True goodness

憲問恥。子曰:「邦有道穀,邦無道穀,恥也。」「克伐怨欲,不行焉,可以為仁矣。」子曰:「可以為難矣,仁則吾不知也。」
Yuan Xian asked about shamefulness. Confucius said: “Caring only about your official salary no matter whether good or bad government prevails in the state. That is shamefulness.” “If you can overcome aggressiveness, arrogance, bitterness, and greed can you be said to have achieved true goodness?” Confucius said: “You can be said to have achieved something difficult; but I don’t know whether it is true goodness.”

We first encountered the disciple Yuan Si (原思), referred to here by his personal name Yuan Xuan (原憲), in Chapter V of Book 6. In that encounter, Confucius gently rebuked Yuan for his excessive fastidiousness in refusing to take a generous salary after being hired as an official. In this passage, he expands further on this theme by pointing out that it is only shameful to accept a salary from a government that is following the wrong path. If a government is following the right path and you are doing a good job, there is no reason to turn it down.

Yuan Si was legendary for his ascetic tendencies, and reportedly spent the final years of his life as a hermit in a humble single-room hut subsisting on a meager diet. Although Confucius politely tells Yuan that he has “achieved something difficult” in his strenuous efforts to overcome “aggressiveness, arrogance, bitterness, and greed”, there is no way that he can describe his behavior as “true goodness”.

For Confucius, goodness was about achieving the right balance between your needs as an individual and those of the society you are a member of. If you choose to escape from it, you are abandoning your responsibility to help the people around you. Similarly, by refusing to confront your own true nature, you are holding back your development as an individual and wasting your potential by becoming totally divorced from reality.

As you will see later in Book 14, Confucius had very little time for ascetics like Yuan Si who chose to disengage from society. He believed that the only way to achieve “true goodness” was to play a positive role in the world in all its glorious imperfection.

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