Solomon and Confucius, part 2

Continuing from last week, this is part two of a planned 3-part series comparing the books of Proverbs and the Analects.

The topic of the previous post was on the meaning of being a wise/superior man. This post will cover various advice offered by Solomon and Confucius, and the next one will finish off the series by looking at what they said about governing a just society.

Various Advice

Solomon and Confucius agree that hard work and foresight are part of the path to success:

Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones.
Learn from their ways and become wise!
Though they have no prince
or governor or ruler to make them work,
they labor hard all summer,
gathering food for the winter. (Proverbs 6:6-8)


The Master said, "If a man take no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand." (15:11)

I like this Proverb because it illustrates that the ingredients for success and prosperity (e.g. owning oxen) often bring hard, unglamourous work with them (e.g. mucking out a barn):

Without oxen a stable stays clean,
but you need a strong ox for a large harvest. (Proverbs 14:4)

And Confucius says that even playing games is better than being an idle glutton:

The Master said, "Hard is it to deal with him, who will stuff himself with food the whole day, without applying his mind to anything good! Are there not gamesters and chess players? To be one of these would still be better than doing nothing at all." (17:22)

However, even though they promote hard work as leading to prosperity, Solomon and Confucius don't think people should make wealth their main purpose in life:

The Master said, "The object of the superior man is truth. Food is not his object. There is plowing;—even in that there is sometimes want. So with learning;—emolument may be found in it. The superior man is anxious lest he should not get truth; he is not anxious lest poverty should come upon him." (15:31, emphasis added)


O God, I beg two favors from you;
let me have them before I die.
First, help me never to tell a lie.
Second, give me neither poverty nor riches!
Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name. (Proverbs 30:7-9)

Virtue is more important than wealth, and wealth shouldn't be obtained in unethical ways:

The Master said, "Those who are without virtue cannot abide long either in a condition of poverty and hardship, or in a condition of enjoyment. The virtuous rest in virtue; the wise desire virtue." ...

The Master said, "Riches and honours are what men desire. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If it cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided.
"If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfil the requirements of that name?
"The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger, he cleaves to it." (4:2,5)


Pride goes before destruction,
and haughtiness before a fall.
Better to live humbly with the poor
than to share plunder with the proud. (Proverbs 16:18-19, emphasis added)

(In contrast to this Proverb, Confucius thought humility was easier for the rich than I think is generally the case: "To be poor without murmuring is difficult. To be rich without being proud is easy." (14:11)).

Hoarding and charging high interest rates are examples that Solomon gives of the wrong way to get rich:

People curse those who hoard their grain,
but they bless the one who sells in time of need. (Proverbs 11:26)


Income from charging high interest rates
will end up in the pocket of someone who is kind to the poor. (Proverbs 28:8)

Dishonesty in business dealings is another wrong way to get rich:

The Lord demands accurate scales and balances;
he sets the standards for fairness. (Proverbs 16:11)

(Along with fraudulent scales, moving boundary stones/survey markers is condemned in Proverbs).

Conversely, honesty—and generally watching your words—is commended by Solomon and Confucius:

The mouth of the godly person gives wise advice,
but the tongue that deceives will be cut off.
The lips of the godly speak helpful words,
but the mouth of the wicked speaks perverse words. (Proverbs 10:31-32)


A gentle answer deflects anger,
but harsh words make tempers flare.
The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing,
but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness. (Proverbs 15:1-2)


The Master said, "The reason why the ancients did not readily give utterance to their words, was that they feared lest their actions should not come up to them."
The Master said, "The cautious seldom err."
The Master said, "The superior man wishes to be slow in his speech and earnest in his conduct." (4:22-24)


Confucius said, "There are three errors to which they who stand in the presence of a man of virtue and station are liable. They may speak when it does not come to them to speak;—this is called rashness. They may not speak when it comes to them to speak;—this is called concealment. They may speak without looking at the countenance of their superior;—this is called blindness." (16:6)

Another aspect of personal character besides honest and edifying speech is sexual fidelity. Proverbs includes strong warnings against adultery. As the son of David, Solomon may have grown up hearing about the consequences and heart-ache that could result from cheating.

Drink water from your own well—
share your love only with your wife.
Why spill the water of your springs in the streets,
having sex with just anyone?
You should reserve it for yourselves.
Never share it with strangers.
Let your wife be a fountain of blessing for you.
Rejoice in the wife of your youth.
She is a loving deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts satisfy you always.
May you always be captivated by her love.
Why be captivated, my son, by an immoral woman,
or fondle the breasts of a promiscuous woman? (Proverbs 5:15-20)

I appreciate the Proverb above because it is not just a negative warning against adultery, but also a positive celebration of a loving relationship with one's wife. Proverbs has a lot to say about the blessings of a "virtuous and capable wife"—most famously in chapter 31—and a harmonious family life.

A foolish child is a calamity to a father;
a quarrelsome wife is as annoying as constant dripping.
Fathers can give their sons an inheritance of houses and wealth,
but only the Lord can give an understanding wife. (Proverbs 19:13-14)


Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and don’t despise your mother when she is old.
Get the truth and never sell it;
also get wisdom, discipline, and good judgment.
The father of godly children has cause for joy.
What a pleasure to have children who are wise.
So give your father and mother joy!
May she who gave you birth be happy. (Proverbs 23:22-25)

Also on the subject of family, Proverbs is perhaps best known—although usually incorrectly quoted—for its admonition not to "spare the rod". Confucius doesn't have much to say about corporal punishment, but from what I've heard from Korean and Chinese friends about their upbringing at home and school, I can't imagine he'd be opposed. He was, however, very clear that children should obey and honour their parents diligently; the concept of "filial piety" is a big deal in Confucian philosophy:

Mang I asked what filial piety was. The Master said, "It is not being disobedient."
Soon after, as Fan Ch'ih was driving him, the Master told him, saying, "Mang-sun asked me what filial piety was, and I answered him,—'not being disobedient.'"
Fan Ch'ih said, "What did you mean?" The Master replied, "That parents, when alive, be served according to propriety; that, when dead, they should be buried according to propriety; and that they should be sacrificed to according to propriety." (2:5)

In addition to family, Solomon and Confucius also discuss the importance of friendship, and wisely choosing one’s companions:

Confucius said, "There are three friendships which are advantageous, and three which are injurious. Friendship with the upright; friendship with the sincere; and friendship with the man of much observation:—these are advantageous. Friendship with the man of specious airs; friendship with the insinuatingly soft; and friendship with the glib-tongued:—these are injurious." (16:4)

Proverbs says, "My child, if sinners entice you, turn your back on them! ..." and Confucius also advises against hanging out with people who aren't interested in righteousness:

The Master said, "When a number of people are together, for a whole day, without their conversation turning on righteousness, and when they are fond of carrying out the suggestions of a small shrewdness;—theirs is indeed a hard case." (15:16)

Rather than the company of fools, it is wise to find good mentors:

Tsze-kung asked about the practice of virtue. The Master said, "The mechanic, who wishes to do his work well, must first sharpen his tools. When you are living in any state, take service with the most worthy among its great officers, and make friends of the most virtuous among its scholars." (15:9)

Good mentors and true friends will convey wisdom, even when it is not the comfortable or easy thing to do:

An open rebuke
is better than hidden love!
Wounds from a sincere friend
are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Proverbs 27:5-6)


The Master said, "Can there be love which does not lead to strictness with its object? Can there be loyalty which does not lead to the instruction of its object?" (14:8)

A final bit of life advice from Solomon and Confucius that I'll discuss in this post is exercising moderation/self-control in eating and drinking:

Confucius said, "There are three things men find enjoyment in which are advantageous, and three things they find enjoyment in which are injurious. To find enjoyment in the discriminating study of ceremonies and music; to find enjoyment in speaking of the goodness of others; to find enjoyment in having many worthy friends:—these are advantageous. To find enjoyment in extravagant pleasures; to find enjoyment in idleness and sauntering; to find enjoyment in the pleasures of feasting:—these are injurious." (16:5, emphasis added)

Similarly, Solomon suggests eating honey, but not too much. And he warns about the dangers associated with drinking, but recognizes that wine has its place.

Sayings to Ponder

To finish off this post, I'll share some pithy sayings of Confucius followed by some excerpts from Proverbs and the Analects that are worth pondering:

The Master said, "Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous." (2:15)


The Master said, "He who requires much from himself and little from others, will keep himself from being the object of resentment." (15:14)


There are three things that make the earth tremble—
no, four it cannot endure:
a slave who becomes a king,
an overbearing fool who prospers,
a bitter woman who finally gets a husband,
a servant girl who supplants her mistress.
There are four things on earth that are small but unusually wise:
Ants—they aren’t strong,
but they store up food all summer.
Hyraxes—they aren’t powerful,
but they make their homes among the rocks.
Locusts—they have no king,
but they march in formation.
Lizards—they are easy to catch,
but they are found even in kings’ palaces.
There are three things that walk with stately stride—
no, four that strut about:
the lion, king of animals, who won’t turn aside for anything,
the strutting rooster,
the male goat,
a king as he leads his army. (Proverbs 30:21-31)


The Master said, "Yu, have you heard the six words to which are attached six becloudings?" Yu replied, "I have not."
"Sit down, and I will tell them to you.
"There is the love of being benevolent without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to a foolish simplicity. There is the love of knowing without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to dissipation of mind. There is the love of being sincere without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to an injurious disregard of consequences. There is the love of straightforwardness without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to rudeness. There is the love of boldness without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to insubordination. There is the love of firmness without the love of learning;—the beclouding here leads to extravagant conduct." (17:8)