Confucius went to see Nanzi (the consort of Duke Ling of Wei). Zilu was not happy. Confucius swore: “If I have done wrong, may heaven punish me! May heaven punish me!”
No matter how honorable your intentions are, it’s inevitable that there will come a time when someone views your words or actions in a less than favorable light. This can be particularly hurtful when your motives are questioned by a friend as close as Zilu was to Confucius. No wonder he begs heaven to punish him if he has erred!
Commentators and scholars have spilled gallons of ink debating the rights and wrongs of Confucius’s meeting with Nanzi, the (allegedly) scheming and lustful consort of the corrupt and depraved Duke Ling of Wei. Some argue that Confucius had no choice but to accept the invitation to meet with her because it would have been impolite to refuse it. Others, however, ascribe much baser motives behind his highly unusual and uncharacteristic decision to agree to an audience with an admittedly powerful woman. They suggest that his aim was to curry favor with her to secure a job as a minister in the Wei court or even to conduct an affair with her.
The latter suggestion is highly unlikely, but Zilu’s unhappiness at his master’s behavior does imply that there was a certain grubbiness about the incident that even Confucius’s calls for heavenly retribution don’t succeed in scrubbing entirely clean. But even if he was entirely innocent, I can’t help thinking that Confucius should have apologized to his faithful follower and friend for giving him cause for concern rather than praying for divine intervention.
This article features a translation of Chapter 28 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.
I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu.