Approximately fifteen hundred years after Confucius, his ideas reasserted themselves in the formulation of a sophisticated program of personal self-cultivation. Neo-Confucians argued that humans are endowed with empathy and goodness at birth, an assumption now confirmed by evolutionary biologists. By following the Great Learning—eight steps in the process of personal development—Neo-Confucians showed how this innate endowment could provide the foundation for living morally. Neo-Confucian students did not follow a single manual elaborating each step of the Great Learning; instead they were exposed to age-appropriate texts, commentaries, and anthologies of Neo-Confucian thinkers, which gradually made clear the sequential process of personal development and its connection to social order. Neo-Confucian Self-Cultivation opens up in accessible prose the content of the eight-step process for today’s reader as it examines the source of mainstream Neo-Confucian self-cultivation and its major crosscurrents from 1000 to 1900.
Barry C. Keenan is professor of history at Denison University and an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University.
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