Speak cautiously

子曰:「邦有道,危言危行;邦無道,危行言孫。
Confucius said: “When the Way prevails in a state, speak boldly and act boldly. When the Way does not prevail in a state, act boldly but speak cautiously.”

Assuming the role of a high-level minister was a perilous undertaking throughout Chinese imperial history, given that one of the main responsibilities of the position was to speak out when you thought that your ruler was following the wrong path and acting against the interests of the people and the state.

Naturally, many ministers shirked from this duty out of a sense of self-preservation, but even those who took it seriously found themselves having to deal with the dilemma of deciding whether or not to speak out when the ruler was so corrupt and immoral that he wouldn’t even bother to listen to their advice or – worse still – have them imprisoned or executed.

Confucius’s advice was to “speak cautiously” under such circumstances so as not to draw unnecessary attention to yourself while still continuing to stay true to your moral principles in the way that you behave.

In other words, there’s no point in attempting to fight an unwinnable battle. Better preserve your powder for a time when the conditions are more favorable.

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