After such a meteoric rise to prominence during the rule of the Shining Duke, Confucius’s absence from the court did not go unnoticed. He was even asked why he did not involve himself in the running of the state.
He replied: ‘I am a loyal son; I am a dutiful brother. These qualities are part of the running of the state. I am already part of the government, why should there be more?’ His words were an allusion to the Book of History, but they are often quoted as if they were his own, since they seem to contain so much of his essential attitude. He venerated his dead parents, he cared for his disabled brother, and he tried to lead by example, hoping that if everyone did as he did, the troubles of the world would cease. One of the central tenets of Confucianism, lasting for two millennia since his time, has been that everyone has duties according with their rank and immediate responsibilities, and that if they are all carried out suitably, then the bigger issues resolve themselves.
‘Never let your faith falter,’ he said to his disciples. ‘Love learning. If attacked, be ready to die for truth. Do not enter a place of danger, nor a state in revolt. When justice prevails under Heaven, then show yourself. When it does not, then hide your face. When government is good, be ashamed of poverty and deprivation. When government is bad, be ashamed of riches and honour.’
The Analects gives us several glimpses of the lively debates that went on in Confucian classes. Posterity has given us Confucian sayings handed down as if they sprung fully formed from the Master’s brain, but many of his conclusions were tested, honed and refined over years of seminars and debates. Confucius encouraged deduction and argument in his academy – students were expected to defer to their teachers, but also to speak up when they had questions. All Confucius demanded of his charges was that they be willing to learn.
‘There is no point in teaching those who do not wish to learn,’ he said, ‘nor in helping those who do not ask for it. If I present one corner of a subject, and my students cannot deduce the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.’
(from Confucius: A Biography, by Jonathan Clements. Sutton Publishing, 2004)