Confucius slaps down Zilu

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子謂顏淵曰:「用之則行,舍之則藏,惟我與爾有是夫。」子路曰:「子行三軍,則誰與?」子曰:「暴虎馮河,死而不悔者,吾不與也。必也臨事而懼,好謀而成者也。」
Confucius said to Yan Hui: “To take office when needed and to stay out of sight when dismissed: only you and I can do this.” Zilu said: “If you had command of the Three Armies, who would you appoint to help you?” Confucius said: “I would not choose a man who wrestles tigers barehanded or swims across rivers without fearing death. But I would choose a man who approaches difficulties with due caution and achieves victories through careful planning.”

Poor Zilu! Like a faithful dog he lifts his head for a pat of affection from his master, only to have it brutally slapped down while his fellow disciple Yan Hui basks in Confucius’s praise.

Confucius may be technically correct in saying that he wouldn’t want an impetuous soul like Zilu as his right-hand man when leading an army, but surely he could have found a place for a man willing to die for him. He just needed to figure out what position to put him in order to take advantage of his strengths. Meticulous planning is vital for any successful undertaking, but there are times when a touch of craziness may be needed to make that vital breakthrough, particularly in the heat of battle.

In his opening comment to Yan Hui, Confucius is referring to the importance of being able to respond appropriately to any given situation that you face. This is known as the virtue of timeliness (時/shí).

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