What were the hopes and dreams of Confucius? What kept him plugging away despite the many setbacks he suffered during his career as a government official in his home state of Lu and his subsequent fourteen years of exile?
The first chapter of Book 7 of the Analects gives us a hint when he famously declares: “I transmit but I don’t create. I am faithful to and love the past.” On the surface, Confucius may appear to be speaking modestly about his own abilities and ambitions, but in reality he’s revealing that his ultimate dream is to restore the lost glories of the early Zhou dynasty when it was ruled by his great hero, the Duke of Zhou.
Given his belief that Chinese civilization reached the apex of perfection under the enlightened leadership of the duke, Confucius was realistic enough to understand that the best he could hope to accomplish was to “transmit” the values and ideas his hero had introduced to bring peace and prosperity to the newly-established Zhou dynasty following the death of his bother and its first ruler King Wu in 1049 BCE. Since everything required to build a harmonious and prosperous state had been done before, there was no way he could “create” something new.
In 7.22, Confucius even appears to suggest that he has been chosen for this task when he jokes to his followers while they are being pursued by a band of thugs hired by the power behind the throne of the small state of Song: “Heaven has bestowed me with virtue. What do I have to fear from Huan Tui?”
Heaven’s support notwithstanding, Confucius comes to the realization in 7.5 that all his years of dedication and struggle have been for nothing. He will never achieved his hopes and dreams of restoring the Zhou dynasty to its former glory: “I am becoming terribly weak. It has been a long time since I last saw the Duke of Zhou in a dream.”
Ironically, despite his failure to accomplish his hopes and dreams during his lifetime, Confucius succeeded in leaving a much greater legacy than he could have ever imagined possible. Even though he didn’t get to see the fruits of his labor, his efforts weren’t in vain.