I Ching Hexagram 4 - Meng / Youthful Folly

hexagram 4
  • Above Ken Keeping Still, Mountain
  • Below K'an the abysmal, Water


In this hexagram we are reminded of youth and folly in two different ways. The image of the upper trigram, Ken, is the mountain, that of the lower, K'an, is water; the spring rising at the foot of the mountain is the image of inexperienced youth. Keeping still is the attribute of the upper trigram; that of the lower is the abyss, danger. Stopping in perplexity on the brink of a dangerous abyss is a symbol of the folly of youth. However, the two trigrams also show the way of overcoming the follies of youth. Water is something that of necessity flows on. When the spring gushes forth, it does not know at first where it will go. But its steady flow fills up the deep place blocking its progress, and success is attained.

See the James Legge translation of this hexagram.

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Youthful Folly has success. It is not I who seek the young fool; The young fool seeks me. At the first oracle I inform him. If he asks two or three times, it is importunity. If he importunes, I give him no information. Perseverance furthers.

Judgement Commentary

In the time of youth, folly is not an evil. One may succeed in spite of it, provided one finds an experienced teacher and has the right attitude toward him. This means, first of all, that the youth himself must be conscious of his lack of experience and must seek out the teacher. Without this modesty and this interest there is no guarantee that he has the necessary receptivity, which should express itself in respectful acceptance of the teacher. This is the reason why the teacher must wait to be sought out instead of offering himself. Only thus can the instruction take place at the right time and in the right way. A teacher's answer to the question of a pupil ought to be clear and definite like that expected from an oracle; thereupon it ought to be accepted as a key for resolution of doubts and a basis for decision. If mistrustful or unintelligent questioning is kept up, it serves only to annoy the teacher. He does well to ignore it in silence, just as the oracle gives one answer only and refuses to be tempted by questions implying doubt. Given addition a perseverance that never slackens until the points are mastered one by one, real success is sure to follow. Thus the hexagram counsels the teacher as well as the pupil.

The Image

A spring wells up at the foot of the mountain: The image of Youth. Thus the superior man fosters his character By thoroughness in all that he does.

Image Commentary

A spring succeeds in flowing on and escapes stagnation by filling up all the hollow places in its path. In the same way character is developed by thoroughness that skips nothing but, like water, gradually and steadily fills up all gaps and so flows onward.

The Lines

Six at the beginning means: To make a fool develop It furthers one to apply discipline. The fetters should be removed. To go on in this way bring humiliation.

Law is the beginning of education. Youth in its inexperience is inclined at first to take everything carelessly and playfully. It must be shown the seriousness of life. A certain measure of taking oneself in hand, brought about by strict discipline, is a good thing. He who plays with life never amounts to anything. However, discipline should not degenerate into drill. Continuous drill has a humiliating effect and cripples a man's powers.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 41 - Sun / Decrease. This line is concerned with the decrease of youthful ignorance and foolishness through education and discipline. This is not to be overdone. Legge basically says the same "If punishment avail to loosen the shackles and manacles from the mind, well, if not, and punishment be persevered with." The resultant hexagram is 41, Decrease, which in this case means that we will most probably see a decrease in this lines ignorance "Decrease combined with sincerity Brings about supreme good fortune without blame."

Nine in the second place means: To bear with fools in kindliness brings good fortune. To know how to take women Brings good fortune. The son is capable of taking charge of the household.

These lines picture a man who has no external power, but who has enough strength of mind to bear his burden of responsibility. He has the inner superiority and that enable him to tolerate with kindliness the shortcomings of human folly. The same attitude is owed to women as the weaker sex. One must understand them and give them recognition in a spirit of chivalrous consideration. Only this combination of inner strength with outer reserve enables one to take on the responsibility of directing a larger social body with real success.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 23 - Po / Splitting Apart. This line seems to be reasonably positive both in Wilhelm and Legge but nonetheless the resultant hexagram does not bode well. Legge says exercising forbearance with the ignorant will bring good fortune, yet the outcome is still bad "The dark lines are about to mount upward and overthrow the last firm, light line by exerting a disintegrating influence on it."

Six in the third place means: Take not a maiden who. When she sees a man of bronze, Loses possession of herself. Nothing furthers.

A weak, inexperienced man, struggling to rise, easily loses his own individuality when he slavishly imitates a strong personality of higher station. He is like a girl throwing herself away when she meets a strong man. Such a servile approach should not be encouraged, because it is bad both for the youth and the teacher. A girl owes it to her dignity to wait until she is wooed. In both cases it is undignified to offer oneself, and no good comes of accepting such an offer.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 18 - Ku / Work on what has been spoiled (Decay) a sign of destruction of relationships as well as physical things. The line indicates that easily influenced people can not be trusted to stay true. This could be applied to the questioner or people around him. If you allow yourself to be easily swayed from your goals or values nothing good will eventuate. Legge states "...these things give the subject of it (the line) so bad a character."

Six in the fourth place means: Entangled folly bring humiliation.

For youthful folly it is the most hopeless thing to entangle itself in empty imaginings. The more obstinately it clings to such unreal fantasies, the more certainly will humiliation overtake it. Often the teacher, when confronted with such entangled folly, has no other course but to leave the fool to himself for a time, not sparing him the humiliation that results. This is frequently the only means of rescue.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 64 - Wei Chi / Before Completion or failure on the cusp of success. How can this be a good outcome? Someone intent in living in a fantasy world can not be helped and must be left to their own devices. As Legge puts it, this "...shows its subject as if bound in chains of ignorance.". Such a one would not listen or accept help even if you tried to help them.

Six in the fifth place means: Childlike folly brings good fortune.

An inexperienced person who seeks instruction in a childlike and unassuming way is on the right path, for the man devoid of arrogance who subordinated himself to his teacher will certainly be helped.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 59 - Huan / Dispersion (Dissolution) which might sound bad but can, in fact, be very positive as here it indicates the dispersal of youthful ignorance and folly. A good outcome. This line shows that the questioner is accepting advice from the correct source and is following the advice they are getting. Legge uses the example of "...a simple lad, willing to be taught." The lesson being we can always learn from the more experienced and will benefit if we take their advice.

Nine at the top means: In punishing folly It does not further one to commit transgressions.

Sometimes an incorrigible fool must be punished. He who will not heed will be made to feel. This punishment is quite different from a preliminary shaking up. But the penalty should not be imposed in anger; it must be restricted to an objective guarding against unjustified excesses. Punishment is never an end in itself but serves merely to restore order. This applies not only in regard to education but also in regard to the measures taken by a government against a populace guilty of transgressions. Governmental interference should always be merely preventive and should have as its sole aim the establishment of public security and peace.

Changing only this line creates Hexagram 7 - Shih / The Army which needs discipline and good leadership to be successful. This line indicates that one should not take the administration of discipline and punishment to excess. It is instead used for a purpose. Do not become an abuser in the name of enforcing discipline. Legge makes clear that we should be using our brains as well as our brawn when administering punishment.

See the James Legge - I Ching Hexagram 4 - Meng / Youthful Folly translation of this hexagram.