The complete package

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子張問曰:「令尹子文三仕為令尹,無喜色;三已之,無慍色。舊令尹之政,必以告新令尹。何如?」子曰:「忠矣。」曰:「仁矣乎?」曰:「未知,焉得仁!」「崔子弒齊君,陳文子有馬十乘,棄而違之。至於他邦,則曰,『猶吾大夫崔子也。』違之,之一邦,則又曰:『猶吾大夫崔子也。』違之。何如?」子曰:「清矣。」曰:「仁矣乎?」子曰:「未知,焉得仁?」
Zizhang asked: “Ziwen was appointed prime minister three times, but he never showed the least sign of elation. He was dismissed three times, but he never showed the least sign of disappointment. On each occasion, he briefed his successor on the status of the affairs of his office. What do you think of him?” Confucius said: “He was loyal.” Zizhang asked: “Was he good?” Confucius said: “I’m not sure; how can he be said to be good?”

“When Cuizi assassinated the ruler of the state of Qi, Chen Wenzi abandoned his large estate and left Qi. Having settled in another state, he said: ‘They are no better than Cuizi,’ and left. Having settled in yet another state, he said once again: ‘They are no better than Cuizi,’ and left once again. What do you think of him?” Confucius said: “He was pure.” Zizhang said: “Was he good?” “I’m not sure; how can he be said to be good?”

Confucius riffs on exactly the same question as Chapter VII of Book 5: if a person displays outstanding virtue in one particular regard, does this mean that they are “good” (仁/rén)?

His answer is a categorical “no”. Just because Ziwen showed exemplary conduct when receiving and handing over the keys to the prime minister’s office, that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t secretly taking bribes or keeping a couple of mistresses on the side. As Confucius points out, all it does mean is that he was loyal.

The same principle applies to Chen Wenzi in his quixotic quest for a home in a state with a government that matches his high ethical and moral standards. That may demonstrate that he was “pure”, but it doesn’t mean that he was good.

Confucius regarded “goodness” as the complete package encompassing all aspects of a person’s character and behavior. Cultivating it requires a holistic approach rather than focusing on your strengths and neglecting your weaknesses.

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