Two quotes of Confucius

The classical Chinese philosopher Confucius and his disciples set out a vision of a society in which people aspired to become junzi. The term translates literally as ‘noble’s son’, more figuratively as ‘superior man’ (cf. Nietzsche’s Übermensch), and embodies ‘gentlemanly’ virtues: honesty, sincerity, good manners, a love of learning, selflessness, and, most importantly, humanity, putting the lives of human beings before pursuits for wealth or pleasure. In such a society, the people would value principled leaders, whose policies would benefit all and whose words would be just.

Society has changed massively since Confucius’ time, much for the better: it is difficult to justify returning to such a patriarchic, feudal and superstitious time. However, the ethical principles of his school are still hugely relevant, and leaders, as well as we the people who elect them, would do well to read the Analects, even if we do not agree with everything in there. In light of the upcoming general election, I would like to draw attention to two quotes in particular.

The Master [Confucius] said, “Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true virtue.”

Someone said, “Yong [a disciple] is truly virtuous, but he is not ready with his tongue.” The Master said, “What is the good of being ready with the tongue? They who encounter men with smartness of speech for the most part procure themselves hatred. I know not whether he be truly virtuous, but why should he show readiness of the tongue?”

As a bonus, here is an account from the Book of Mencius of Confucius’ disciple Mencius with a king of a city-state:

‘Your dogs and swine eat the food of men, and you do not make any restrictive arrangements. There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, “It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year.” In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying – “It was not I; it was the weapon?” Let your Majesty cease to lay the blame on the year, and instantly from all the nation the people will come to you.’

King Hui of Liang said, ‘I wish quietly to receive your instructions.’

Mencius replied, ‘Is there any difference between killing a man with a stick and with a sword?’

The king said, ‘There is no difference!’

‘Is there any difference between doing it with a sword and with the style of government?’

‘There is no difference,’ was the reply.

Mencius then said, ‘In your kitchen there is fat meat; in your stables there are fat horses. But your people have the look of hunger, and on the wilds there are those who have died of famine. This is leading on beasts to devour men. Beasts devour one another, and men hate them for doing so. When a prince, being the parent of his people, administers his government so as to be chargeable with leading on beasts to devour men, where is his parental relation to the people? Zhong Ni said, ‘Was he not without posterity who first made wooden images to bury with the dead? So he said, because that man made the semblances of men, and used them for that purpose – what shall be thought of him who causes his people to die of hunger?’

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