Confucius on the exercise of power

子曰:「知及之,仁不能守之,雖得之,必失之。知及之,仁能守之,不莊以 之,則民不敬。知及之,仁能守之,莊以 之,動之不以禮,未善也。」
Confucius said: “Power acquired through knowledge that cannot be maintained through goodness will inevitably be lost. Power acquired through knowledge and maintained through goodness will not be respected by the people if it is not exerted with dignity. Power acquired through knowledge, maintained through goodness, and exerted with dignity is still not perfect if it is not implemented in accordance with the rites.”

There is extensive debate over the meaning if “it” (之/zhī) in this passage. I have translated it as “power” because it seems to make the most sense in the overall context. Others render it as “official position” or “the Way.”

All of them coalesce, however, around the familiar Confucian theme of virtuous leadership: once you have attained authority, the only way to maintain it over the long term is to gain the support of the people by exercising it though “goodness” and “dignity”. Respecting the “rites”, the customs and practices that bind society together, is also a critical element of the process.

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