Zilu asked how to serve the spirits and gods. Confucius said: “If you’re not yet able to serve other people, how are you able to serve the spirits?” Zilu said: “May I ask about death?” Confucius said: “If you don’t understand life yet, how can you understand death?”
Why waste precious time and energy worrying about things you can’t control when you have more than enough on your plate to deal with? Better to get the most out of your life by focusing on the here-and-now. That’s the only way of preparing for whatever happens when it’s over.
This article features a translation of Chapter 12 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.
(1) It’s interesting to note that this famous passage appears right after the account of Confucius’s reaction to the death of Yan Hui. Is this just a coincidence, I wonder, or an example of clever editing?
(2) The term 鬼 (guǐ) can also be translated as “ghosts”. In this context, it probably refers to the spirits of departed ancestors.
(3) Confucius was a humanist. He was concerned about how to improve people’s lives through ethical conduct and kindness towards others and had no time for the folk beliefs and tales of the supernatural that were very popular during his times. Other great Chinese philosophers of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods like Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi, and Han Feizi shared this interest even if they approached it from different directions. Although the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi have their mystical elements, they too were focused on how to improve the human condition. It wasn’t until later that folk beliefs were integrated into various schools of Daoism.
I took this image of an ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessel at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu.