Leadership lessons from Confucius: pointless arguments

Temple of Confucius Yilan: pointless arguments

Confucius disapproved of profit, but he approved of fate and goodness. (1)

Pay close attention to how you speak and write. A poor choice of words or a lack of clarity in grammar or syntax might not just lead to misunderstandings today but also condemn others to thousands of years of pointless arguments over the meaning of the message you originally meant to convey.


This article features a translation of Chapter 1 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) This is one of those ambiguous passages in the Analects that have left scholars and commentators scratching their head over what it really means. At first sight, the literal translation looks pretty straightforward: Master>rarely>speak>profit>and>fate>and>goodness.
As a result many translations of the passage are written along the lines of: “The master seldom discussed profit, fate, and goodness.”

Except, of course, that such a rendering doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, particularly as Confucius talked endlessly about goodness (he is quoted over 100 times on the topic in the Analects alone) and also touched on the vagaries of fate as well as condemning the evils of profit or self-interest.

Because it seems so odd to say that Confucius rarely expounded on subjects that were so integral to his philosophy, some scholars have suggested that the conjunction “and” (與/yǔ) should be rendered as the verb “to approve” instead. Since this interpretation seems to be much more in tune with Confucius’s overall thinking, I have gone with it.

Another alternative could, of course, be that a lowly copyist got the wrong end of the stick when transcribing the passage and unwittingly doomed future generations of teachers and students to unnecessary torment.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.

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