The Wisdom of the Ancients

Søren Kierkegaard
Either/Or I
Beyond Good and Evil



Ch'en Tai said, "When you refused even to see them, the feudal lords appeared insignificant to you. Now that you have seen them, they are either kings, or, at least, leaders of the feudal lords. Moreover, it is said in the Records, 'Bend the foot in order to straighten the yard.' That seems worth doing."

"Once," said Mencius, "Duke Ching of Ch'i went hunting and summoned his gamekeeper with a pennon. The gamekeeper did not come, and the Duke was going to have him put to death. 'A man whose mind is set on high ideals never forgets that he may end in a ditch; a man of valor never forgets that he may forfeit his head.' What did Conficius find praiseworthy in the gamekeeper? His refusal to answer to a form of summons to which he was not entitled. What can one do about those who go without even being summoned? Moreover, the saying, 'Bend the foot in order to straighten the yard' refers to profit. If it is for profit, I suppose one might just as well bend the yard to straighten the foot.

"Once, Viscount Chien of Chao sent Wang Liang to drive the chariot for his favorite, Hsi. In the whole day they failed to catch one single bird. Hsi reported to his master, 'He is the worst charioteer in the world.' Someone told Wang Liang of this. Liang asked, 'May I have another chance?' It was with difficulty that Hsi was persuaded, but in one morning they caught ten birds. Hsi reported to his master, 'He is the best charioteer in the world.' 'I shall make him drive for you,' said Viscount Chien. He asked Wang Liang, but Wang Liang refused. 'I drove for him according to the proper rules,' said he, 'and we did not catch a single bird all day. Then I used underhand methods, and we caught ten birds in one morning. The Book of Odes says,

He never failed to drive correctly,
And his arrows went straight for the target

I am not used to driving for small men. May I be excused?'

"Even a charioteer is ashamed to be in league with an archer. When doing so means catching enough birds to pile up like a mountain, he would still rather not do it. What can one do about those who bend the Way in order to please others? You are futher mistaken. There has never been a man who could straighten others by bending himself."


Mencius said, "Fish is what I want; bear's palm is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take bear's palm than fish. Life is what I want; dutifulness is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take dutifulness than life. On the one hand, though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all costs. On the other hand, though death is what I loathe, there is something I loathe more than death. That is why there are troubles I do not avoid. If there is nothing a man wants more than life, then why should he have scruples about any means, so long as it will serve to keep him alive? if there is nothing a man loathes more than death, then why should have have scruples about any means, so long as it helps him to avoid trouble? Yet there are ways of remaining alive and ways of avoiding death to which a man will not resort. In other words, there are things a man wants more than life and there are also things he loathes more than death. This is an attitude not confined to the moral man but common to all men. The moral man simply never loses it.

"Here is a basketful of rice and a bowful of soup. Getting them will mean life; not getting them will mean death. When these are given with abuse, even a wayfarer would not accept them; when these are given after being trampled upon, even a beggar would not accept them. Yet when it comes to ten thousand bushels of grain one is supposed to accept without asking if it is in accordance with the rites or if it is right to do so. What benefit are then thousand bushels of grain to me? [Do I accept them] for the sake of beautiful houses, the enjoyment of wives and concubines, or for the sake of the gratitude my needy acquaintances will show? What I would not accept in the first instance when it was a matter of life and death I now accept for the sake of beautiful houses; what I would not accept when it was a matter of life and death I now accept for the enjoyment of wives and concubines; what I would not accept when it was a matter of life and death I now accept for the sake of the gratitude my needy acquaintances will show me. Is there no way of putting a stop to this? This way of thinking is known as losing one's original heart."



  1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
  2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
  3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
  4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth
abideth for ever.
  5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place
where he arose.
  6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it
whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his
  7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place
from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
  8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not
satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
  9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done
is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
  10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been
already of old time, which was before us.
  11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any
remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
  12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
  13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things
that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man
to be exercised therewith.
  14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is
vanity and vexation of spirit.
  15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting
cannot be numbered.
  16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and
have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem:
yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
  17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I
perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.
  18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge
increaseth sorrow.

Søren Kierkegaard

Either/Or I

A feature in which our age certainly excels that age in Greece is that our age is more depressed and therefore deeper in despair. Thus, our age is sufficiently depressed to know that there is something called responsibility and that this means something. Therefore, although everyone wants to rule, no one wants to have responsibility. It is still fresh in our memory that a French statesman, when offered a portfolio the second time, declared that he would accept it but on the condition that the secretary of state be made responsible. It is well known that the king in France is not responsible, but the prime minister is; the prime minister does not wish to be responsible but wants to be prime minister provided that the secretary of state will be responsible; ultimately it ends, of course, with the watchmen or street commissioners becoming responsible. Would not this inverted story of responsibility be an appropriate subject for Aristophanes! On the other hand, why are the government and the governors so afraid of assuming responsibility, unless it is because they fear an opposition party that in turn continually pushes away responsibility on a similar scale. When one imagines these two powers face to face with each other but unable to catch hold of each other because the one is always disappearing and is replaced by the other—such a situation would certainly not be without comic power.


Beyond Good and Evil

30. Our highest insights must—and should—sound like follies and sometimes like crimes when they are heard without permission by those who are not predisposed and predestined for them. The difference between the exoteric and the esoteric, formerly known to philosophers—among the Indians as among the Greek, Persians, and Muslims, in short, wherever one believed in an order of rank and not in equality and equal rights—does not so much consists in this, that the exoteric approach comes from the outside and sees, estimates, measures, and judges from the outside, not the inside; what is much more essential is that the exoteric approach sees things from below, the esoteric looks down from above. There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic; and rolling together all the woe of the world—who could dare to decide whether its sight would necessarily seduce us and compel us to feel pity and thus double this woe?

What serves the higher type of men as nourishment or delectation must almost be poison for a very different and inferior type. The virtues of the common man might perhaps signify vices and weaknesses in a philosopher. It could be possible that a man of a high type, when degenerating and perishing, might only at that point acquire qualities that would require those in the lower sphere into which he had sunk to begin to venerate him like a saint. There are books that have opposite values for soul and health, depending on whether the lower soul, the lower vitality, or the higher and more vigorous ones turn to them: in the former case, these books are dangerous and lead to crumbling and disintegration; in the latter, heralds' cries that call the bravest to their courage. Books for all the world are always foul-smelling books: the smell of small people clings to them. Where the people eat and drink, even where they venerate, it usually stinks. One should not go to church if one wants to breathe pure air.

Valid XHTML 1.0! [ Viewable With Any Browser
	] [ Powered by Debian ] [ Hosted by HCoop] [ FSF Associate Member ]

Last Modified: January 21, 2013