Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

The meaning of Analects 2.21


Someone said to Confucius, “Master, why don’t you engage in government?” The Master said, “The Book of Documents says, ‘Filial! But be filial, and a friend to your brothers, thus contributing to government.’ Why then do that other kind of ‘engaging in government’?”


I’ll suppose for the sake of argument that the reported exchange is authentic, and argue that it is not significant evidence of Confucius’ views.  Confucius is not aiming to communicate his views here.

He seems to say here that filial piety (and fraternity) amounts to a kind of participation in governance.  But there is no apparent suggestion about how that would be so.  Confucius does not elsewhere display a view on that topic that could argue against the importance of his holding office.

Would it have been out of character for Confucius to deflect a challenge about his lack of political achievement, or a feeler about his interest in an appointment, by way of a hopelessly vague statement serving mainly as a smokescreen? The only three points the remark at 2.21 suggests with any clarity are points Confucius probably regarded as false:

(1)  Confucius had no strong reason to pursue public office.

(In fact he had long been deeply concerned to find high public office.)

(2)  Confucius expected to continue doing plenty in the way of filiality and fraternity.

(In fact there would be relatively little occasion: for his parents were long dead, and probably his only brother had also passed.)

(3)  A person’s ongoing practices of filiality and fraternity make it less important for that person to serve in actual office.

(In fact, according to the rest of the Analects, Confucius thought that one’s personal virtues greatly increase the importance of one’s holding high office, and vice versa. He thought it crucial that the worthy be promoted and the rulers be virtuous.)

We might be tempted to think that whatever Confucius thought about his own case, he accepted the view 2.21 displays about the general relation between family virtue and government.  But it seems to me that 2.21 does not display any view on that topic.

One could speculate that Confucius did not mean to suggest or appeal to point (2) about his own family relations, but rather was arguing in general terms from the premise that if people in general were filial and fraternal, then there would be no need for them to serve in government, or no need for any particular talented and virtuous person to serve in government (as there would be plenty of adequate candidates).  But (a) there is no indication elsewhere in the Analects that Confucius held such a view.  And (b) that premise could hardly support unconcern with office in a real world that needed improvement.  So if this is the suggestion he meant to make, then, I submit, his remark was not designed to communicate his actual views on the question.

Even granting all these negative points, one might object that in light of Confucius’ general view that the family virtues are the root of all social and political virtue or norms, we may fairly take him at 2.21 as alluding to that general view, putting an exclamation point to it without articulating it or applying it in an intelligible way.  The remark could have succeeded in making such an allusion if the questioner knew that Confucius held that core view (but then why make the allusion?).  For my part, I do not myself know that Confucius held that view; I think he did not.  This post is part of my argument for that.

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