Analects Book 14: Confucius clings to traditional Zhou dynasty values

Confucius never claimed to be an original thinker, famously declaring in Analects 7.1: “I transmit but I don’t create. I am faithful to and love the past.”

Although his deep knowledge and admiration of ancient values, wisdom, and ritual provided a rich foundation for his teachings, they also constricted Confucius’s thinking about how best to solve the serious problems that were ripping China apart during the tumultuous Spring and Autumn period that he lived in. Continue reading Analects Book 14: Confucius clings to traditional Zhou dynasty values

Leadership Lessons from Confucius Project: Week 3, 2021 updates

last recorded event in Confucius’s life

I have spent most of the week examining the last recorded event in Confucius’s life: his futile audience with his ruler Duke Ai in 14.21. Strictly speaking, Confucius had no business at all informing the duke of the murder of his fellow sovereign Duke Jian of Qi because he was no longer a government official, but he probably thought the news was too important to hold back.

Perhaps Confucius would have been better off to keep it to himself, however, because he had no hope of persuading his weak and indecisive ruler to agree to his madcap scheme of launching a punitive expedition against Qi in order to bring Duke Jian’s murderer to justice. Even if he had by some miracle succeeded, he knew very well that Duke Ai did not have an army in any case – or the means to fund one. Continue reading Leadership Lessons from Confucius Project: Week 3, 2021 updates

Analects of Confucius Book 14: the sorry life of Duke Sadness

Although Duke Ai was the nominal ruler of the state of Lu, his power was so limited that he did not have much choice but to tell Confucius to talk to the Three Families about taking action against the murderer of Duke Jian of Qi.

It was not as if Duke Ai had an army to call into action in any case, even if he had wanted to, because control of that had long been ceded to the Ji, Meng, and Sun clans. Neither did he have any money to fund a new military force because tax collection was also under the management of the very same families, who allowed him barely enough income to maintain his estates let alone embark on any risky adventures. Continue reading Analects of Confucius Book 14: the sorry life of Duke Sadness

Analects Book 14: following the right path?

The sparseness of the prose in 14.21 gives us no idea how Confucius reacted to the refusal of Duke Ai to accept his proposal. We can only speculate about his feelings as he departed from the audience.

While it is reasonable to assume that Confucius was frustrated and disappointed at his weak ruler for his unwillingness to act against the murderer of a fellow sovereign, a much more interesting question is whether this episode caused him to wonder if all the time and effort he had devoted to restoring traditional Zhou dynasty values had been wasted. Continue reading Analects Book 14: following the right path?

Analects Book 14: Confucius vents his spleen at a rotten and rancid regime

Confucius’s call for Duke Ai to use force to punish the state of Qi following the murder of its ruler Duke Jian in 14.21 is remarkable given his previous lack of interest in martial affairs. The most memorable instance we have of him discussing the subject of warfare in the Analects is in 15.1, when he leaves the state of Wei after telling Duke Ling: “Although I have experience in handling ritual vessels, I have never studied military matters.”

If the account of his audience with Duke Ai in the Commentary of Zuo is to be believed, Confucius was even more adamant that his ruler should let slip the dogs of war on the usurper Chen Heng than is recorded in the Analects. Not only does he insist three times that his ruler should launch a military strike against Qi; he also claims with zero evidence that at least 50% of Qi’s population would support Lu when Duke Ai questions what the result of his proposed intervention would be. Continue reading Analects Book 14: Confucius vents his spleen at a rotten and rancid regime

Analects Book 14: an ignominious end for Confucius

There is an almost unbearable sense of pathos to the scene portrayed in 14.21. Confucius is in his early seventies having returned to his home state of Lu after fourteen years of fruitless searching for a senior government job that would enable him to put his principles practice. Although he is a senior advisor to the state now, it is not an official position and he has no power. His dreams of emulating his hero the Duke of Zhou by restoring the former greatness of the Zhou dynasty are over.

When Confucius learns that Duke Jian of the neighboring state of Qi has been assassinated, he feels he has a moral duty to report the news to his ruler Duke Ai. Even though he knows that the duke will do nothing about it, he goes ahead and takes a ritual bath in order to prepare himself properly for the audience. Even though he knows that strictly speaking he is breaking the very same ritual conventions he has spent his whole life promoting, he leaves his home and heads to the palace. Continue reading Analects Book 14: an ignominious end for Confucius

Analects Book 14: time for Confucius to throw in the towel?

What should an official do when government has become so cruel, capricious, and corrupt that even to “act boldly but speak cautiously” is no longer possible? In 14.37 Confucius allows that they can withdraw from their role under exceptional circumstances, though he is keen to stress that taking such a step can only be justified in a small number of exceptional cases.

Perhaps in considering this issue, Confucius is wondering whether it is time for him to throw in the towel himself. In 14.35, he laments to Zilu: No one understands me!” Continue reading Analects Book 14: time for Confucius to throw in the towel?

Leadership Lessons from Confucius Project: Week 2, 2021 updates

women in the analects

Women were excluded from holding formal positions of power by the Zhou dynasty operating system, though a small minority were able to wield it informally as wives, consorts, concubines, and mothers. The most famous or infamous example during the Spring and Autumn period was Nanzi, the wife or consort of the dissolute Duke Ling of Wei.

Some historians portray Nanzi as being as depraved as her husband, going as far as accusing her of conducting an incestuous affair with her brother. Even in the unlikely event that the stories about her scandalous behavior are true, that does not mean she was not an effective ruler. Although Confucius fails to mention it, it was almost certainly she who assembled and managed the team of officials that the sage mentions in 14.19. Continue reading Leadership Lessons from Confucius Project: Week 2, 2021 updates

Notes from the field: process improvements versus arbitrary outcomes

process improvements

Thanks to a couple of glasses of Swedish elderberry cider on Friday evening, I hit the Four Beasts trail an hour later than normal this morning. Talk about living on the edge! During the ascent, I ran into a hiker I hadn’t seen in a while who remarked on how much weight I’d lost since she last saw me. When I responded that I’d lost a little, she insisted that it had been a lot.

As much as I appreciated the compliment, I found myself wondering how overweight I’d been when I first started venturing out into the hills. Although I’d known that I could do with shedding a couple of pounds, I hadn’t seen it as a major problem. I certainly hadn’t considered it serious enough to track my weight as part of my exercise program. Continue reading Notes from the field: process improvements versus arbitrary outcomes

Analects Book 14: Confucius on how government officials should act

One of the key themes of Analects Book 14 is how government officials should act. Confucius gets the ball rolling in 14.1 when he defines shamefulness as “caring only about your salary no matter whether good or bad government prevails in the state” to his follower Yuan Xian.

In 14.2, he emphasizes the point that officials should care about more than securing a cozy sinecure by commenting that “a scholar-official who cherishes their material comfort isn’t worthy of the name.” They should devote themselves to fulfilling their responsibilities towards their ruler and the common people without concern for personal enrichment or career advancement. Continue reading Analects Book 14: Confucius on how government officials should act