If a ruler were to employ me

子曰:「苟有用我者,期月而已可也,三年有成。」
Confucius said: “If a ruler were to employ me, I would have everything under control in one year and in three years the results would show.”

If Confucius had ever been given the opportunity to run a state, he would have had to move very quickly in order to assert his authority over its feudal aristocracy and bureaucracy in order to implement his reforms. One year to “have everything under control” sounds like a reasonable target, but it would also have been an extremely challenging one given the strong resistance he would likely have faced from entrenched interests – even if he enjoyed the full backing of his ruler.

Assuming that Confucius reached his first milestone, delivering “results” after two more years also appears to be a feasible goal. The big question, of course, is what kind of “results” Confucius intended to achieve. If they were focused purely on political and social reform and failed to include economic growth, he would have risked opening himself to renewed attacks from his opponents and hence losing the confidence and support of his ruler.

Confucius certainly didn’t lack confidence in his ability to govern, but during the course of his career was never given the opportunity to truly test it. Although this frustrated him during his lifetime, it certainly didn’t do any harm to his long-term reputation. Even if Confucius had succeeded in finding a high-level government position, would he really have been able to put all his ideas into action and gone down in history as a great reformer like his hero the Duke of Zhou?

Despite his undoubted talent and learning, the chances of this happening were extremely low. Ironically, Confucius’s very failure to implement his teachings meant that he left a much more powerful and more enduring legacy as a great sage.

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