Tangled fibers

子曰:「志士仁人,無求生以害仁,有殺身以成仁。」
Confucius said: “Men of purpose and men of goodness do not seek to live on at the expense of goodness; there are times when they will sacrifice their lives in order to make their goodness complete.”

Far from being the coherent “single thread” of learning and wisdom that Confucius claimed to have woven into his own thoughts in Chapter III of Book 15, the Analects is a messy tangle of raw cotton fibers thrown together by different people with different agendas at different times. How else to explain the glaring inconsistency between what Confucius says here and the advice he gives only two chapters back?

In this very famous passage, Confucius argues that “men of purpose and men of goodness” have a moral obligation to protest when they believe that their ruler is deviating from the right path – even at the risk of losing their life.

The soaring rhetoric of these words contrasts sharply with Confucius’s praise for Qu Boyu in Chapter VII of Book 15 in which he applauds him for folding up his principles and hiding them away in his breast so that he can save himself for when a more favorable political environment emerges.

How to smooth out the tangled fibers and mesh them into a neat single thread? Did Confucius believe that principle trumped pragmatism or vice versa? Or did he rely on the old fall back of “it depends”?

Answers on a picture postcard please….

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