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.
Whereas he saw the restoration of the traditional Zhou dynasty operating model established by his great hero the Duke of Zhou as the answer to the nation’s ills, the reality was that it had already been broken beyond repair over two centuries before his birth. Once the Zhou kingdom had fragmented into multiple quasi-independent states that were constantly contending with each other for supremacy, there was no possibility of putting them back together again into a single unified whole. Not even the dynamic duo of Duke Huan of Qi and his chief minister Guan Zhong were able to accomplish such a feat in their heyday during the first half of the seventh century BCE.
Despite witnessing the gross corruption, greed, and incompetence of the hereditary elite in his home state of Lu and others he visited, By always looking to past models of governance for inspiration and guidance, he was unable to even consider the possibility of developing new ones that offered more potential for bringing an end to the chaos and suffering of the tumultuous age he lived in than appealing to the better nature of the privileged elite who had brought the Zhou dynasty to its knees with their insatiable lust for riches and power.