A lucky escape?

陽貨欲見孔子,孔子不見,歸孔子豚。孔子時其亡也,而往拜之。遇諸塗。謂孔子曰:「來!予與爾言。」曰:「懷其寶而迷其邦,可謂仁乎?」曰:「不可。」「好從事而亟失時,可謂知乎?」曰:「不可。」「日月逝矣!歲不我與!」孔子曰:「諾,吾將仕矣!」
Yang Huo wanted to see Confucius, but Confucius would not see him. Yang Huo sent him a suckling pig. Confucius chose a time when Yang Huo was not at home to call on him and give his thanks, but ran into him on the way. Yang Huo said to Confucius: “Come! I have something to say to you.” He continued: “Can a person be called good if they keep their talents hidden while their country has gone astray? I don’t think so. Can a person be called wise if they are eager to take part in public affairs, but constantly miss the opportunity to do so? I don’t think so. The days and months fly by; time is not on our side.” Confucius said: “All right, I shall take office.”

Despite touting his talents widely, Confucius never succeeded in securing the high-level official position that he craved so much. One of the very few serious offers he got was from a rebel called Yang Huo, who for a period of about four years around 500 BC ruled part of Confucius’s home state of Lu after rebelling against the Ji family and taking over their stronghold at Bi. In 502 BC, Yang was defeated by forces loyal to the Ji family after plotting to assassinate Ji Huangzi, the head of the family, and fled into exile in the state of Qi.

Even though there was no love lost between him and the Ji family, Confucius was understandably unwilling to meet a rebel like Yang. When his stratagem to avoid doing so fails he is uncharacteristically lost for words under Yang’s brutal barrage, and can only respond by agreeing to work for him.

Many commentators argue that Confucius was only being “polite” in giving his assent to Yang’s request, and that he had no intention of living up his commitment. There are no records that Confucius did actually take up the position that Yang offered him, so this is a plausible explanation of Confucius’s behavior.

Less sympathetic observers may have a different perspective on the incident, however. Perhaps Confucius was so overpowered by the force of Yang’s arguments that he was tempted, even if only briefly, to accept this offer in order to show the world his talents.

If indeed this was the case, Confucius had a lucky escape by changing his mind later about taking up the position. Although he would no doubt have provided a useful PR prop for Yang’s ambitions, working for such an unsavory character would no doubt have destroyed the sage’s reputation and possibly cost him his life when Yang’s forces were defeated by Ji family loyalists.

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