Zigong said: “I wouldn’t want to do to others what I wouldn’t want them to do to me.” Confucius said: “Ah, Zigong! That’s beyond your reach.” (1) (2)
There’s a huge gap between words and action. In theory, it shouldn’t be that difficult to follow the so-called Golden Rule by treating others in the same way you expect to be treated yourself. In practice, however, even the most virtuous among us fail to live up to the standards we set ourselves.
But does that mean we should stop striving to achieve this goal even if it’s beyond our reach as Confucius says it is for Zigong? The answer is of course no. It’s only by taking on the most difficult challenges that we can move out of our comfort zone and grow as people. Even if we don’t ever succeed in reaching our ultimate objective, we will learn a lot about ourselves along the way.
This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.
(1) Zigong is riffing on Confucius’s so-called Golden Rule based on the principle of reciprocity. Confucius’s own version of the rule can be found in Chapter 14 of Book 15 of the Analects: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” In other words, put yourself in other people’s shoes before you say or do something to them.
(2) Confucius was very close to Zigong. It’s unlikely that he intended to discourage him down with his response. His aim was probably to spur Zigong on to greater efforts – though he could have responded a tad more diplomatically.
I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.