Short shrift

樊遲請學稼,子曰:「吾不如老農。」請學為圃,曰:「吾不如老圃。」樊遲出,子曰:「小人哉,樊須也!上好禮,則民莫敢不敬;上好義,則民莫敢不服;上好信,則民莫敢不用情。夫如是,則四方之民,襁負其子而至矣;焉用稼!」
Fan Chi asked to learn about cultivating grain. Confucius said: “You’d be better off asking an old farmer.” Fan Chi asked to be taught about raising vegetables. Confucius said: “You’d be better off asking an old gardener.” After Fan Chi had left, Confucius said: “What a small-minded man! If a ruler loves the rites, the people would not dare to be disrespectful. If a ruler loves rightness, the people would not dare to be disobedient. If a ruler loves trustworthiness, the people would not dare to be deceitful. If such a ruler existed, people would flock to him from everywhere with their children strapped to their backs. What need would there be to know about farming?”

Some modern critics seized on these comments from Confucius as proof that that he held back the technological development of China with his alleged disdain for practical subjects such as agriculture.

There is probably some truth to this accusation. Confucius saw the role of the leader and governing elite as nurturing the right moral climate for society to operate under rather than engaging in technocratic and manual tasks that could be left for the common people to carry out.

As he points in this passage: “If such a ruler existed, people would flock to him from everywhere with their children strapped to their backs.” Indeed, what need would he have to learn about farming if the people were happy to carry out the work because of their great trust and love for him?

Of course, the problem with this line of thinking is the word “if”. And rather a big “if” it is too given the dearth of such great leaders – not just during Confucius’s time but also the whole of human history!

Perhaps in this instance Confucius was acting “small-minded man” in giving Fan Chi such short shrift. Even a cursory knowledge of farming would have been useful in what was a predominantly agrarian economy. A successful society cannot operate on morality alone, as much as Confucius may have wished it to be so.

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