Dec 13, 2023

Ben Sira, Confucius, and the Future

Self-Control is Better than Controlling a City
Carlos Cardoso Aveline
Chinese philosopher Confucius, and a recent edition of Ben
Sira’s book. [Sources of images: Wikipedia and Yale University Press]

For some time an impression was created that humanity would be happier by getting rid of nations. It became a consensus for many that organized states and national borders were unnecessary. Multinational companies could successfully take care of our happiness, and they should do so. While governments are often corrupt and we have to waste precious time controlling them, big capital should be freed of any limits, since it is always altruistic and selfless.

Of course, we would have to promote a few painful regime changes here and there, in order to remove corrupt nationalistic autocrats and dictators. The splendid weapons developed by Western democracies would easily eliminate the enemies of free society. Meanwhile, a popularization of drug-addiction and other liberalities could add an extra sense of personal happiness to younger and older generations alike. Eternal bliss would be granted by the post-modern theology of consumerism and its seemingly unlimited technological possibilities.

The practical achievements of such a sophisticated utopia can now be seen, and we may describe them as sevenfold: 

1) The worship of indulgence has been causing a sort of moral collapse in society. That includes a largely silenced epidemics of mental depression and emotional disorders. 

2) As a result of collective anxiety, political life is largely based on personal accusations and campaigns against adversaries, as organized hatred replaces balanced debate. 

3) Instead of promoting mutual understanding, vast media organizations seem to work with one-sided views of reality that tend to stimulate the growing feelings of anxiety, fear and hatred.

4) There is a growing crisis in democracies. The fragility of state institutions expands. The results of elections are often unaccepted. Ugly conflicts take place between judiciary systems and elected authorities.

5) Chaotic migratory currents and inter-ethnic conflicts threaten to destroy Western nations from within. The subconscious feeling of uncertainty about the future adds extra weight to a dangerous state of alternation between aggressive euphoria and emotional frustration.

6) Brutal asymmetric wars are promoted in the name of democracy and freedom, while more nuclear weapons get produced.

7) Terrorism and antisemitism are growingly accepted as part of normal life in different continents.

Hannah Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” helps explain these seven groups of flowing events. As a community accepts its process of decay, self-destruction spreads from within. And how can we react to such a complex flow of facts?

If trees can be known by their fruits, it does not seem to be a great idea to leave aside prudence and embrace unlimited internationalism. The cancellation of culture provokes an implosion of our historical perspectives, and brings about a feeling of contempt for our own nations. How could we then be surprised, if our sense of community is ridiculed, defeated, and destroyed?

Historical causation cannot be erased. There is a close relationship between that which has occurred and that which will take place. If people give up their past, people lose both their identity and their future. As soon as a community loses sight of the future it wishes to have, its behaviour is dominated by the blind search of short-term pleasure, and the mechanisms of self-destruction start to devour common life.   

There is an antidote to social self-cancellation, but it looks like unattractive to many post-modern citizens. It consists in recovering a feeling of respect for our own past. It requires cherishing the accumulated experience and the wisdom of nations, while learning from their past mistakes. 

Could we find anything useful, for instance, in the ancient moral teachings of Ben Sira, the Jew?

Would Lao-Tzu, the immortal Chinese sage, have anything new to tell us?

Or Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda, the Jewish thinker who wrote “The Duties of the Heart” in Spain around the year 1040? 

Ancient philosophies tell us that rejecting moral teachings is but a pleasant form of short-term self-delusion. 

While many naïve persons believe they are the cleverest beings on Earth, real intelligence is prudent and modest, and avoids any excessive amount of self-indulgence.  

The thought that present generations have much more knowledge than the sages of the past grants us a comfortable place in the territory of our own imagination. We can stay there until some disaster of vast proportions awakens us. We then realize that History is cyclic and not unilinear. Our evolution has to “start again” from time to time, on the basis of past lessons.  

The Need to Be Born Again 

The apparently unlimited power of present-day opinions cannot resist the quiet strength of these humbling words from Ecclesiastes:

“One generation goes, another comes,
But the earth remains the same forever.
The sun rises, and the sun sets -
And glides back to where it rises.” [1]

There is nothing really new under the stars, says ancient wisdom. No technological device can replace such a fact. The most infallible monetary philosophy of our time is as old - and as powerless - as any other form of self-delusion previously created by ourselves in other gilgulim, or cycles. 

For -

“All streams flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is never full;
To the place [from] which they flow,
The streams flow back again.”


“Only that shall happen,
Which has happened,
Only that occur
Which has occurred;
There is nothing new
Beneath the sun!” [2]

The fact of life’s constant renewal and cyclic rebirth remains eternally updated. 

Evolution is regulated by an invisible Law of Justice and Equilibrium which transcends all possible descriptions. It cannot be photographed or defined in words.

True, our human minds use to personify the Law. We give it, for instance, the form of a divine Lord, a fatherly being whose behaviour is sometimes compassionate, sometimes angry. If we look at the different religions, Eastern and Western, we see that such supreme Divinities are many around the world, and there is no shortage of gods in our planet.  However, poetical personifications of Universal Law, as if it were a human being, are perfectly acceptable and correct. They constitute symbols, legends and hints pointing out to us a transcendent reality situated beyond the narrow world perceived by the five senses.   

On the other hand, subconscious inclinations are often independent from and oblivious to our “visible” or conscious thought and voluntary perceptions.

Good-willing people who consider themselves rational may be subconsciously inclined to find an excuse to justify they own love of self-indulgence. As they transcend the anthropomorphic images of cosmic divine intelligences, they take one step further: they jump into denying not only the literal reality of a personal Lord of the Universe, but also the essential, impersonal Law of Justice itself.

Fools never doubt they are supremely smart. In an imagined lawless Cosmos, the illusion of egotism reigns supreme, until the catastrophes come.

Whatever we sow, we harvest, and Obadiah, 15, says: “As you did, so shall it be done to you; your conduct shall be requited”. There is a moral law in the Universe, and it constitutes one of the main aspects of the regulatory system that leads all life. It makes sense to call the Law a Lord, as long as we remember the anthropomorphic image is a metaphor. There is a reason not to use personal names in vain, regarding the divine world.

Avoiding Blind Immoderation

By developing discernment, we overcome the dilemma between two extremes: the narrow belief in dead-letter, and the fool’s paradise of that automatic skepticism which rejects all moral teachings.    

Old “tedious” truths have to be reexamined from a deeper point of view, before we accept they have several layers of substance and meaning. But the task is seldom easy, for sincerity to oneself seems to be nasty and challenging. Let us see an example.

Everyone would like to obtain short term peace by appeasing his outward (or inner) enemies - gluttony for instance.

Appeasement would be a means to believe in self-indulgence and to deny the seriousness of the obstacles we must face. The unpleasant old wisdom taught by Ben Sira, the Jew, destroys such charming illusions. The wicked person – to which Ben Sira refers - may stand as a symbol for the impure inclinations in one’s own soul:

“No good comes to him who gives comfort to the wicked,
Nor is it an act of mercy that he does.
Give to the good person, refuse the sinner;
Refresh the downtrodden, give nothing to the proud:
No arms of combat should you give him,
Lest he use them against yourself;
With twofold evil you will meet
For every good deed you do for him.” [3]

You should help those who deserve, not those who do not deserve, says ancient Roman philosopher Cicero in his “De Officiis”, Book I, item XIV, or p. 47 in the Loeb Classical Library edition.

The same idea appears with other words in the Chinese Analects of Confucius. Centuries before Christian age, someone asked Confucius:

“What do you think about the principle of rewarding enmity with kindness?”

And the sage answered by asking a question:

“With what, then, would you reward kindness? Reward enmity with just treatment, and kindness with kindness.” [4]

One more reason not to appease injustice - be it in social life or our individual souls - is indicated in the Analects. Duke Ai (494-467 B.C.E.) inquired:

“What should I do to ensure the contentment of the people?”

To this, Confucius answered:

“If you promote the upright and dismiss the ill-doer, the people will be contented; but if you promote the ill-doer and dismiss the upright, the people will be discontented.” [5]

We must promote right actions, then, in our mental world and the social reality around us. It is never a good idea to appease evil or injustice. Ben Sira adds: “Do not abase yourself before a fool”. [6]

The Duties of the Heart in Chinese Schools

For many people, another tedious act consists in investigating the source of life’s renewal, or the origin of human happiness. Boredom in this case is due to the fact that understanding life requires reasoning. 

The topic is examined in fascinating ways by Rabbi ibn Paquda in his neoplatonic treatise “Duties of the Heart”. The philosophy of Confucius works along similar lines. Centuries ago, the followers of the Chinese philosopher taught these surprising facts to children in schools:

“The ancient people who desired to have a clear moral harmony in the world would first order their national life. Those who desired to order their national life would first regulate their home life; those who desired to regulate their home life would first cultivate their personal lives. Those who desired to cultivate their personal lives would first set their hearts right. Those who desired to set their hearts right, would first make their wills sincere. Those who desired to make their wills sincere would first arrive at understanding. Understanding comes from the exploration of knowledge of things.”

From this we have a healing chain of causation that leads to peace. It sounds like a mantra, or a poem, or a prayer:

“When the knowledge of things is gained, then understanding is reached. When understanding is reached, then the will is sincere. When the will is sincere, then the heart is set right; when the heart is set right, then the personal life is cultivated. When the personal life is cultivated, then the home life is regulated; when the home life is regulated, then the national life is orderly, and when the national life is orderly, then the world is at peace.” [7]

There are shorter ways to say the same. We all remember that, according to classical Judaism, self-control is better than controlling a city - Proverbs, 16:32 -; and “grace is better than silver and gold” (Proverbs, 22:01).


[1] Ecclesiastes, 1: 4-5, in “Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures, the Jewish Bible”, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia-Jerusalem, copyright 1985, 1624 pp., see p. 1441.

[2] Ecclesiastes, 1: 7-9, in “Tanakh, the Holy Scriptures, the Jewish Bible”, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia-Jerusalem, copyright 1985, 1624 pp., see pp. 1441-1442.

[3] “The Wisdom of Ben Sira”, a new translation with notes by Patrick W. Skehan, the Anchor Yale Bible, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, copyright 1987, printed in the USA, 620 pp., see Chapter 19, “Care in Choosing Friends”, p. 242.

[4] “The Analects”, Confucius, Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1995, 128 pp., see p. 88, Book XIV, chapter XXXVI.

[5] “The Analects”, Confucius, Dover Thrift Editions, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1995, 128 pp., see Book II, chapter XIX, p. 8.

[6] “The Wisdom of Ben Sira”, a new translation with notes by Patrick W. Skehan, chapter 8, page 174.

[7] “The Importance of Living”, by Lin Yutang, The John Day Company, New York, copyright, 1937, printed in the USA in 1939, 459 pages, see page 94.


The above article was first published on the theosophical blog at “The Times of Israel”. It is available on the websites of the Independent Lodge of Theosophists since 13 December 2023.


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