When the emperor sits on his throne radiating virtue, harmony is ensured at all levels of the social hierarchy. However, when the emperor fails in his duty, the feudal lords, grand families, and junior officials scramble for influence and power. Once they gain control, it’s only a matter of time before the state collapses and chaos ensues.
The essential weakness of Confucius’s hierarchical view of how a state should be governed is that it put far too much weight on the responsibility of the hereditary ruler to act in a virtuous manner. When, inevitably, the ruler failed to live up to his side of the bargain, there were no strong institutions to keep him on the right track and rein in his excesses. Under such circumstances, it was only natural that ministers, members of feudal families, and officials of various stripes should step into the power vacuum – often for less than noble motives – and thus the descent into anarchy would begin.
Confucius’s solution to maintaining the stability of a state was to focus on teaching individuals how to perfect their behavior and meet their social obligations, starting with the ruler and working his way down to the ministers, high-level officials, feudal families, and gentry – all of whom he enjoined to follow his Way (道/dào) and nurture the qualities of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ). However, he never even considered engaging the common people (whom he blithely assumed would automatically fall in line) in the process, and was (probably for good reason) highly suspicious of the efficacy of building a strong legal system.
The inevitable instability engendered by this top-down, individual-centric approach to governance is vividly and no doubt unwittingly illustrated by the stark warnings Confucius gives in this passage. The sad irony is that by trying to perfect the existing system rather than attempting to introduce much-needed changes to it, he contributed to its decline rather than reversed it.
Confucius said, “When the Way prevails in the world, the rites, music, and punitive military campaigns are initiated by the Son of the Heaven. When the Way does not prevail in the world, the rites, music, and punitive military campaigns are initiated by the feudal lords. When they are initiated by the feudal lords, it is rare if they have not lost power after ten generations. When they are initiated by the grand families, it is rare they have not lost the power after five generations. Once junior officials take control of the fate of the state, it is rare that they have not lost power after three generations. When the Way prevails in the world, governance does not lie in the hands of the grand officials. When the Way prevails in the world, the common people do not criticize governance.”