Analects Book 14: Confucius’s failure to achieve his lifelong dream
One of the consequences of Confucius’s faithfulness to the past was that he always saw himself as a high-level minister in the mold of his hero the Duke of Zhou and never aspired to become a ruler of a state himself.
This meant that Confucius had to devote himself to the thankless tasking of finding an appropriate ruler to work for who would be willing to listen to his advice and allow him to implement the government and social reforms that he recommended.
During the reign of Duke Ding of Lu, Confucius made rapid progress towards reaching his goal. Following a successful stint as governor of Zhongdu, a district located in modern-day Wenshang County in Shandong province, he was appointed Minister of Works and subsequently Minister of Justice. In 500 BCE, he reached the zenith of his official career by achieving a great diplomatic victory at the Xiagu conference convened to formalize a peace treaty between Lu and the neighboring state of Qi.
Just three years later, however, after an unsuccessful attempt to weaken the power of the Three Families, Confucius left his home state for pastures new and ended up spending fourteen years away from it in a fruitless quest for employment with rulers from other states. The closest he came to finding a position was a brief stint in the government of Duke Ling of Wei. But he quickly gave that up because, if Analects 15.1 is to be believed, he was not interested in providing the duke with advice on military affairs.
After his return to Lu in 483 BCE Confucius had a number of conversations with Duke Ai, the successor to Duke Ding, but his sovereign was too weak to put any of his recommendations into practice. The duke’s refusal to entertain Confucius’s proposal to launch a punitive expedition against the murderer of Duke Jian of Qi not only brought their relationship to an end. It also provided a poignant, perhaps even brutal, reminder of Confucius’s failure to achieve his lifelong dream of restoring the Zhou dynasty to its former glory.
Perhaps if he had possessed the imagination and courage to loosen the straitjacket that his loyalty to the Zhou dynasty kept him in, Confucius would have had a much greater chance of achieving a much more positive impact during his lifetime. But that is another story for another day.