Great ministers?

Ji Ziran asked: “Would you say that Zilu and Ran Qiu are great ministers?” Confucius said: “I thought you were going to talk about something different, but you are just asking about Zilu and Ran Qiu. A great minister serves his lord by following the Way, and resigns if there is no possibility of doing so. As for Zilu and Ran Qiu, they might just be qualified to serve as ministers of state.” Ji Ziran said: “Do you mean that they would just follow their orders?” Confucius said: “They wouldn’t go quite so far as murdering their father or their lord.”

Although most of Confucius’s disciples not doubt followed him to learn the sage’s timeless wisdom, a not inconsiderable benefit of studying at the school of Confucius was that it opened up tremendous opportunities for lucrative job offers from assorted lords, dukes, and wealthy landowners anxious to snap up eager young talent to staff their bureaucracies and manage their financial and business affairs. Indeed, it’s not too fanciful to suggest that the Confucius brand was every bit as strong in its heyday as that of, say, Harvard Business School is today in terms of the doors it opened.

Just like Confucius, HBS teaches ethics, so I’m sure it feels the same sort of pain as the sage did when even after receiving such an education its graduates headed off into the big bad world and make their gazillions in such worthy professions as investment banking, mortgage broking, derivatives trading, and management consulting.

But at least Harvard can console itself with the returns from the endowment given to the school by grateful graduates, whereas all Confucius could do was rant about the perfidy of his disciples and stick the knife in whenever the occasion arose, as he does here with Ran Qiu and Zilu.

Such behavior is hardly edifying, but it’s certainly entertaining to watch Confucius’s attempt to skewer them under the guise of giving Ji Ziran a lesson in the moral responsibilities of a high government official towards his ruler. It’s just a pity that he pulled the knife at the last moment, conceding that even Ran Qiu and Zilu wouldn’t go quite as far as to kill their fathers or rulers even if they were ordered to do so.

Ji Ziran, by the way, was another member of the notorious Ji family, one of the three major families that were flexing their wealth and muscles to gain control of Confucius’ home state of Lu. Confucius probably had to meet him out of courtesy, but no doubt he also had to keep him sweet. Even the wisest of sages and business school deans have to make compromises.

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