Profit, fate, and goodness


Confucius disapproved of profit, but he approved of fate and goodness.

I have come to conclude that one of the iron laws of translating the Analects is that the shorter a passage is the more problems it poses.

The first chapter of Book 9 provides a perfect example of this law in action. At first sight the literal translation looks pretty straightforward: Confucius>rarely>speak>profit>and>fate>and> goodness. Except, of course, that such a rendering doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

Confucius does actually speak about profit (利/li) a number of times in the Analects, but mainly to warn people not to put lust for filthy lucre ahead of other more important values, as in: “place righteousness before profit” (先義后利). As a result, a more likely meaning of the opening phrase is “Confucius looked down on profit” or “Confucius disapproved of profit”.

While Confucius disapproved of profit, he was a strong proponent of the fate (命/mìng) and goodness (仁/rén) and expounds on them extensively in the Analects. Since it seems odd that these two core concepts of Confucius’s thought should be given equal billing with lowly “profit” in this passage, some scholars have suggested that the conjunction “and” (與/) should be rendered as the verb “to approve” instead.

This interpretation seems to be much more in tune with Confucius’s overall thinking so I have gone with it. Perhaps a second iron law of translating the Analects should be to never take the meaning of a passage at face value. It always pays to look deeper into its context.


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