Two and a half millennia before Leonard Cohen wrote in his timeless and tender ode to democracy that “the heart has got to open fundamentally,” the ancient Chinese philosopher and statesman Confucius (551–479 BCE) recognized the indelible link between personal and political morality, realized that interpersonal kindness is the foundation of social justice, recognized that democracy — a form of government only just invented on the other side of the globe in ancient Greece, not to take root in his own culture for epochs — begins in the heart.
Centuries before the advent of Christianity and its central tenet of the golden rule, the Chinese sage pioneered the concept of compassion as a moral guiding principle — an ancient idea subtly yet profoundly different from empathy, which only entered the modern lexicon at the dawn of the twentieth century as a term for projecting oneself into a work of art. On his existential reading list of essential books for every stage of life, Tolstoy listed Confucius among the most mature reading. His teachings influenced millennia of poets, political leaders, and ordinary people seeking to live nobler, kinder, more empowered lives.
Among them was the poet Ezra Pound (October 30, 1885–November 1, 1972) — a man of immense talent and big blind spots, of sympathetic idealisms and troubling sympathies — who set out to translate and compile the most enduring teachings of the great Chinese sage. His 1927 more-than-translation earned Pound the $2,000 poetry prize of The Dial — the pioneering Transcendentalist magazine Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson had launched nearly a century earlier at the peak of their intense and complicated relationship shaped the history of modern thought. Pound used the funds to launch his own poetic-political magazine. His translation was published in book form as Confucius: The Unwobbling Pivot / The Great Digest / The Analects (public library).
In his prefatory note, Pound observed that China was tranquil and harmonious for as long as its rulers followed the teachings of Confucius. Still, dynasties collapsed into chaos and social catastrophe as soon as these principles were neglected. In a sentiment that applies as much to those ancient sociopolitical collapses as to the perils of the present, he writes:
The proponents of world order will neglect the study of the only process that has repeatedly proved its efficiency as a social coordinate.