Confucius at home and at court

孔子於鄉黨,恂恂如也,似不能言者。其在宗廟朝廷,便便言,唯謹爾。
When Confucius was at home in his native village, he was unassuming and warm and seemed reluctant to speak. When he was in the ancestral temple or at court, however, he spoke with eloquence but due caution.

In Book 10 of the Analects, we don’t hear Confucius speak at all. Instead, we watch how he conducts himself in front of relatives, friends, officials, nobles, and rulers at home, in the temple, in palaces, and at court.

In each situation, he conducts himself according the strictures of the rites (禮/lǐ) – right down to the minutest details, including the posture he adopts, the way he speaks, the clothes he wears, and even the type of food he eats. All these can differ enormously depending on the context he finds himself in.

It is unclear whether the chapters in the book describe Confucius’s actual behavior or prescribe how he (and by extension others) would or should have conducted himself in a particular situation. Such a distinction is, however, largely irrelevant; for what makes this book so interesting is the detailed picture that it captures of the highly-ritualized world that Confucius lived in – very few vestiges of which remain today.

Chapter 1 provides an interesting contrast of how Confucius conducted himself at home and at court. When among his friends and family, he naturally didn’t want to be accused of showing off so adopted a low profile; at the temple and in court, on the other hand, it was his responsibility to speak to ministers and rulers, but when doing so he had to be careful in what he said in order to avoid touching on sensitive issues. This can’t have been easy; despite what some people may believe, political correctness has been with us since the very depths of antiquity.

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