Leadership Lessons from Confucius: making the ultimate sacrifice

Confucius said: “No true scholar-official or good person would compromise their goodness to save their life; indeed, they might even sacrifice their life to achieve goodness.”
子曰:「志士仁人,無求生以害仁,有殺身以成仁。」

How strong are your personal values? How high a price would you be willing to pay to defend them? Or do you secretly hope that you will never have to truly put them to the test?

These are questions you should reflect on before proudly proclaiming your support for the latest noble cause. If you are just adding your voice to the growing chorus because you think you ought to perhaps you should sit this one out. There are only so many initiatives you can focus on if you are to have any chance of achieving a meaningful impact. Better to drill deeper rather than wider if you are to hit the motherlode.

Notes
This article features a translation of Chapter 9 of Book 15 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 15 here.

(1) This is a curious passage. Confucius was not usually given to such hyperbole. Nowhere else in the Analects does he go as far as to suggest that people should lay down their lives for his way of goodness. He was much more of a moderate than an extremist.

(2) Confucius is presumably speaking in hypothetical terms here. Given how difficult he claimed it was to achieve this exalted state, the Zhou kingdom was hardly crawling with exemplars of goodness. Even among his followers, only Yan Hui came close to meeting the required standard, but he disappeared from the scene quite early on. Rather than point to a specific example of a role model who laid down their life for the cause of goodness, the best Confucius can do here is talk in extremely vague generalities.

I took this image at the Mencius Cemetery in Qufu.

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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.