The end justifies the means?

Zilu said: “When Duke Huan put Prince Jiu to death, Shao Hu took his own life but Guan Zhong chose to keep his. Should we say that Guan Zhong was a man without goodness?” Confucius said: “Duke Huan was able to bring the rulers of all the states together nine times without having to resort to military force because of the power of Guan Zhong. Such was his goodness, such was his goodness!”

Zigong said: “Surely Guan Zhong was not a good person. After Duke Huan had Prince Jiu put to death, he not only chose to live but also served as the Duke’s prime minister.” Confucius said: “By serving as Duke Huan’s prime minister, Guan Zhong imposed his authority over all the states and brought order to the world; the people still reap the benefits of his actions until this day. Without Guan Zhong, we would still be wearing our hair loose and folding our robes on the wrong side. Or would you prefer it if he had drowned himself in a ditch like some wretched husband or wife in their small-minded faithfulness and died with nobody knowing about it?”

Spring and Autumn Period politics was a brutal business. Even the allegedly “straight” Duke Huan had his elder brother Prince Jiu killed in order to solidify his power over the state of Qi. All for the common good of course!

Duke Huan also agreed to appoint his brother’s former aide Guan Zhong as his prime minister, though as Zilu suggests above, according to the custom Guan Zhong should have committed suicide following the death of his master just as his fellow aide Shao Hu had done.

Confucius’s response is curious, if not downright hypocritical, given that he was supposedly a strong advocate of upholding the rites (禮/), the unwritten rules and customs that bind society together – not to mention the hatchet job he carried out on the very same Guan Zhong in Book 3 Chapter XXII of the Analects.

Essentially, Confucius is arguing that because Guan Zhong turned out to be a brilliant prime minister he was right to have ignored the established custom by staying alive. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? If Guan Zhong had gone on to be a serial killer would Confucius have looked upon him so favorably for refusing to kill himself?

Forget all his high-flown principles. Confucius reveals himself to be the ultimate pragmatist here. When it comes to the dark arts of politics, the ends justify the means.

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