Great tasks and minor matters

子曰:「君子不可小知,而可大受也。小人不可大受,而可小知也。」
Confucius said: “A leader is incapable of focusing on minor matters but can be trusted to undertake great tasks. A petty person cannot be entrusted to undertake great tasks, but is capable of focusing on minor matters.”

Book 15 of the Analects is full of descriptions of how a “leader” should act. One of the key principles that Confucius promotes is that he (he didn’t consider she) should make full use of his talents so that he could have the maximum impact on society rather than waste them on “minor matters”.

While he doesn’t deny that a “petty person” may have talents as well, Confucius rather patronizingly advises him not to get too far ahead of himself and only apply them where appropriate.

To the modern eye, there is a distinct lack of subtlety to Confucius’s binary approach. On the other hand, his willingness to teach anyone who wanted to learn, no matter their social class, shows that his attitude was a lot more open and flexible than this passages like this may indicate at first sight – and that his views were a lot more enlightened than those of his contemporaries.

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