The text is a much-quoted summing-up of Confucius’ developmental milestones that track his life from his teens to his seventies. It comes from his Analects 2.4.
The Master said,
At 15 I set my heart upon learning. 吾十有五而志于学
At 30 I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. 三十而立
At 40 I had no more doubts. 四十而不惑
At 50 I knew the will of Heaven. 五十而知天命
At 60 my ears were attuned. 六十而耳顺
At 70 I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right. 其实而从心所欲，不逾矩
Right, we’re going to run that all again, leaving out the Chinese but with a gloss from Western astrology and maybe some other sources. Here goes:
At 15 I set my heart upon learning
At 15 it’s the time when Saturn makes its first opposition to its natal position. Saturn takes around 30 years to do a complete orbit of the sky and by the age 14 to 16 it has moved half-way round the sky. Saturn is about taking responsibility and the teenage years are typified by the projection of responsibility onto others. ‘Those bastards who won’t let me do what I want and want me to take responsibility for it when I fuck up.’ Damn right!
Well, it depends on the position of Saturn in your chart if it’s going to give you an easy ride or not. Confucius’ chart (28 September 551BC in Qufu, China, birth time unknown) gives his Saturn in Libra in an easy trine to the moon in Gemini which probably meant he was a good boy and learnt Saturn’s lessons if not assiduously, then at least willingly.
At 30 I had planted my feet firm upon the ground.
Between ages 29 to 31, Saturn has come back to where it was when you were born. You can’t blame other people anymore because it’s not going to work. Age 30 is the time we have to get real. (See Saturn part 1 however for advice on how to cop out.) You accept Saturn’s deal and your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Now you can move.
At 40 I had no more doubts
Age 42 is when the planet Uranus has completed half of its journey round the sky (orbital period 84 years). Again, depending on the position of Uranus in your birthchart it can be a time when you completely reassess your life and start living the unlived stuff that you’ve kept hidden. Hopefully this will be in a controlled and sensible way but it means not giving a fuck anymore what other people think of you. You want to leave your job and start your own company? You want to publish the poems you’ve been writing since you were a teenager? You want to sell the family home and move into somewhere smaller and so what if there’s no room for your adult children? You want to restart your career or shift to a completely different one? That’s Uranus for you! Circumstances have changed or something has come up from inside that you cannot deny, and you know that if you deny it or fight what’s going on you’re going to regret it. You’ve reached a point where you’re sure of what you want. You have no more doubts.
At 50 I knew the will of Heaven
There’s a centaur (minor planet) named Chiron that takes 51 years to orbit the sun and do a complete circuit of our sky. In those 51 years it will have activated every one of the planets it has conjuncted or opposed or squared or trined – made all the angles to in effect. Chiron transits open you up beyond your personal stuff. If you’re lucky you make a balance between your own personal path and the will of heaven. You align your life with the divine will and that means that you don’t have to push any more. You’ve found your purpose.
Please bear in mind that in Chinese philosophy there’s no God, or Allah or Yahweh character whose personal will runs the show. The idea of Heaven is more abstract. To get a clearer idea of what is meant by ‘the will of heaven’ read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. It’s quite short, and you can also hear a reading of selected chapters on our sister website here.
At 60 my ears were attuned.
You probably know that there are 12 animals in Chinese astrology: the rat, the ox, the tiger etc. Each animal is associated with one of the 5 elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Each year is related to an animal. For example, the year of the Rat or the Tiger. So, every 12 years it comes back your own animal. But it’s also related to one of the 5 elements. For example, the year of the Fire Rat or the Metal Tiger. So, it’s going to take 60 years to go through a complete cycle and to return to the animal and the element of the year you were born.
Sixty years and you’ve seen it all before. You don’t let pointless drama bother you anymore. You don’t react to provocation like you used to. You basically don’t waste time on the unimportant stuff.
This age is also the time of the second Saturn return. Saturn has a cycle of 29.5 years so the second return could take place any time between ages 57 and 61. Saturn has gone round your chart twice and your values are clear, your moral sense is developed. Nobody can persuade you that something is right when you know it’s wrong. You know and that’s that.
At 70 I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.
It takes time to get to this place. I mean, if you just follow your heart and go for what you want regardless, you can end up in a mess, an interesting mess that you will no doubt learn from, but a mess nonetheless.
By this age you just don’t need the excitement anymore. Your desires, the dictates of your heart have not been stifled by any means, but you know, experience has taught you that actions have consequences. So, when you go for something, you naturally move within the boundaries of what is right. You’re like a river that accepts that the riverbanks are there for a reason.
Confucius died at the age of 72, so he never got to write about the early eighties when we get the double whammy of the Uranus return and the half Neptune return. Or age 91 when we get the Pholus return. But he had a pretty long life by the standards of his time.