Analects Book 18: three allegorical tales

It is probably no coincidence that the three allegorical tales in 18.5 to 18.7 come immediately after the scene in 18.4 showing Confucius storming out of his Lu in protest at the ruler and chief minister of his home state cavorting with a troupe of female entertainers sent by the state of Qi.

In the space of just two chapters, he is reduced from the height of his career to the low of chasing after the so-called Madman of Chu in the middle of nowhere. Talk about pride before the fall! One minute he is a highly accomplished official with a great future ahead of him; the next he is tramping around the countryside in a fruitless search for a job shunned by just about everyone.

In vast majority of the conversations Confucius has in the Analects, he is the one who has the last word. In these three passages, however, Confucius does not even have the opportunity to talk with the recluses who criticize him — much less respond directly to their barbed criticisms of his conduct. It is as if Confucius has become so far removed from society that nobody will spare the time of day to even acknowledge him. Perhaps by extension, he has become so detached from reality with his stubborn insistence on continuing his mission to restore order to the world no matter what the personal cost that no one sees the point of attempting to dissuade him from following the path he has set for himself.

Some commentators have gone as far as to speculate that these three passages were inserted by Daoists in order to show the futility of Confucius’s quest and question the validity of his teachings. Wouldn’t he have been better off retiring from the corruption and decadence of the court to lead a simpler and purer life tilling the fields of the remote countryside?

Confucius, however, refuses to even consider such a possibility. It is precisely because the world is in such a bleak and chaotic state that he has the duty to keep on with his pursuit even if the chances of success are zero: “If the world were following the way, I would not have to try to reform it.”

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.