Principles or pragmatism?

子曰:「直哉史魚!邦有道如矢,邦無道如矢。君子哉蘧伯玉!邦有道則仕,邦無道則可卷而懷之。」
Confucius said: “Shi Yu is truly a man of principle! When the Way prevails in the state, he is as straight as an arrow; when the Way doesn’t prevail in the state, he is as straight as an arrow. Qu Boyu is a true leader! When the Way prevails in the state, he serves as an official; when the Way doesn’t prevail in the state, he folds up his principles and hides them in his breast.”

Shi Yu and Qu Boyu were senior officials in the state of Wei; the latter was also featured in Book 14 Chapter XXV. By comparing the behavior and character of these two men, Confucius is addressing the question of how a virtuous official should react when the state he serves is falling into decline as a result of the corruption and depravity of its ruler.

While he praises Shi Yu for remaining “as straight as an arrow” not matter how the ruler behaves, Confucius clearly favors Qu Boyu’s more flexible approach of withdrawing into the background until more promising conditions emerge. Why waste valuable time and energy – and potentially risk your life – by fighting a battle against an evil ruler that you have no chance of winning when you can conserve your strength to fight another day?

In practical terms, Confucius’s thinking certainly makes sense given the frequency with which political power changed hands during the tumultuous Spring and Autumn Period he lived in. In ethical terms, however, the picture is much less clear. If even senior officials withdraw from the political stage when the ruler of a state gets out of control, who else is left to oppose him or at least mitigate the effects of his actions?

There are, of course, no easy answers to this question. I’ll leave it to you decide whether Confucius is right to put Qu Boyu’s pragmatism above Shi Yu’s principles.

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