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.

When good government prevails in the state, Confucius goes on to explain in 14.3, officials should be willing to “speak boldly” to highlight problems that need to be addressed and “act boldly” to tackle them. Even when bad government prevails, they should continue to act boldly for the common good while speaking cautiously so as not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves. Given that a poorly timed or poorly phrased intervention could cost an official their life, this was exceedingly sound advice!

When Zilu asks Confucius how to serve a ruler in 14.22, Confucius stresses the need for officials to be honest and courageous: “Don’t deceive them; be willing to oppose them (at the appropriate time).” In 14.26, he warns against wasting precious time and energy meddling in other people’s affairs: “Don’t concern yourself with the affairs of an office that you don’t hold.” Just in case, you do not get the point, his follower Zengzi adds: “A leader would never consider overstepping the bounds of their position.”

Confucius best sums up the attitude officials should adopt towards their role in 14.30: “Don’t be concerned if people fail to recognize what you’ve accomplished; be concerned about what you haven’t been able to accomplish yet.” Good officials should be devoted to carrying out their duties rather than climbing the career ladder even when bad government prevails. They should have no time for complacency because there is always important work for them to do.

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