Analects 1.5–Morality as a Political Expedient

(1.5) 子曰: 「道千乘之國,敬事而信,節用而愛人,使民以時。」 

TRANSLATION: The master said: “The right way (dao) to run a thousand chariot state is: to conduct(the state’s) business with respect and trustworthiness; be reserved in use of the people and care for them; cause the people to use their time well.

COMMENTARY: This is, I think, the first really difficult passage of the Analects. The difficulty of this passage is not philosophical, however–most of the problem here comes in the grammar and the translation. In fact, as far as philosophical content, I find this passage to be less robust than many of Confucius’s (although there are certainly some interesting issues raised which I’ll touch on below, especially with respect to political expediency).

GRAMMATICAL ISSUES–
The first difficulty encountered in this passage is just how to translate the two er fragments in the center of the sentence. The first is jing shi er xin, which I’ve translated as “to conduct business with respect and trustworthiness”, and the second is jie yong er ai ren, which I’ve translated as “be reserved in the use of people and care for them”. These can be translated another way as well, depending on what role we take the er to be playing here. One might read it as I have, or read it so the translation is “to conduct business with respect and be trustworthy” for the first, which is not so different from my translation other than that trustworthiness (xin) is an adverbial modifier of “conducting business” in my translation, and not in this version. In the second, the translation of er as a conjunction of two complete clauses makes it read “use (things or resources) reservedly and care for the people.” This makes a great difference from my reading of the er as a conjunction of two verbs. There is one main reason that I translate the passage the way I do. If the conjunction of complete clauses is what the two er in this passage are doing, I think we should expect them not to be there. Instead of using er, it seems the style of the writing in the Analects to extract an er when unnecessary, so that the passage would read: jing shi, xin, jie yong, ai ren instead of jing shi er xin, jie yong er ai ren.

PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES–
As I intimate in the title of this post, I think 1.5 is meant as a lesson that political expediency is served by actions which are for the most part those of a junzi, a good person. A thriving and powerful state can be brought about through following actions which are for the benefit of the people of the state, rather than directly for the benefit of the ruler. Part of the hint here is that the ruler will gain indirectly through the welfare of the people. The correct way to run and keep a large and powerful state (hence the introductory “state of a thousand chariots”, which would have been a wealthy state in Confucius’s time) is to rule in such a way that things follow the correct moral order, in such a way that the people of the state thrive. If one cares for the people, one will not break the backs of the people for frivolous things (such as the later Qin emperor’s building of the Great Wall or the inordinate taxing and working of the people on state projects). Although this, Confucius would contend, is the right way to act, part of the reason it is the right way to act is because it is politically expedient–that is, it is conducive to building and retaining a powerful state. The legalists will take political expediency as the number one priority, and they will have some different things to say about it than what Confucius says, but I see this as leading in the direction of the legalists. One key difference here is that actions we would for the most part consider as “good” actions serve as a political expedient for Confucius. Does Confucius think that this is the reason they are good? I contend that Confucius holds that these actions are good for a number of reasons, one of which is their expediency. As I have said elsewhere, I believe that for Confucius, the thriving society is the ground of morality, and as such, anything that leads to the thriving society is a good action. Part of a thriving society is surely wealth and power (though Confucius would disagree with Han Feizi that wealth and power are enough). Thus, it is not only an action’s conduciveness to the wealth and power of society that makes an action good, but it is a necessary condition for the goodness of an action. Note that the action doesn’t have to be foolproof–that is, it doesn’t inevitably have to bring about a wealthy and powerful state, it only needs to be conducive to bringing about such a state, in much the same way that we claim that eating fruits and vegetables are conducive to health, even though one may eat them and still be unhealthy. The component of success is unnecessary, even though it is the goal of the project. This is partly because one cannot control external forces. Despite one’s best efforts, the tide is often against one, and the most junzi-like of their actions will fail to bring about positive change. Thus it is necessary to morality for Confucius that we not worry about results so much, as this will damage our moral motivation, our willingness to try to bring about the thriving society.

One response to “Analects 1.5–Morality as a Political Expedient

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