On discernment

子張問「明」。子曰:「浸潤之譖,膚受之愬,不行焉,可謂明也已矣。浸潤之譖,膚受之愬,不行焉,可謂遠也已矣。」
Zizhang asked about discernment. Confucius said: “If you are soaked with slander and wounded by insults but still do not falter, you may be said to have discernment. Indeed, you may also be said to be farsighted.”

Confucius was speaking from bitter experience here. In his efforts to promote his teachings and secure a high-level position with a ruler, he attracted more than his fair share of enmity. Continue reading On discernment

All men are brothers

司馬牛憂曰:「人皆有兄弟,我獨亡!」子夏曰:「商聞之矣:『死生有命,富貴在天』。君子敬而無失,與人恭而有禮;四海之內,皆兄弟也。君子何患乎無兄弟也?」
Sima Niu was full of sorrow: “All men have brothers; I alone have none.” Zixia said: “I have heard this: life and death are ordained by Fate; wealth and honors are assigned by Heaven. A leader always shows respect and courtesy to others. Within the four seas all men are brothers. How could a leader complain that he has no brothers?

As I mentioned in a previous entry, it’s possible that Sima Niu had a brother called Huan Tui (桓魋), who tried to have Confucius murdered in Book 7, Chapter XXII of the Analects. If this was indeed the case, the real meaning of Sima Niu’s comment is that he doesn’t have a brother who acts like a brother should and he has therefore disassociated himself from him. Continue reading All men are brothers

What makes a leader?

司馬牛問君子。子曰:「君子不憂不懼。」曰:「不憂不懼,斯謂之君子矣乎?」子曰:「內省不疚,夫何憂何懼?」
Sima Niu asked: “What makes a leader?” Confucius said: “A leader has no anxiety or fear.” Sima Niu said: “No anxiety or fear? That’s what makes a leader?” Confucius said: “When he looks inside himself and finds nothing wrong, what does he have to be anxious about or fear?”

Elegant but formulaic: this passage has exactly the same structure as the previous one. Continue reading What makes a leader?

Cautious in speech

司馬牛問仁。子曰:「仁者,其言也訒。」曰:「斯言也訒,斯謂之仁矣乎?」子曰:「為之難,言之得無訒乎?」
Sima Niu asked about goodness. Confucius said: “A person who practices goodness is cautious in speech.” Sima Niu said: “Cautious in speech? Is that what you call goodness?” Confucius said: “When something is difficult to do, how is it possible not to be cautious in speaking about it?”

Confucius replies to the third successive question on goodness with a pun: the characters 仁 (rén/goodness) and 訒 (rèn/speak cautiously) are homonyms, though spoken in different tones. Continue reading Cautious in speech

The Golden Rule reprised

仲弓問仁。子曰:「出門如見大賓,使民如承大祭。己所不欲,勿施於人。在邦無怨,在家無怨。」仲弓曰:「雍雖不敏,請事斯語。」
Ran Yong asked about goodness. Confucius said: “When you are away from home, act towards everyone as if you are meeting an important guest. Manage people as if you are conducting a great sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself. Allow no resentment to enter your public affairs; allow no resentment to enter your family affairs.” Ran Yong said: “I may not be particularly bright, but with your blessing I will strive to follow your guidance.”

The essence of goodness can be summed up in this variation of the famous “Golden Rule” of reciprocity first mentioned by Zigong in Chapter XII of Book 5 of the Analects. “Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself” (己所不欲,勿施於人) is as good a maxim as any to live by – though not always easy to follow. Continue reading The Golden Rule reprised

The steps to goodness

顏淵問仁。子曰:「克己復禮,為仁。一日克己復禮,天下歸仁焉。為仁由己,而由仁乎哉?」 顏淵曰:「請問其目?」子曰:「非禮勿視,非禮勿聽,非禮勿言,非禮勿動。」顏淵曰:「回雖不敏,請事斯語矣!」
Yan Hui asked about goodness. Confucius said: “Overcome the self and restore the rites. This is what goodness is all about. If you overcome the self and restore the rites for just a single day, the whole world will respond to your goodness. The practice of goodness comes from the self. How can it come from others?” Yan Hui said: “May I ask what steps I should follow?” Confucius said: “Don’t look at anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t listen to anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t say anything that doesn’t conform with the rites; don’t do anything that doesn’t conform with the rites.” Yan Hui said: “Although I may not be quick to understand it, with your blessing I will strive to follow your guidance.”

Book 12 of the Analects kicks off with the first in a series of three very famous passages on the key Confucian concept of 仁/rén, which I have chosen to translate as “goodness” but could just as easily be rendered as “humanity”, “benevolence” or more loosely “the right way you treat other people”. Continue reading The steps to goodness

The softer side of Confucius?

子路、曾皙、冉有、公西華侍坐。子曰:「以吾一日長乎爾,毋吾以也。居則曰:「不吾知也!」如或知爾,則何以哉?」
Zilu, Zeng Dian, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi were sitting with Confucius. Confucius said: “Forget for a moment that I am your elder. You often say: ‘People do not recognize our talents.’ But if you were given the opportunity, what would you wish to do?” Continue reading The softer side of Confucius?

A well-aimed punch

子路使子羔為費宰。子曰:「賊夫人之子!」子路曰:「有民人焉,有社稷焉,何必讀書,然後為學?」子曰:「是故惡夫佞者。」
Zilu appointed Zigao as steward of Bi. Confucius said: “You are stealing another man’s son.” Zilu said: “There are common people and officials there for him to occupy his time with as well as the altars of the spirits of the land and grain; why should learning consist only of reading books?” Confucius said: “It is this kind of remark that makes me hate people with smooth tongues.”

It makes a pleasant change to see Zilu land a well-aimed punch at Confucius, who obviously can’t take them half as well as he dishes them out. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Continue reading A well-aimed punch

Great ministers?

季子然問:「仲由、冉求,可謂大臣與?」子曰:「吾以子為異之問,曾由與求之問。所謂大臣者,以道事君,不可則止;今由與求也,可謂具臣矣。」曰:「然則從之者與?」子曰:「弒父與君,亦不從也。」
Ji Ziran asked: “Would you say that Zilu and Ran Qiu are great ministers?” Confucius said: “I thought you were going to talk about something different, but you are just asking about Zilu and Ran Qiu. A great minister serves his lord by following the Way, and resigns if there is no possibility of doing so. As for Zilu and Ran Qiu, they might just be qualified to serve as ministers of state.” Ji Ziran said: “Do you mean that they would just follow their orders?” Confucius said: “They wouldn’t go quite so far as murdering their father or their lord.”

Although most of Confucius’s disciples not doubt followed him to learn the sage’s timeless wisdom, a not inconsiderable benefit of studying at the school of Confucius was that it opened up tremendous opportunities for lucrative job offers from assorted lords, dukes, and wealthy landowners anxious to snap up eager young talent to staff their bureaucracies and manage their financial and business affairs. Indeed, it’s not too fanciful to suggest that the Confucius brand was every bit as strong in its heyday as that of, say, Harvard Business School is today in terms of the doors it opened. Continue reading Great ministers?