Men who withdrew from the world

Men who withdrew from the world: Boyi, Shuqi, Yuzhong, Yiyi, Zhuzhang, Liuxia Hui, Shaolian. Confucius said: “They never compromised their ideals and never allowed themselves to be disgraced. Doesn’t this sum up the characters of Boyi and Shuqi?” On Liuxia Hui and Shaolian, he commented: “They compromised their ideals and allowed themselves to be disgraced, but they spoke with reason and acted with prudence.” On Yuzhong and Yiyi, he said. “They lived as hermits and spoke freely. They remained pure in body and retired from public life discretely. As for me, I am different: I have no rules about what is permissible or not.”

The meaning of this passage is quite obscure, but it appears that each of the pairs of men that Confucius names followed a strict moral code that compelled them to withdraw from public life and in one case even commit suicide.

Boyi and Shuqi are the most extreme example, and have already made a number of appearances in the Analects beginning with Chapter XXIII of Book 5. The two brothers ended up starving themselves to death because the code they followed didn’t allow them to eat any food that was the property of their ruler, who hadn’t shown the appropriate levels of filial piety to his dead father. Their suicide was voluntary in the sense that they chose not to eat; but the strength of their beliefs meant that they had to starve themselves.

Liuxia Hui is probably the same Liuxia Hui who was mentioned in Chapter XV of Book 15 and Chapter II of Book 18, who was dismissed as a magistrate three times for speaking out against the powers-that-be – though there is no record of how he compromised his aims. As for Shaolian, nothing is known about him except for a possible reference in the Record of Ritual, in which he and his elder brother are described as barbarians who mourned the dead in the proper way.

We don’t know anything about Yuzhong and Yiyi either, though the text implies that they withdrew from public life because of the (probably) Daoist code that they followed. Like Boyi and Shuqi, their decision was voluntary in the sense that it was a conscious choice, but given their beliefs they didn’t have any alternative. At least, in contrast to Boyi and Shuqi, they didn’t starve themselves to death during their seclusion.

Confucius, on the other hand, claims he is “different” because he doesn’t need a specific moral code to govern his behavior. His moral and ethical sense is so keenly honed that he has the unique ability to determine the right action to take no matter what situation he is confronted with. Unlike other mere mortals who need rules to live by, he and only he alone can decide what is “permissible or not”.

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