A tricky question

CHWell

宰我問曰:「仁者,雖告之曰,『井有仁焉。』其從之也?」子曰:「何為其然也?君子可逝也,不可陷也;可欺也,不可罔也。」
Zai Yu asked: “If a good person was told that goodness lies at the bottom of a well, should he jump in after it?” Confucius said: “Why should he? A leader can be enticed down the wrong path, but he won’t allow himself to fall into a trap; he can be deceived, but not made a fool of.”

There is some argument over whether the character仁 (rén/goodness] in the first sentence of this passage was transcribed incorrectly and should in fact have been人[rén/man or person]. If that is the case, the Zai Yu’s question would be:

“If a good person was told that someone had fallen into the bottom of a well, should he jump in to save him?” Confucius said: “Why should he? A leader can be enticed down the wrong path, but he won’t allow himself fall into a trap; he can be deceived, but not made a fool of.”

Whichever version is correct, this doesn’t make Confucius’s rather testy response to his disciple any easier to decipher. Indeed, you almost get the feeling that Confucius senses that Zai Yu is attempting to lay a trap for him with his seemingly innocuous question and as a result deliberately gives him an ambiguous answer so as not be drawn further into it.

Perhaps Confucius is saying that while you need to be brave when pursuing goodness or answering a call to rescue someone from danger, you shouldn’t allow yourself be too reckless. You should stop at the edge of the well to make sure that everything is as people say it is before jumping into it.

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