Between the lines

或謂孔子曰:「子奚不為政?」子曰:「書云:『孝乎惟孝,友于兄弟,施於有政。』是亦為政,奚其為為政?」
Someone asked Confucius: “Sir, why don’t you take part in government?” Confucius replied: “In the Book of Documents it says: ‘Simply by acting as a good son and being kind to your brothers, you will be contributing to the smooth running of the government.’ In doing this, you are already engaging in government; why do you need to make a conscious effort to actively take part in government?”

It’s tempting to read between the lines of Confucius’s response to this question asking why he doesn’t enter official service. After all, he did enjoy a successful career in the state of Lu government before either giving it up or being pushed out of it after a serious run-in with the Three Families. During his subsequent wanderings, he also actively sought out employment with the rulers of the various states he visited afterwards – though failed miserably in securing it.

Perhaps, therefore, he is simply trying to console himself for his own failures with his quotation from the Book of Documents: “simply by acting as a good son and being kind to your brothers, you will be contributing to the smooth running of the government.”

The Book of Documents (書經/shūjīng) is one of the Five Classics that Confucius is believed to have edited, and features speeches and records of historical events dating back as far back as the eleventh century BC. Ironically, probably because it has undergone extensive revisions during its long existence, existing versions of the text don’t contain the saying that Confucius quotes in this chapter.

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