Analects 15.7: When the Way Doesn’t Prevail…Bolt?
There’s a theme in the Analects that I always have a problem interpreting or understanding — the theme is on how an exemplary person (junzi) should behave (what is yi) when the Tao doesn’t “prevail” (when the overall conditions of society seem to be in decline). The central Analect is here at 15.7:
The Master said: “How upright was Yu! When the state possessed the Tao, he was straight as an arrow, and when the state lacked the Tao, he was also straight as an arrow. What a gentleman was Qu Boyu! When the state possessed the Tao, he served it, when the state lacked the Tao, he was able to roll up his talents and hide them away.”
Some Context: Yu was a minister for a larger state. When he died, he told his sons to bury him in a shabby coffin, because he had failed in getting a certain virtuous person promoted and a different vicious person dismissed from the court. After he died, the Prince encountered the burial and found out why Yu was shabbily buried. Feeling horrible about this (he was Yu’s prince), he fired the vicious person and promoted the virtuous one. Thus Yu is remembered as the person who “remonstrated with his lord with his corpse.” So that’s what Confucius is thinking of here.
Note here is that “true” and “gentleman” are not the same; the latter is better than the former. What Confucius seems to be suggesting here is that the gentleman knows how to respond to context, in this case, when the Tao is not prevailing and there are vicious people all around, s/he acts in a clever way, perhaps even acting stupid (he says this somewhere else). In this case, Yu fails to do that, as he remained just as insistent with those around him when things were good (Tao) as when they were bad.
In 5.2 Confucius suggests that Nan Rong, when the Tao did not prevail, hid himself away to avoid “punishment” and even disgrace. Clearly this is what he attributes to Qu Boyu in this case — he knows how to “roll up his talents” in a way and hide them when things are bad. But this leaves a lot of unanswered questions, specifically:
Why is it better to hide your talents when things are bad? Isn’t this precisely when they are most in need of use? Isn’t is selfish to hide your talents in such situations? For instance, there is 9.13:
Zigong said, “If you possessed a beautiful piece of jade, would you hide it away in a locked box, or would you try to sell it at a good price?” The Master replied, “Oh, I would sell it! I would sell it! I am just waiting for the right offer.”
Confucius’ point is a clear one: one’s exemplary nature, or virtue, is for others — this is where its value lies (I qualify this at the bottom). So to accumulate virtue and then not to share it would be inappropriate (pu yi). But he then throws in the important proviso: “…waiting for the right offer.” Of course he doesn’t mean money — there are many Analects describing the need for a student to want to learn before a teacher can engage them. Partly this is just realistic — students cannot learn if they do not desire to learn. They must come to the instruction looking for something. Otherwise it is useless.
Clearly, when the Tao is not prevailing, one of the issues will be that bad people abound, and those bad people will clearly not be looking for instruction in virtue. Okay; so Confucius is saying that they can’t be helped if they are reveling in their vice. So better to “tuck your jade away” for a time when they are looking for help. Save (or conserve) your energy, basically.
But he goes further in 5.2, and seemingly implies the same thing in 15.7. In 5.2, he suggests that you should not allow yourself to be wrongfully punished or shamed (this is a common theme in the Analects, it comes up both in discussions of disagreeing with family and with friends). Yu (in 15.7) goes too far in “being like an arrow” and may thus fail to be exemplary. Worse yet, many might perhaps even die trying to change their princes (or neighbors!) when they don’t want the help, or when they are bent on vice. The lesson here seems different from “conserve your energy,” and the claim appears odd. Seems as if there are at least two possible readings here:
1. Utilitarian: you can do the most good for others if you are still alive, so don’t get yourself killed for people who don’t want your help anyway. That allows you to be of maximum benefit overall (later, when the Tao prevails).
2. Virtue-ethical: it is dishonorable to treat yourself as a vessel (in this sense, as a causal lever whose only function is the maximization of others’ human excellence). You are yourself a dignified being, and thus there are times when you must respect this by “tucking away and hiding” who you are (this reminds me of Bernard Williams’ argument about integrity -here Confucius is arguing that part of our commitment is to ourselves, not just to others. As such, we cannot discard our commitments to live honorably to maximize excellence). In this sense, the value of the jade may well be partly — maybe even mostly — determined by the use to which it can be put, but an intrinsic part of its value would lie in its mere existence in the person, and in that person honoring it.
Of course, #2 raises interesting questions of its own, but here I’ll just note that it runs up against some other textual difficulties, such as the Confucian insistence that your “outside” persona and your “inside” persona match. Analect 5.25 is probably the most apt here.
The Master said, “Fine words, an insinuating appearance, and excessive respect;— Tso Ch’iu-ming was ashamed of them. I also am ashamed of them. To conceal resentment against a person, and appear friendly with him;— Tso Ch’iu-ming was ashamed of such conduct. I also am ashamed of it.”
I’ll just leave it here, because I’m not sure where to go with resolving this as of yet.
One possible conjecture: it may well be that this is one place where Confucius’ insistence on relational identity emerges. It would be wrong to think of virtue as just other regarding, because those others are me in a very real sense. Being virtuous requires, in Slote’s sense (2001) balancing different concerns. In this case, being virtuous might mean seeking to balance the virtue of others with my own virtue, such that one can never be sacrificed for the other without surrendering the importance of the relationship (if I am a causal level just for you, then it’s just you that matters, and then there aren’t two individuals, there’s just one — the other — and a vessel, me). If this happens, then the fundamental ground for jen — excellent relationships — disappears.