Going through the motions

陳成子弒簡公。孔子沐浴而朝,告於哀公曰:「陳恒弒其君,請討之。」公曰:「告夫三子。」孔子曰:「以吾從大夫之後,不敢不告也!」君曰:「告夫三子者!之三子告,不可。」孔子曰:「以吾從大夫子後,不敢不告也!」
Chen Chengzi assassinated Duke Jian of Qi. Confucius took a bath and went to court, where he told Duke Ai of Lu: “Chen Heng killed his ruler. Please punish him.” The Duke said: “Report this to the three lords.” Confucius said: “As a former official myself, I had no choice but to make this report. Yet my lord has only said: “Report this to the three lords.” He went and made his report to the three lords. They refused to intervene. Confucius said: “As a former official myself, I had no choice but to make this report.”

Confucius was no longer serving as an official when the assassination of Duke Jian of the neighboring state of Qi occurred. But he felt he had a moral duty to report the news of his murder to Duke Ai, the titular ruler of his home state of Lu, even though he already knew that the duke would do nothing about it.

Duke Ai confirms Confucius’s fears by asking him to report the news to the heads of the “Three Families” that were the real powers behind his throne. Naturally they have no interest in getting involved, leaving Confucius to gnash his teeth in despair at his lack of influence and power.

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