An honorable pursuit?

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子曰:「富而可求也,雖執鞭之士,吾亦為之。如不可求,從吾所好。」
Confucius said: “If seeking wealth were an honorable pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a lowly official. But if it isn’t, I’d rather follow my own interests.”

Although early on in his career Confucius worked as a book keeper and clerk, he clearly wasn’t as motivated by money as many of his fellow members of the thrusting middle class known as 士 (shì/knight or scholar] that were making their way in business and government bureaucracy during the Spring and Autumn Period.

As a senior justice official in the government of Lu, he must have been presented with numerous opportunities for personal enrichment by eager supplicants seeking to curry his favor but stuck to his principles. Perhaps it was these experiences that made him seriously question whether the pursuit of wealth could ever be truly honorable.

The phrase 執鞭之士 (zhíbiānzhīshì) literally means “officials who carried the whip”, and refers to wardens who watched over the city gates and markets and kept everything in order. No doubt they found it very difficult to refuse the chances they were offered to supplement their meager incomes.

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