Notes from the field: Confucius and the rectification of the names

rectification of the names

More by accident than design, I’ve completed my translations and commentaries for all the chapters in Book 13 of the Analects on my birthday. Not that I’m in any particular mood to celebrate given the darkening cloud that is shrouding the times that we live in.

While Confucius chose to never speak of pestilence and other natural disasters, he would certainly have had plenty to say about the fecklessness of the global ruling elite. He wouldn’t hold back his criticism of the tsunami of fake news and disinformation that is sweeping the planet either.

In 13.3, possibly the best known chapter of the book, Confucius makes an impassioned call for what in English is generally called the rectification of the names. “If the names aren’t correct, language doesn’t accord with the truth of things,” he tells his faithful follower and friend Zilu. “When language doesn’t accord with the truth of things, nothing can be carried out successfully… a leader must be able to give the appropriate name to whatever they want to talk about, and must also make sure they do exactly as they say. When it comes to speaking, a leader doesn’t allow any carelessness.”

Not too surprisingly, Confucius’s plea for honesty in language was met by a wall of silence from the governing elite of his time, who were more than happy to mouth moral platitudes in public while cavorting in the comfort of their palaces. It’s hard to imagine that current attempts to stem the tide of fakery will be any more successful this time. Indeed, given how easy it is to concoct dodgy content and dubious data at scale, it’s hard to see a possible solution emerging any time soon.

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery near Qufu in October last year.  You can read more about it here

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