Sima Niu asked about goodness. Confucius said: “A person who practices goodness is cautious in speech.” Sima Niu said: “Cautious in speech? Is that what you call goodness?” Confucius said: “When something is difficult to do, how is it possible not to be cautious in speaking about it?”
Talk is cheap. Better to wait until you have clarified your thoughts on a major decision before sharing them with others. The earlier you talk, the greater the risk you’ll end up confusing and perhaps even disappointing people – not mention getting yourself into unnecessary trouble.
This article features a translation of Chapter 3 of Book 12 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 12 here.
(1) Confucius replies to the third successive question on goodness with a pun: the characters 仁 (rén/goodness) and 訒 (rèn/speak cautiously) are homonyms, though spoken in different tones. The incompatibility between goodness and shooting your mouth off is a theme that Confucius returns to time and time again in the Analects. So too is the importance of matching words with deeds.
(2) This passage provides another example of how Confucius tailors his response to the needs of his questioner. In this case, he is warning the impulsive and loquacious Sima Niu to avoid acting rashly and speaking hastily while he agonizes over what to do about the plans of his eldest brother, Huan Tui, to launch a coup against Duke Jing, the ruler of the state of Song. As a loyal official, Sima Niu should alert his ruler of his brother’s nefarious plot. As a filial brother, he should support Huan Tui or at the very least keep his mouth shut to keep him away from the executioner’s sword.
Given the acute sensitivity of his dilemma, Sima Niu couches his question in general terms with his enquiry about the nature of goodness. Not surprisingly, Confucius responds in the same way with his advice not to rush into a hasty decisions. It makes no sense for him to wade deeper into such potentially treacherous waters – not least because the brutish Huan Tui had attempted to assassinate him during a visit to Song in 492 BCE. See 7.22.
Ultimately, it appears that Sima Niu may have used Confucius’s advice as an excuse to do nothing. Although he didn’t get involved in Huan Tui’s coup, he didn’t warn Duke Jing of it either and had to resign his official post and flee to the state of Lu in 483 BCE after the uprising was put down.
I took this image on the climb up Jiuwufeng in the Four Beasts Scenic Area in Taipei.