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Chapter 16 of 說苑 contains the following:

聖人以心導耳目,小人以耳目導心。

The literal meaning is quite obvious. But I'm not sure what the author is trying to convey. In particular, what's wrong with letting your senses guide / inform your heart / thinking? I guess this is somehow trying to convey that your 心 is most important, but I guess I don't see what the contrast to 耳目 is.

Is he trying to say that anyone who does that is a 小人, i.e. that you shouldn't do it? This seems the most obvious translation, but I don't see how it makes sense. Alternatively, is he saying that if you're not a 聖人, you need to let your senses guide your thinking?

Maybe I'm missing something cultural, or some philosophical nuance.

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  • Don't know 说苑, but it feels like 非礼勿视,非礼勿听。
    – River
    Nov 20 at 15:03
  • @River does it? How so?
    – foaly
    Nov 20 at 15:13
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    I think it is saying what you watch and listen to are mixed, what you think should be pure. Bad practice is to watch whatever is there, and the heart might be led by just desire and lust. However, pure hearts should be careful about what to watch and only watch the ones that follow the 礼. And the result is that the heart keeps pure. Just my understanding without reading the text in context.
    – River
    Nov 20 at 17:13
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    I think what the author wants to emphasize is that "you should not do it", not that "anyone who does it is 小人." The philosophy here is similar to 「五色令人目盲;五音令人耳聾」。Basically, don't let what you see or hear guide your thinking.
    – joehua
    Nov 20 at 21:10
  • Thanks for your insightful comments. As a 理科生 I’m still getting used to the sometimes cryptic and not literal nature of Classical Chinese. :P so this really helps.
    – foaly
    Nov 21 at 1:00
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Simply put, this sentence is to promote the notion that "傳聞不可信, 眼見不一定是事實". The only terms objectable are "聖人" and "小人", I prefer to say:

智者用心(理性)分析耳目所聽所見才下斷論. 愚者以耳目所聽所見為實而妄下斷論. The former makes the judgement of a matter through the thoughtful process (導於心); the latter depends on what he/she was told, or seeing, and forms his/her judgement (導於耳目).

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  • Beautifully put, thank you.
    – foaly
    Nov 21 at 0:58

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