Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius kicks off with a lively exploration of the nature of the supreme virtue of goodness in the first three chapters. As is his custom, Confucius doesn’t even attempt to provide a single all-encompassing definition of the term. Instead, he tailors his responses to lay out the standards that his three questioners need to meet to move closer towards achieving it.
Naturally, Confucius places the bar the highest for his protégé Yan Hui, telling him in 12.1 that if he “manages to exercise self-discipline and to return to ritual for just one single day, goodness will prevail throughout the world.” By strictly adhering to the rules of propriety, Yan Hui would set an example that everyone else would automatically follow.
Confucius also has high expectations for Ran Yong, whom he describes in 6.1 as being fit for high office. In addition to urging him to follow the Golden Rule of not doing to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself, Confucius tells him to treat people as if they are important guests when he is away from home, and not to allow resentment to enter his public and private affairs.
When it comes to Sima Niu, an official from the state of Song worried about how to deal with a plot by his eldest brother to dethrone the rightful ruler, Confucius sets the bar far lower – warning him to be “cautious in speech” because of his reputed tendency to talk too much. How can Sima Niu possibly aspire to greater things if he can’t even keep his mouth shut?
Confucius returns to the topic in 12.20, slamming people who seek celebrity by putting on “an ostentatious display of goodness while behaving in the opposite way free of any self-doubt.” This is one of a number of passages in the Analects where he raises his concerns about what we today often describe as virtue signaling, culminating in 17.13 with his condemnation of the village worthies as “thieves of virtue.” Creating a façade of goodness is much easier than actually having to work for it!
In 12.22, Confucius concludes his thoughts on the nature of goodness by telling his rather dim-witted follower Fan Chi that it consists of loving others. The follower Zengzi has the final word on the subject in 12.24, when he points out that the path to goodness doesn’t necessarily have to be a lonely one if you can find like-minded companions to join you on the journey: “A leader attracts friends through their cultural refinement, and looks to their friends for support in nurturing their goodness.”
The nature of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ) is in fact the second major theme of the book. In 12.4, Confucius tells Sima Niu that a leader “has no anxiety or fear” because he knows that he’s doing the right thing. In 12.16, he adds that a leader “brings out the good in people – not the bad” in pointed contrast to a petty person, who “does exactly the opposite.”
Further warming to the theme of the great influence that a leader can have on others, Confucius declares in 12.19: “The virtue of a leader is like the wind; the virtue of the common people is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass it will surely bend.”
This famous phrase forms part of Confucius’s response to Ji Kangzi’s question about governance in the same chapter, in which he asks what the sage thinks about executing “people who don’t follow the way in order to advance the people who do follow the way.” Unsurprisingly, the sage is appalled by the idea, replying: “You are here to govern; what need is there to execute people? If you desire goodness, the people will be good.”
This passage follows two previous exchanges between Confucius and Ji Kangzi on the topic of how to govern well. In 12.17, Confucius advises Ji: “To govern effectively is to do the right thing.” In 12.18, the sage pointedly tells the notoriously corrupt strongman of the state of Lu that the only way for him to solve the problem of banditry was to get rid of his “own avaricious desires.” If Ji and his clan can get away with exploiting the common people through arbitrary levies and taxes, what right do they have to complain if others try to do the same?
Confucius regards gaining the trust of the people through virtuous conduct as the key to good governance. In 12.7, he places it above providing enough weapons to keep them safe and sufficient food to sustain them. “From ancient times, death has been the fate of everyone,” he tells Zigong. “But without the trust of the people, the government cannot stand.”
In 12.11, he tells the ailing Duke Jing of Qi that he needs to make sure his ministers and lords need to live up to the responsibilities of their positions if he is to have any hope of pulling his state out of the chaos it has descended into. Although the duke readily agrees, he is too weak to put the sage’s advice into action and dies without securing the accession of his son to the throne.
Confucius doesn’t limit his counsel on governance to dukes, lords, and ministers. In 12.14 he extends it to all government officials, telling his young follower Zizhang: “Execute the responsibilities of your office tirelessly. Carry out your duties faithfully.”
Just as with goodness and leadership, there are no deep mystical secrets about delivering effective governance in Confucius’s teachings. The key challenge is building up the necessary individual commitment to carry out the hard yards of actually implementing them. As Confucius says to Yan Hui in 12.1, “You can only achieve goodness through your own efforts. How can it come from anybody else?”