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.
When Confucius is led into the presence of his ruler, he reports the assassination of Duke Jing and asks him to punish Cheng Heng, the man responsible for it. Duke Ai does not even attempt to hide his lack of interest in the sage’s request. Even though he knows he has an obligation to obtain justice for the death of a fellow ruler, the duke does not have the stomach for it. He simply tells Confucius to report the incident to the heads of the Three Families, indirectly acknowledging that they are the true powers behind the throne.
Confucius politely protests at Duke Ai’s refusal to get involved in the affair, but his ruler is adamant. Obediently he reports the assassination to the heads of the Three Families and asks that they raise an army to go and punish Cheng Heng. As he already suspects, they refuse his request and send him on his way.
This incident marks an ignominious end for Confucius. The last embers of hope glowing inside him are extinguished and he never gets involved in politics again. His home state of Lu is so ridden with venality and violence that it is on the verge of collapse. The crumbling Zhou dynasty is not that far behind.
Confucius has done his best, but it has not been good enough. For all his hard work, he dies a failure two years later.