Analects Book 18: consummate conduct

18.1 neatly illustrates the context-specific nature of consummate conduct (仁/rén). Even though Weizi, Jizi, and Bi Gan take different tacks after failing to persuade the tyrant Zhouxin to abandon his wicked ways, Confucius praises them equally for their actions.

Just because Bi Gan suffers a much grislier fate than Weizi and Jizi, Confucius holds him in no higher regard than them. This is because he deems that all three men took the most appropriate course of action in dealing with the situation they faced based on their particular circumstances and the other obligations they had to meet.

As Zhouxin’s elder brother, Weizi’s greatest responsibility was to protect the royal family’s ancestral temple for future generations. Rather than risk losing his life in an unequal fight with his younger but far more powerful brother, he did the right thing by feeling into exile. Better to preserve the very root of the family than to let it be destroyed in a pointless struggle.

As Zhouxin’s oldest uncle and his most senior advisor, Jizi had a duty to stick around in case he was needed later on to pick up all the shattered pieces of his nephew’s disastrous reign and restore order to the government. Thus, he made the correct choice to survive at all costs by feigning madness instead of remaining in the firing line.

As for poor Bi Gan, he was neither as important as his brother Jizi nor did he have any family members to protect. With much less to lose than them (except of course his life), he had not only the freedom but also the duty to criticize the autocratic behavior of his nephew — no matter how terrible the price.

As these three rather extreme examples show, there are no cast iron rules for defining what constitutes consummate conduct. It requires having the right blend of knowledge, experience, ethics, and courage to take the appropriate action in whatever circumstances you find yourself in. Even for Confucius, this was a difficult state to achieve. By his own admission, he was not able to reach it until the age of seventy.

I shot this image in a hillside temple on the Four Beasts near to Taipei.

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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.