Cultivating the Sprouts of Virtue

Last Saturday (Nov. 11) I gave a talk at Stoicon-X Los Angeles on “How Confucianism Can Help Us Practice Stoicism.” I got a lot out of the preperatory reading and reflection leading up to the event. I wanted to share the preliminary results of this project with everyone here (with a bit more detail than I was able to include in my 24-min. talk). If you want to watch my talk (along with the others at the event), go to

Four Questions of Virtue Ethics

Stoicism and Confucianism are both virtue ethics—they define the good in terms of good character (i.e., virtue).

There are four broad questions that any virtue ethics should answer. We can use these questions to help us compare Stoicism and Confucianism in more detail:

  1. Concerning the good life: “What is it to live well?”
  2. Concerning virtue: “What traits of character does one need to live well?”
  3. Concerning human nature: “What is human nature like (such that one can live well and have the virtues)?”
  4. Concerning self-cultivation: “How can one cultivate the virtues (given what human nature is like)?”

Stoicism on Q. 1 & 2 (on Virtue)

  • Living well is…
    • to exercise virtue (aretê / virtūs)
    • to be a ‘sage’ or ‘wise person’ (sophós / sapiēns)
  • The virtues include …
    • wisdom (phrónêsis / prūdentia)
    • temperance (sôphrosúnê / temperantia)
    • courage (andreía / fortitūdō)
    • justice (díkê / iūstitia)

Confucianism on Q. 1 & 2 (on Virtue)

  • Living well is …
    • to exercise virtue (德)
    • to be a ‘gentleman’ or ‘cultivated person’ (jūnzǐ 君子)]
  • The virtues include
    • wisdom (zhì 智)
    • benevolence (rén 仁)
    • righteousness ( 義)
    • propriety (禮)

Confucian wisdom is very similar to the Stoic virtue by the same name: being a good judge of character, skill at means-end reasoning, an understanding of the other virtues, and skill at applying the other virtues (wisdom is a so-called ‘meta-virtue’). The virtues of benevolence, righteousness, and propriety each seem to entail a degree or type of temperance (properly regulating one’s impulses), courage (staying resilient in adversity), and justice (having regard for others):

  • Benevolence demands understanding, sympathizing, and caring for others—regulating selfish impulses and speaking up for others in need (also, taking joy in others’ happiness)
  • Righteousness demands maintaining integrity and being fair in the face of danger and temptation—regulating selfish impulses and speaking out against the vicious actions of others (especially when they’re in positions of power)
  • Propriety demands being sensitive to one’s social roles and undertaking them with the proper motivations—regulating one’s impulses within the role-defined boundaries (and not burdening others unnecessarily)

Confucianism on Q. 3 (on Human Nature)

  • Humans have a natural capacity for…
    • approval and disapproval (sense of right and wrong) (shìfēi 是非)
    • compassion (concern for others) (cèyǐn 惻隱)
    • disdain (moral shame/disgust) (xiūwù 羞惡)
    • deference (círàng 辭讓) and respect (gōngjìng 恭敬)

Confucians say that the virtues are grounded in these innate emotional reactions, which were called moral “sprouts” (duān  端) by the 4th Century BC Confucian philosopher Mengzi:

  • The sense of approval and disapproval is the sprout of wisdom.
  • The sense of compassion is the sprout of benevolence
  • The sense of disdain is the sprout of righteousness
  • The sense of deference and respect is the sprout of propriety.

“If one is without [them], one is not human … People having these four sprouts is like their having four limbs. To have these four sprouts, yet to claim that one is incapable of virtue, is to steal from oneself. To say that one’s ruler is incapable is to steal from one’s ruler. In general, having these four sprouts within oneself, if one knows to fill them all out, it will be like a fire starting up, a spring breaking through!”

Mengzi 2A6.1-7; Cf. 6A6.5-7

Stoicism on Q. 3 (on Human Nature)

  • Humans have a natural capacity for…
    • rationality (lógos / ratiō)
    • sociability/ community (koinônía or politeía / commūnitās or societās)

Stoic Sprouts?

Epictetus and Cicero talks about certain starting points of virtue (see Disc. 2.11). These are the basic impulses (hormê and aphormai) that are directed by our thoughts and judgments. Like Mengzi, Cicero compares them to the “limbs” or “parts” of our body:

Now it often happens that when one is introduced to someone, one comes to value that person more highly than one does the person who made the introduction. Similarly it is the starting-points (initia) of nature which first introduce us to wisdom, but it is no surprise that we then come to cherish wisdom herself far more than we do those objects by which we came to her. The bodily parts (membra) that we are given are evidently given to us for some particular way of life. So too our mind’s impulses—termed hormê in Greek—seems given not for any kind of life but for a particular form of living. The same goes for reason and complete reason.

De Finibus 3.26; see also Stob. 2.7.5b3 and 5b8

Seneca likewise talks about something akin to “sprouts” of virtue – he even uses a plant metaphor. For Seneca, the incipient virtues are “seeds” of divine potential that are waiting to sprout:

Are you astounded that a human being can go to the gods? God comes to human beings. No, it is more intimate than that: God actually comes into human beings. For excellence of mind is never devoid of God. Seeds (sēmina) of divinity are scattered in human bodies: if a good gardener takes them in hand, the seedlings resemble their source and grow up equal to the parent plant. But poor cultivation, like sterile or boggy soil, kills the plants and produces only a crop of weeds.

Epistulae 73.16; see also 108.8

But I think the difference between the two metaphors is meaningful and might influence how we cultivate our potentiality: “seeds” are hidden and latent while “sprouts” are visible and active – the former we almost have to take on faith, while the latter can be found only if we look carefully.

Keeping this in mind, Seneca provides a better metaphor when he compares the starting-points of virtue to a “spark” that can be fanned and strengthened:

Our minds contain the seeds of everything honorable, and these are activated by admonitions, just as a spark (scintilla) fanned by a slight breeze blossoms into flame. Virtue is roused by a touch, a nudge…

Episulae 94.29

In Ch. 6 of his A New Stoicism, Lawrence Becker explores the “constitutive elements of agency.” He thinks these are important to explore since such elements are also constitutive of virtue and happiness.

These constitutive elements are present in every healthy human and tend to develop on their own in healthy environments. Stoics and Epicureans would look to infants prior to their social indoctrination to argue for what these natural starting points are. Becker drew on modern developmental psychology.

To make a long story short, one might be able to use his discussion of the healthy development of agency, to isolate the “sprouts” or “sparks” of Stoic virtue:. Here’s my list inspired by Lawrence Becker:

  • Basic second-order representation of experience is the sprout of wisdom.
  • Basic impulse control is the sprout of temperance
  • Basic maintenance of agent energy is the sprout of courage
  • Basic reciprocity responsiveness is the sprout of justice.

If only we nurture or fan the flame of our basic impulse control, we can cultivate temperance; if only we nurture our basic sense of reciprocity, we can cultivate justice; if only we nurture our agentive energy, we can cultivate courage; and if only we nurture our capacity for metacognition, we can cultivate wisdom. The sprouts are already within us waiting to grow and flourish.

But how do we do this?

Stoicism on Q. 4 (on Self-Cultivation)

I imagine a popular answer to the question “How can one cultivate the virtues?” would draw from Epictetus’ discussion of the three disciplines (tópoi):

  • One can cultivate the virtues by undertaking the three disciplines:
    • Discipline of desire (tópos oréxeōs) –desiring and being averse only to what is ‘up to us’
    • Discipline of action (tópos hormês)–acting appropriately according to one’s natural and acquired roles
    • Discipline of assent (tópos sunkatathéseōs) –being mindful of impressions and testing them before assenting or rejecting

I want to suggest a different framework for Stoic moral cultivation inspired by Confucianism and the idea of moral sprouts.

Confucianism on Q. 4 (on Self-Cultivation)

Here is the Confucian answer to the question concerning self-cultivation inspired by the writings of Mengzi:

  • One can cultivate the virtues by extending (“filling out”) one’s moral sprouts (duān):
    • Step 1: Reflect on them
    • Step 2: Don’t force them
    • Step 3: Delight in them

Extending the Confucian Sprouts

Mengzi suggests that we slowly extend our sprouts by expanding the variety and number of situations in which we express them. We should start with situations that come naturally to us, then move to cases that we recognize have morally relevant similarities. Mengzi speaks more to this process regarding the sprout of benevolence (compassion for others) and righteousness (disdain or moral disgust):

Mengzi said, “People all have things that they will not bear. To extend this reaction to that which they will bear is benevolence. People all have things that they will not do. To extend this reaction to that which they will do is righteousness. If people can fill out the mind that does not desire to harm others, their benevolence will be inexhaustible. If people can fill out the mind that will not trespass, their righteousness will be inexhaustible.”

Mengzi 7B31.1-4

So start with a situation that you absolutely “will not bear”–a situation in which someone is in pain that reliably triggers compassion, e.g., the suffering of a baby or puppy. Mengzi then asks you to extend that reaction to other situations that you can bear (at the moment)–e.g., the suffering of an acquaintance or stranger. This leads to benevolence.

Likewise, start with a situation that you absolutely “will not do”–a situation in which something is requested of you that trigger moral disdain, disgust, shame, e.g., accepting a money bribe to hurt a member of your family. Then you should extend that reaction to other things that you can do (at the moment)–e.g., doing a small favor for someone you know that unfairly hurts a stranger.

THE BASIC IDEA: Gradual cognitive growth (cognitively recognizing the moral similarities in analogue cases) will lead to gradual emotional growth (expressing appropriate affective reactions in those analogue cases).

In other words, recognizing situations A has morally relevant similarities to situation B leads to having similar [emotional/practical] reactions in both situations A and situations B.

This is certainly easier said that done! So, Mengzi offers advise through his collected writings. I have collected three pieces and am presenting them as “steps.” They shouldn’t be viewed as progressive, but steps that one should ultimately take simultaneously.

Step 1: Reflect on them

Extending one’s innate ethical reactions starts with “reflection” ()—an awareness or mindfulness of one’s reactions and the situations that call for them.

“We inherently have [the sprouts of each virtue]. It is simply that we do not reflect upon them. Hence, it is said, ‘Seek it and you will get it. Abandon it and you will lose it.’ Some differ from others by two, five, or countless times—this is because they cannot fathom their potentials.

Mengzi 6A6.5-7; see also 6A6.7, 6A15.1-2

Let me talk through a famous example by Mengzi:

Mengzi asks King Xuan of Qi about how he had spared an ox being led to slaughter because, as the king put it, “I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground.” Mengzi explains to the king that the kindness he showed to the ox is the same feeling he needs to exercise to be a great king. King Xuan is pleased and replies, “I examined myself and sought it out, but did not understand my mind. You spoke, and in my mind there was a feeling of compassion.” Mengzi helped the king to reflect upon and appreciate his own innate kindness. This is an important first step in stimulating the growth of the king’s sprouts of virtue. Then Mengzi challenges the king:

“In the present case your kindness is sufficient to reach birds and beasts, but the benefits do not reach the commoners. Why is this case alone different? Hence, not lifting one feather is due to not using one’s strength. Not seeing a wagon of firewood is due to nor using one’s eyesight. The commoners not receiving care is due to not using one’s kindness. Hence, Your Majesty’s not being a genuine king is due to not acting; it is not due to not being able.”

Mengzi 1A7

Step 2: Don’t force them

Regardless of what stage you’re at, you should  act in accordance with your motivations and intentions. Ultimately, it should be easy. To force oneself to do what one abstractly believes to be right not only not fails to be genuinely virtuous, but it is ethically damaging.

“One must work at it, but do not assume success. One should not forget the heart, but neither should one ‘help’ it grow. Do not be like the man from Song. Among the people of the state of Song there was a farmer who, concerned lest his sprouts not grow, pulled on them. Obliviously, he returned home and said to his family, ‘Today I am worn out. I helped the sprouts to grow.’ His son rushed out and looked at them. The sprouts were withered. Those in the world who do not ‘help’ the sprouts to grow are few. Those who abandon them, thinking it will not help, are those who do not weed their sprouts. Those who ‘help’ them grow are those who pull on the sprouts. Not only does this not help, but it even harms them.”

Mengzi 2A2.16

Step 3: Delight in them

Part of what helps this growth is delighting in the manifestations of the sprouts, instead of denying that one has them or condemning them.

“If one delights in [the sprouts], then they grow. If they grow, then how can they be stopped? If they cannot be stopped, then one does not notice one’s feet dancing to them, one’s hands swaying to them.”

Mengzi 4A27.1-2

Conclusion: Extending the Stoic Sprouts

Us Stoics can also extend our moral sprouts in a similar way by taking the advice of the Confucians:

  • We can reflect on our moral sprouts. Look at our innate moral reactions when we attend to present circumstances and look inward (i.e., when we apply the so-called ‘dichotomy of control)
  • We can exercise caution about forcing our moral sprouts to grow. Virtue does not reside in our actions, they reside within us. Merely acting according to some abstract concept of ‘virtue’ or the ‘Stoic sage’ can be dangerous if it is not grounded in something real
  • We can take delight and pride as we recognize our moral sprouts and see them grow. Though moral growth can be difficult, we must take care not to miss opportunities for celebration.

Again, we may be able to isolate the “sprouts” of Stoic virtue. Here’s what I suggested (as a reminder):

  • Basic second-order representation of experience is the sprout of wisdom.
  • Basic impulse control is the sprout of temperance
  • Basic maintenance of agent energy is the sprout of courage
  • Basic reciprocity responsiveness is the sprout of justice

Reflecting upon and delighting in these “sprouts” are present can help us fill them out until they are full-blown virtues. As they flourish, we will flourish.

Sources and Further Reading

A general introduction to classical Chinese philosophy and its companion book:

Van Norden, Bryan W., Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (2011), Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. CHECK IT OUT

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Van Norden, Bryan W., eds. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 3rd ed. (2023) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. CHECK IT OUT

Translations I used:

Slingerland. Edward, trans. Confucius: Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries (2003). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. CHECK IT OUT

Van Norden, Bryan W., trans. Mengzi; With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (2008). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. CHECK IT OUT 

A wonderful and accessible introduction to the various perspectives on self-cultivation among Confucians:

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation, 2nd ed. (2000) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. CHECK IT OUT 

An accessible introduction to Confucian practice for everyone:

Angle, Stephen, Growing Moral: A Confucian Guide to Life (2023), New York: Oxford University Press. CHECK IT OUT


One response to “Cultivating the Sprouts of Virtue”

  1. Tһank you for sharing your thoughts. I trսly appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your
    next post thank you once again.

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