I'm reading The Analects, by Confucius, and have a question.

According to Confucius, can non-virtue be learned?

There's no clear answer to this, so far, in the text.

  • I'm not really following the thread of your thinking here. Can you explain why you take these statements to compose a meaningful group from the Analects? Also, I'd strongly suggest getting the Slingerland translation which provides helpful commentary from the past on each section. Read in isolation (especially if you don't know Chinese), it's going to be hard to make sense of what you're reading.
    – virmaior
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:19
  • i'm not saying they are a "meaningful group" i'm saying that each nearly supports the claim that there can be un-virtuous skill. i think that's obviouosly the case with the second quote, and that if it isn't, then trying to explain further would be pointless. so i would apprecaite a note on if it is obvious @virmaior
    – user25714
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:50
  • if the question was "what does it mean by clever in the second quote?" then I could answer that, but I don't understand why you're putting the two quotes together or the thrust of your question as written.
    – virmaior
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:56
  • @virmaior the question is the question in the first paragraph (there are no other explicit questions!) -- especially what i say i'm "specifically" aksing. the rest of the question is just trying to demonstrate what i've found out so far, not an answer, but the best i can currently do :)
    – user25714
    Apr 11, 2017 at 12:59
  • @virmaior see this question for the issue you raised philosophy.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3404/…
    – user25714
    Apr 11, 2017 at 13:05

1 Answer 1


This is a major topic of debate.

"17.2 The Master said, “By nature people are similar; they diverge as the result of practice."

So clearly if that divergence leads some to be virtuous and other not to be, either:

  1. human nature is ultimately bad and can only be improved, or
  2. you can learn non-virtue.

Others have disagreed on which of those two things are meant. Xunzi noted that a lot of the Analects is about practice to make one good, so this may have meant 1.

But the majority opinion seems to go with Mencius, who maintained "human nature is good". So at least one famous immediate disciple thought this phrase 'obviously' meant 2.

Later commentators backed off from the question. After all, in practice, it can't really matter: we know that practice can improve the end result, and it is not really germane whether it works by merely cultivating native goodness or whether it inculcates goodness into something basically flawed. What works to produce the good, works.

  • 1
    I went back and vacillated after you upvoted me... Figured it made sense to point that out.
    – user9166
    Jun 16, 2017 at 19:00

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