Duke Ling of Wei asked Confucius about military tactics. Confucius replied: “Although I have experience in handling ritual vessels, I have never studied military matters.” He left the next day.
Duke Ling (c. 534 — 492 BC) was the ruler of Wei, one of the most powerful states during the Spring and Autumn Period. While he was wandering around in exile, Confucius worked very hard to secure an appointment with him in the hope of attaining an official position in the duke’s court.
Imagine Confucius’s disappointment then, when he finally gets to meet the duke and is asked a question on military matters. To his credit, Confucius refuses to betray his long-held belief in using peaceful means to resolve disputes between states, and departs the following day.
This was to prove a costly decision, for Confucius ended up spending roughly fourteen years in exile between 498 BC and 484 BC, sometimes in conditions of extreme danger or hardship.
If only modern-day politicians stuck to their principles so firmly!
Note: Before finally securing an audience with Duke Ling, Confucius was said to have met the duke’s notorious consort Nanzi (南子) and received an earful from Zilu for his supposed indiscretion. This incident is recounted in Book 6 Chapter XXVIII.