Analects Book 17: Confucius stumbles along his arduous path

In Book 17, it is not only Confucius who has the opportunity to define the elusive qualities of an exemplary person. His followers Ziyou and Zilu also weigh in on the topic with two terse comments that sharply rebuke their master for his failure to live up to the high standards required for someone to achieve this ideal.

When Confucius makes a patronizing comment about a ritual ceremony being held in the rough border town of Wucheng where Ziyou is magistrate in 17.4, Ziyou admonishes the sage by saying that he has heard him say in the past: “‘An exemplary person who has been instructed in the way loves all people; ordinary people who have been instructed in the way are easy to manage.’”

To his credit, Confucius acknowledges his mistake and claims that the comments he just made were a joke. But his snobbery must have left a bitter taste in the mouth of Ziyou, who had worked assiduously to instill the values that Confucius had taught him into the local population. Talk about never meeting your heroes!

Zilu also throws Confucius’s words back at him with his stinging riposte in 17.7. When he learns that the sage is considering offering his services to a rebellious retainer in the state of Jin called Bi Xi, he thunders: “Master, in the past I have heard you say, ‘An exemplary person does not enter the domain of those who commit evil.’ Bi Xi is using his stronghold of Zhongmou as the base of a rebellion. How can you contemplate going to join him?”

Although Confucius concedes that he did use the saying in the past, he attempts to bluster his way past Zilu’s objection by claiming that he will only join Bi Xi in the pursuit of a noble cause. Perhaps because he realizes the weakness of his argument, he goes on to lament: “Am I no more than a bitter gourd that is hung on a piece of string instead of being eaten?”

With his snobbery towards the people of Wucheng and his cry of frustration at his failure to secure a position that will enable him to restore the fading glories of the Zhou dynasty, Confucius behaves in a manner that is the very antithesis of the proper conduct of an exemplary person. Even for someone as committed as he is to accomplishing this goal, the path is a long and arduous one.

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Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.