Leadership lessons from Confucius: pay attention to the white spaces

white spaces

季子然問:「仲由、冉求,可謂大臣與?」子曰:「吾以子為異之問,曾由與求之問。所謂大臣者,以道事君,不可則止;今由與求也,可謂具臣矣。」曰:「然則從之者與?」子曰:「弒父與君,亦不從也。」
Ji Ziran asked: “Would you say that Zilu and Ran Qiu are great ministers?” Confucius said: “I thought you were going to ask about somebody else; I never expected that you would ask about Zilu and Ran Qiu. A really great minister serves his lord by following the way and resigns if there is no possibility of doing so. As for Zilu and Ran Qiu, they might just about be qualified for an unfilled vacancy.” Ji Ziran said: “Do you mean that they can be counted on to follow orders?” Confucius said: “They wouldn’t go quite so far as murdering their father or their lord.”

Pay close attention to the white spaces. It’s often what’s left unsaid rather than what’s actually said that’s more significant. Although Confucius disses his followers Zilu and Ran Qiu for compromising their integrity by working for the Ji Family, his main objective is to warn Ji Ziran and his clan against launching a coup to overthrow the legitimate ruler of the state, the Duke of Lu. Hence his final quip (if that’s the right word) that even two such feckless individuals as Zilu and Ran Qiu “wouldn’t go quite so far as murdering their father or their lord.”

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) Very little is known about Ji Ziran (季子然) except that he was a powerful member of the Ji Family. This is his only appearance in the Analects of Confucius. Whether he understood the unspoken message Confucius was aiming to deliver is open to question.

I took this image of an ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessel at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu. You can read more about the museum here.

 

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