Analects of Confucius Book 12: practical solutions and high-minded principles

In the first three chapters of Book 12 of the Analects, Confucius shows himself to be highly adept at defining the strengths and weaknesses of his followers Yan Hui, Ran Yong, and Sima Niu, and laying out the steps they need to take in order to progress further along the path towards goodness.

When it comes to the powerful political figures he engages with in the book, however, Confucius is nowhere near as effective as a communicator. Even though he is more than happy to reply to the questions raised by Ji Kangzi and Duke Jing of Qi, it’s almost as if he is talking at cross-purposes with them. While these powerful but insecure rulers are looking to the sage for immediate answers to pressing problems of the day, he chooses to lecture them on the general moral principles they need to follow rather than providing them with practical advice on how to address the specific issues they’re facing.

When Ji Kangzi asks about governance in 12.17, for example, Confucius responds with his standard leadership-by-virtue spiel by telling him that if Ji fixes himself first, others will naturally follow his example: “If you do the right thing who would dare not to do it?” Given his claim in 13.10 that he would have everything under control within a year if a ruler were to employ him, Confucius is no doubt convinced of the efficacy of his methods, but his answer is hardly likely to have appealed to a hard man like Ji.

The sage’s response to Ji Kangzi’s question in 12.18 about how to deal with the bandit problem that was afflicting Lu at the time is probably even less helpful than his previous one. Does Confucius seriously expect Ji to believe that hardened criminals would cease their pillaging and looting if he were to get rid of his own “avaricious desires?”

Naturally, Ji has neither the patience nor the desire to replace his luxurious robes with a hair shirt. He is a man of action rather than reflection who prefers much more expedient methods of making sure the population behaves itself. In 12.19, he goes as far as to baldly ask Confucius what he would think if he “were to execute people who don’t follow the way in order to advance the people who do follow the way?”

“You are here to govern,” Confucius shoots back, no doubt biting his lip hard to hold back his horror and exasperation at the sheer obtuseness of Ji’s question. “What need is there to execute people? If you desire goodness, the people will be good.”

Famously, and just as futilely, Confucius can’t resist signing off with a rousing rhetorical flourish in which he likens the virtue of a leader to the wind and the virtue of the common people to the grass, concluding: “When the wind blows over the grass it will surely bend.”

Even if Ji Kangzi was impressed by the sage’s command of language, it wasn’t enough to make his change his ways. Perhaps if Confucius had suggested some practical steps for Ji to take to reduce crime and improve the education of the populace, he might have had more success in persuading him to follow the true way.

Confucius’s response to Duke Jing of Qi in 12.11 is just as impractical as the ones he gives to Ji Kangzi. While he is no doubt correct in recommending that the duke should make sure his lords and ministers live to up to the grave responsibilities of their great offices, he gives no useful pointers on how he should actually go about making this happen amid the growing turmoil that is roiling the state over the choice of his successor. Presumably, Confucius is implying that the only way for the decadent ruler to let “lords be lords” and “ministers be ministers” is for him to start acting like a proper duke first, but he’s too polite to say that.

Politely, and just as futilely, the duke voices his agreement with the sage’s great wisdom – only to go on exactly as before and let his state fall ever deeper into decline. Just like Ji Kangzi and many other powerful figures in the Analects, he is beset by far too many other more serious short-term pressures to step on the arduous path to goodness.

Given that he was their guide and teacher, it’s no surprise that Confucius adopted a much more detailed and down-to-earth approach to mentoring his followers than when addressing the powers of his age. But perhaps if he had shown more willingness to provide the likes of Ji Kangzi and Duke Jing with practical solutions to the real-world challenges they faced, he would have had a much greater chance of persuading them to take a greater interest in the high-minded principles he preached.

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