Confucius on effortless action

Confucius said: “If there was a ruler who achieved order through effortless action it was Shun, wasn’t it? How did he do it? He composed himself with reverence and sat facing south. That was all.”

Effortless action (無為/wúwéi) is a term much more closely identified with Daoist teaching than Confucius, which is hardly surprising given that this is the only time it appears in the Analects.

Some commentators have therefore voiced suspicions that this passage is either a Daoist hack to show that Confucius was a secret follower of their philosophy or a clumsy attempt by supporters of Confucius to show that the sage was the true owner of this fundamental Daoist principle.

Even if Confucius never actually used the term effortless action, he subscribed to a very similar principle with his advocacy of “virtuous leadership” (德/dé can also be translated as “moral power”). In his eyes, the ideal leader was one who acts like the ancient sage emperor Shun mentioned in this chapter by sitting on his throne “with reverence” and radiating so much moral goodness on his subjects that they automatically act in harmony with each other and work towards the common good.

Effortless action (and virtuous leadership for that matter) is not the same as doing nothing. It means, rather, being so steeped in sound ethical principles that you do what’s right “naturally” or “instinctively” without having to think about it or expending unnecessary energy to make it happen.

Reaching such an exalted state is of course not a trivial undertaking, and can be likened to the intense training that an athlete has to undergo in order to prepare for a major global event. Except of course there is no finishing line for the would-be-exponent to look forward to because there’s always room for improvement.

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