Analects Book 14: Confucius defends Guan Zhong to Zilu and Zigong

Confucius defends Guan Zhong

A total of seven followers of Confucius are featured in Book 14 of the Analects. The faithful Zilu and Zigong make the lion’s share of appearances, with six and four respectively. Yuan Xian, Nan Rong, Ran Qiu, Zengzi, and Zizhang are confined to solitary mentions. For Yuan Xian and Nan Rong, the book marks their final curtain call in the Analects.

Zilu and Zigong set off the most contentious discussion with Confucius in the book by questioning the goodness of Guan Zhong, the great chief minister of the state of Qi, in 14.16 and 14.17. When they imply that Guan Zhong should have committed suicide alongside his colleague Shao Hu following the execution of their master Prince Jiu, Confucius launches into two remarkable rants that reveal a much more hardheaded side of the sage’s character than is usually seen in the Analects.

Confucius defends Guan Zhong

In his defense of Guan Zhong, Confucius argues that the great statesman’s subsequent achievements in enabling his ruler, Duke Huan, to bring unity to the fragmented states within the Zhou kingdom and fight off invaders from outside more than make up for his earlier refusal to follow what was admittedly a rather extreme ritual convention.

Given his skewering of the likes of Ji Kangzi for their violations of ritual propriety, Confucius’s defense of Guan Zhong certainly opens the sage up to charges of inconsistency, if not downright hypocrisy. Worse still, the sheer disdain with which Confucius asks Zigong whether he would prefer it if Guan Zhong “had drowned himself in a ditch like some wretched husband or wife in their petty fidelity” does not exactly resonant with his calls for benevolent leadership from the ruling class of his. His making light of all-too-common tragedies of the poor being driven to suicide by the loss of their spouses, family members, and whatever meager possessions they may have owned is not a good look to say the least.

Unwittingly or not, this pair of chapters in Book 14 tell us far more about Confucius than Guan Zhong and exposed some previously hidden chinks in the thick moral armor in which he cloaked himself.

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