Verbal fencing

Wangsun Jia asked: “What does this saying mean: ‘Better pray to the kitchen god rather than the house god.’?” Confucius said: “This is nonsense. If you sin against Heaven, you have no god you can pray to.”

This is one of those delightful passages of verbal fencing in the Analects in which Confucius’s adversary tries to trick the sage with multiple feints of his blade.

Wangsun Jia was the chief minister of Duke Ling of Wei, the ruler of one of the states that Confucius visited in his fruitless quest for engagement as an advisor. No doubt feeling threatened by the arrival of the sage, he quotes an old proverb advising that it is better to be nice to the servants who will feed and look after you during your stay at the house rather than the master, who won’t be able to provide any practical help. Far too sophisticated and polite to give Confucius an explicit warning not to talk directly to the duke, he is implying that the only way for the sage to proceed is through him.

Confucius parries his maneuver with a straight blade, invoking the authority of a higher power. But although he may have won this particular verbal joust Wangsun Jia was the ultimate victor, for Confucius left Wei just as he had arrived: jobless.

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