destructive disasters to environment, and the unlimited chase for sex gives birth to falling apart of families. If the situation of indulgence continues, people will never step out of the abysm of desire, and the spiritual paradise of the whole of human will be destroyed by ourselves.

As a matter of fact, the desire itself is not faulty, hence reasonable contentment of some basic desires is necessary and essential, and “elimination of desire” is extremely merciless. Nevertheless, the deep desire is boundless and endless, as after one is fulfilled, another produced naturally, and after the fulfillment, appeared the newer…The desire is quite difficult to be gratified ultimately. The German philosopher Schopenhauer ever compared the desire to a forever-hungry and never-full stomach, or a forever-open mouth. The pursuit for limitless desire will not only cause the periodical disappointment after the relative affluence of matter, but also induce the breakdown of natural and cultural environment. Accordingly, human will bury them in the sea of desire after all unless we can contain ourselves. Although desire is the drive of social development, uninhibited hankering is merely a moment’s relief or pleasure but can bring never-ending sufferings, just like drinking poison with the aim of quenching one’s thirst. The history has witnessed neither of indulgence and mortification conducive to fit the evolution of social ecosystem, just as Oscar Wilde put forward, “Extravagance is the same with oppression, which will both incur punishment. ” As to environment, mortification causes barrenness, while indulgence induces ruination, and nothing but moderation can create paradise. As to economy, mortification causes poverty, while indulgence induces luxury, and nothing but moderation can create the continuous prosperity. As to spirit, mortification causes oppression, while indulgence induces covetousness, and nothing but moderation can create a healthy mind.

Thus it can be concluded that, the conception of moderate desire is definitely good medicine which could effect a radical cure of the social maladies such as desire flooding and excessive dissipation. In this point, Confucian conception of moderate desire has a very far–reaching realistic significance. Therefore, we should enhance and glorify the value and wisdom of Confucius once again, holding back the flood of unrestrained desire, putting production and realization of desire into the rational range, and adjusting the rising rhythm of the desire chain, so as to achieve the healthy and sustainable development of human being.


This English version is based on the original in Chinese with some modification and supplement of notes, which was published in The Eternal Way, Volume 22003edited by Ju Xi.



[1]Yang Bojun, The Variorum Analects[M]Beijing, China: China publishing bureau, 1980.

[2]Confucius, The Analects [M], Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002.

[3]Chen Hao, The Variorum Ritual Usages [M], Shanghai, China: Shanghai classics publishing house, 1987.

[4]Zhu Xi, The Variorum Four Books [M]Shanghai, China: Shanghai classics publishing house, 1996.

[5]The four books·The Doctrine of the Mean [M] , Trans. Yang Bojun, Changsha, China: Hunan publishing house,1996.

[6]Wang Xianqian, The Variorum Works of Hsün-tzu [M], Beijing, China: China publishing bureau, 1988.

[7] Zhang Wei, “Deficiency of Imagination and Vanishing of Individuality” [J]: Worries about the Literary Tides in the End of Century, Frontiers, 2(2000).

[8] Saul Bello, More Died of Heart [M]Trans. Li Yaozong, Beijing, China: China literati coalition press, 1992.

[i] In this paper, Confucius refers to the thinker Kongzi, and Confucian Kongzi’.

[ii] Yang Bojun, The Variorum AnalectsBeijing, China: China publishing bureau, 1980. p.16

[iii] Confucius, The Analects, Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002, p.106

[iv] Ibid. p.106

[v] Confucius, The Analects , Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002, p.142.

[vi] Chen Hao, The Variorum Ritual Usages , Shanghai, China: Shanghai classics publishing house, 1987,p.24.

[vii] Confucius, The Analects , Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002,p.28.

[viii] Ibid., p.131.

[ix] Ibid., p.109.

[x] Ibid., p.119.

[xi] Confucius, The Analects , Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002, p.28.

[xii] Ibid., p.62.

[xiii] Ibid.,p.191.

[xiv] Ibid., p.18.

[xv] Ibid., p.62.

[xvi] Ibid., p.77.

[xvii] Ibid., p.51.

[xviii] Ibid., p83,p148.

[xix] Confucius, The Analects , Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002, p.160.

[xx] Ibid., p.131.

[xxi] Ibid., p.39.

[xxii] Ibid., p.126.

[xxiii] Zhu Xi, The Variorum Four BooksShanghai, China: Shanghai classics publishing house, 1996.p.39.

[xxiv] The four books·The Doctrine of the Mean , Trans. Yang Bojun, Changsha, China: Hunan publishing house,1996,p.26.

[xxv] Confucius, The Analects , Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002,p.126.

[xxvi] Ibid., p.99.

[xxvii] Ibid., p.191.

[xxviii] Ibid., p.34.

[xxix] Ibid., p.131.

[xxx] Ibid., p.32.

[xxxi] Ibid., p.31.

[xxxii] Wang Xianqian, The Variorum Works of Hsün-tzu , Beijing, China: China publishing bureau, 1988,p.64.

[xxxiii] Confucius, The Analects , Changsha, China: Yuelu press, 2002,p.147.

[xxxiv] Ibid.,p.174.

[xxxv] Zhang Wei, “Deficiency of Imagination and Vanishing of Individuality” : Worries about the Literary Tides in the End of Century, Frontiers, 2(2000).

[xxxvi] Saul Bello, More Died of HeartTrans. Li Yaozong, Beijing, China: China literati coalition press, 1992,p.11.