Virtue signaling

子張問士:「何如斯可謂之達矣?」子曰:「何哉?爾所謂達者!」子張對曰:「在邦必聞,在家必聞。」子曰:「是聞也,非達也。夫達也者,質直而好義,察言而觀色,慮以下人;在邦必達,在家必達。夫聞也者:色取仁而行違,居之不疑;在邦必聞,在家必聞。」
Zizhang asked: “When is it possible to say that someone has achieved success?” Confucius said: “It depends on what you mean by achieving success.” Zizhang replied: “To be recognized in public and private life.” Confucius said: “That is celebrity, not success. A man who has achieved success is straightforward by nature and loves what is right. He listens to what others have to say, observes their moods and expressions, and is respectful to others. Such a man is sure to be successful in his public and private life. A man seeking celebrity puts on an ostentatious display of virtue while behaving in the opposite way free of any self-doubt. He will definitely achieve recognition in both his public and private life.”

I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “virtue signaling” until this year. As Confucius points out in this passage it’s not exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s definitely one that’s proliferated thanks to how easy it is do using social media. Continue reading Virtue signaling

Wind and grass

季康子問政於孔子曰:「如殺無道,以就有道,何如?」孔子對曰:「子為政,焉用殺?子欲善,而民善矣!君子之德風,小人之德草,草上之風必偃。」
Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governance, saying: “What would you think if I were to execute people who don’t follow the Way in order to help the people who do follow the Way?” Confucius replied: “You are here to govern; what need is there to execute people? If you desire goodness, the people will be good. A leader’s virtue is like the wind; the virtue of the common people is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass it will surely bend.”

The “wind and grass” metaphor that Confucius finishes this passage with was seized upon by generation after generation of the ruling classes in China to justify their hold on power: the duty of the people was simply to bend to their will. Continue reading Wind and grass

Homonyms and bandits

季康子問政於孔子,孔子對曰:「政者正也,子帥以正,孰敢不正?」
Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governance. Confucius replied: “To govern is to be correct. If you show yourself to be correct, who would dare not to be correct?”

季康子患盜,問於孔子。孔子對曰:「苟子之不欲,雖賞之不竊。」
Ji Kangzi was troubled by bandits in the state of Lu and asked Confucius how to sort out the problem. Confucius replied: “If you were not avaricious yourself they wouldn’t rob you even if you paid them to.”

Leadership by example: Confucius returns to the subject time and time again in the Analects. What a pity that none of the worthies that he pitched the concept to never bothered to take it seriously. Continue reading Homonyms and bandits

Leadership advice

子張問「政」。子曰:「居之無倦,行之以忠。」
Zizhang asked about governance. Confucius said: “Execute the responsibilities of your office untiringly. Carry out your duties loyally.”

子曰:「博學於文,約之以禮,亦可以弗畔矣夫。」
Confucius said: “If you expand your learning through culture and keep your behavior in check with the rites you are unlikely to go wrong.”

子曰:「君子成人之美,不成人之惡。小人反是。」
Confucius said: “A leader brings out the good in people – not the bad. A petty person does exactly the opposite.”

Some useful leadership advice: if you set the right example to others and bring out the good in them, they will automatically follow you. Continue reading Leadership advice

Legal rites

子曰:「片言可以折獄者,其由也與!」子路無宿諾。
Confucius said: “Only Zilu could pass judgment on a lawsuit after hearing half the evidence.” Zilu never slept over a promise.
子曰:「聽訟,吾猶人也,必也使無訟乎!」
Confucius said: “I can adjudicate lawsuits as well as anybody. But I would prefer it if litigation was unnecessary.”

Whenever modern-day politicians want to prove that they are “doing something” to solve a problem they inevitably create new legislation that criminalizes the undesirable behavior involved. The problem with such a legalist approach is that no piece of legislation is ever enough to cover all the possible scenarios even when bureaucracies follow up with multiple regulations and judges and magistrates add in their own interpretations. Meanwhile, the general population generally figures out how to get round the law if they need to – witness the massive multibillion dollar “services” industry that has sprung up to help people avoid paying taxes. Continue reading Legal rites

Let lords be lords

齊景公問政於孔子。孔子對曰:「君君,臣臣,父父,子子。」公曰:「善哉!信如君不君,臣不臣,父不父,子不子,雖有粟,吾得而食諸?」
Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governance. Confucius replied: “Let lords be lords; ministers be ministers; fathers be fathers; and sons be sons.” The Duke said: “Excellent! If lords are not lords, ministers are not ministers, fathers are not fathers, and sons are not sons, would I be able to eat even if I had food?”

This famous passage is of course open to wildly different interpretations depending on what side of the political spectrum you are looking at it from. When Confucius says “let lords be lords” he means that they should act in an ethical and responsible manner towards the people they rule – one based on mutual respect and understanding so that social harmony is achieved. Continue reading Let lords be lords

Confucian confusion

子張問「崇德,辨惑。」子曰:「主忠信,徒義崇德也。愛之欲其生,惡之欲其死;既欲其生,又欲其死,是惑也!」誠不以富,亦祗以異。
Zizhang asked about the phrase “accumulate virtue, resolve confusion”. Confucius said: “Place loyalty and trust above everything and follow the path of righteousness to accumulate virtue. When you love someone, you want them to live; when you hate someone, you want them to die. But if you want someone to live and to die at the same time, that is confusion.”
It may not be just because she is wealthy,
It may also be out of a need for variety.

There’s certainly plenty of confusion in this passage, starting with the source of the quote that Zizhang asks Confucius about (崇德,辨惑/accumulate virtue, recognize confusion). The simple answer is that we don’t know. Continue reading Confucian confusion

Tax and spend

哀公問於有若曰:「年饑,用不足,如之何?」有若對曰:「盍徹乎!」曰:「二,吾猶不足,如之何其徹也?」對曰:「百姓足,君孰與不足?百姓不足,君孰與足?」
Duke Ai asked Youzi: “In years of famine when I don’t make enough to cover my expenses, what should I do?” Youzi replied: “Why not set the tax at ten percent?” Duke Ai said: “Even twenty percent would not be sufficient to meet my needs; how could I manage at ten percent?” Youzi replied: “If the people have enough to support themselves, how could their lord not have enough to meet his needs? If the people do not have enough to support themselves, how could their lord have enough to meet his needs?”

Taxes: another huge question we haven’t found a definitive answer to in 2,500 years. And judging by the remarkably low rates that Youzi and the Duke Ai are discussing here, we’ve actually moved in the wrong direction. As Youzi points out, lower taxes generally lead to higher revenues – not the other way round. Continue reading Tax and spend

Nature versus nurture

棘子成曰:「君子質而已矣,何以文為?」子貢曰:「惜乎,夫子之說君子也,駟不及舌!文猶質也,質猶文也;虎豹之鞹,猶犬羊之鞹。」
Ji Zicheng said: “Nature determines whether or not you are a leader. What use is culture?” Zigong said: “What a pity you have chosen to describe a leader in this way. ‘A team of horses cannot catch up with a tongue.’ Culture is nature, nature is culture. Without their hair, the pelts of tigers and leopards are just the same as those of a dog or a sheep.”

Nature versus nurture: we’re still no nearer to finding a definitive answer to this question 2,500 years later though Zigong provides a pretty robust response to Ji Zecheng’s question. Continue reading Nature versus nurture

Trust in government

子貢問「政」。子曰:「足食,足兵,民信之矣。」子貢曰:「必不得已而去,於斯三者何先?」曰:「去兵。」子貢曰:「必不得已而去,於斯二者何先?」曰:「去食。自古皆有死,民無信不立。」
Zigong asked about governance. Confucius said: “Enough food, enough weapons, and the trust of the people.” Zigong said: “If you had to go without one of these three, which one would you give up?” Confucius replied: “Weapons.” Zigong asked: “If you had to go without one of the remaining two, which one would you give up?” Confucius replied: “Food; from ancient times, death has been the fate of all men. But without the trust of the people, the government cannot stand.”

Trust in government: now there’s an interesting concept. Continue reading Trust in government