Although he grew up in relative poverty, Confucius had no interest in wealth for its own sake even if it was generated through what many would consider as legitimate business activities. Despite his close relationship with Zigong, he couldn’t resist the occasional digs at his follower’s wheeling and dealing. Many critics have even blamed him for holding back China’s economic development because of what they see as his disdain for the profit motive.
Confucius was even more critical of the rich and powerful who accumulated wealth through illegitimate means. He was particularly vociferous in his opposition to the notorious Three Families for their brutal exploitation of the common people of Lu through excessive taxation and venal corruption. This was a key bone of contention in his volatile relationship with his follower Ran Qiu, who made a fortune from serving as a steward for the powerful Ji family.
Confucius neatly sums up his attitude in 7.11 when says: “If wealth were worth pursuing, I’d go after it even if it meant working as a lowly official.” “But since it isn’t,” he continues, “I prefer to pursue what I love.”
In 7.15, he proceeds in a similar vein by proclaiming in quasi-melodramatic terms: “Even if you have only coarse grain to eat, water to drink, and your bent elbow to use as a pillow, you can still find joy in these things. But wealth and honors obtained by improper means are like passing clouds to me.”
Confucius thus believed that you should have a higher purpose in your life than the pursuit of wealth. If making money is your only goal, you will never be satisfied no matter how much you manage to accumulate by fair means or foul.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.