Confucius said to Yan Hui: “To take office when needed and to stay out of sight when dismissed: only you and I can do this.” Zilu said: “If you had command of the Three Armies, who would you appoint to help you?” Confucius said: “I wouldn’t choose someone who wrestles tigers barehanded or swims across rivers without fearing death. But I would choose someone who approaches difficulties with due caution and achieves victories through careful planning.” (1) (2)
There’s a huge difference between courage and recklessness. Courage means having the bravery and determination to bide your time until the right moment arrives for you to strike. Recklessness means diving in without thinking about the possible consequences of your action until it’s too late.
While prodigious feats of wrestling tigers with your bare hands or swimming across a treacherous river might garner all the attention, they put people’s lives at risk without achieving anything substantial.
This article features a translation of Chapter 10 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.
(1) In his opening comment to Yan Hui, Confucius is referring to the importance of being able to respond appropriately to any given situation that you face. This is known as the virtue of timeliness (時/shí). You can read more about Yan Hui here.
(2) Although Confucius sounds harshly critical of his Zilu, his warnings to his faithful follower and friend to curb his impetuosity were justified. Unfortunately, however, they proved to be futile when he was killed fighting to defend the ruler of the state of Wei in 480 BCE. You can read more about Zilu here.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.