What should an official do when their government has become so cruel, capricious, and corrupt that even to “act boldly but speak cautiously” is no longer possible? In 14.37 Confucius allows that they can withdraw from their role under extraordinary circumstances, though he is keen to stress that taking such a step can only be justified in a small number of exceptional cases.
Perhaps in considering this issue, Confucius is wondering whether it is time to throw in the towel. In 14.35, he laments to Zigong: “No one understands me!” When an itinerant recluse happens to be passing by his house in 14.39, he cannot help but notice that Confucius is perturbed when he hears the sage striking some stone chimes: “Whoever is playing music like that seems to have something else on his mind!”
A short while afterwards, the recluse goes on to do some striking of his own, right at the heart of the malaise that is troubling Confucius. “What a tiresome racket!” he tells Confucius. “If no one understands what you are trying to say, keep it to yourself!”
Confucius is so stunned by the man’s frankness that he is unable to fire back a fitting response. He does not have much of an answer either when Weisheng Mu, another recluse, asks him in 14.32 whether he is flitting around “preaching all over the place” just to show how clever he is. “I wouldn’t dare presume that I am clever,” he replies lamely. “I simply can’t stand willful ignorance.”
Despite his growing doubts, Confucius refuses to give up. Perhaps another probable recluse, a warden at the Stone Gate in the capital of Lu, best sums up Confucius’s determination to soldier on with his mission in 14.38. When the warden learns that Zilu has come from Confucius, he says: “Isn’t he the one who knows he’s trying to achieve the impossible but still keeps on doing it?”
While Confucius is willing to accept that others have the right to withdraw from the vicious and violent political arena of his day in order to protect their integrity and even their lives, he feels compelled to keep on fighting the good fight despite the insurmountable obstacles he meets along his way.
There are lots of entertaining conspiracy theories about why these passages about Confucius’s encounters with primitivist recluses are included in the Analects. Some give the blame to cunning Daoists who allegedly inserted them in the text to show that even the sage himself had doubts about his own teachings. Judging by the sophisticated language used by these characters, however, it is also highly possible that the passages are “reimaginings” of encounters Confucius may have had during his travels rather than true accounts of actual conversations. None of this really matters. It is only natural that Confucius would have had occasional doubts about his chosen path, particularly while he was tramping around the rutted byways of the poor and backward countryside. The inclusion of these passages only serves to enrich the Analects by giving us a more rounded view of Confucius.
This image was taken in the tomb of the mother of Mencius just outside Qufu.