More Chinese Wisdom: Confucius and Council

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AnalectsI was reading The Analects, this weekend, in the recent Penguin Classics edition translated by Annping Chin, a book I acquired on my recent mini-vacation in Toronto (one of about 30 books I purchased – a good trip for me). Confucius – Master Kong – is remarkable for his relevance to today’s politics and his insight into human behaviour, especially in a bureaucracy. Chin’s version is wonderfully clear and accessible, and her notes help clarify the passages where Westerners like me might find difficulty in understanding context (historical and cultural).

My purpose in reading The Analects this time is to seek the wisdom in these ancient words that can apply to today’s politics, with particular emphasis on local council politics. I’m going to quote some of the sections in her work and try to explain why I feel they have local resonance. For anyone interested in philosophy, politics or Oriental studies, I highly recommend her translation. I have also added alternate translations from Muller’s excellent online version because they add clarity.

And, of course, I recommend everyone in politics read them. No one can ever learn too much about how to behave.

9.25: A person should stay close to those who do their best and are trustworthy. He should not befriend those who are not his equals. And when he makes a mistake, he should not be afraid to correct it.

Muller translates this as, “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. When you make a mistake, don’t hesitate to correct it.”

In other sections, Confucius warns his followers not to judge a person by his or her popularity (or unpopularity), no matter how many people like (or dislike) the person. What matters is their trustworthiness, their respectability, their honesty, their uprightness. And here he again advises people to judge others on their trustworthiness.

People who lie, spread gossip and rumour, defame others are not trustworthy. They are not your equal. And if you make them so, you only lower your standards to their level. People are judged by the company they keep.

These lines are the same as the last three lines in 1.8. However, in that section, it also says:

If a man of position does not have integrity, he will not inspire awe. And when he tries to learn, he will not persevere to the end.

Residents are willing to forgive mistakes and flaws in their politicians, as long as they believe those politicians have integrity. If politicians make a mistake and admit it, people respect them. If they try to cover it up, ignore it, gloss over it, they will lose public respect.

Integrity, he adds, is also linked to perseverance. The person who does not persevere in learning has no integrity. People expect their politicians to learn to do their job properly. That means study and reading, not just showing up to meetings. That means learning all the Acts that govern them, too.

Similarly, in 16.4, it adds:

It would do you harm to be friends with those with practiced manners, an affected sweetness, a glib tongue.

Muller translates this as: “Friendship with the deceptive, friendship with the unprincipled, and friendship with smooth talkers are harmful.”

We all know people with attributes like these; they include some former politicians who, like spiders in their webs, still try to influence local politics from the shadows. They appear outwardly likable, affable, loyal and trustworthy, but it’s a sham. They are false friends, seeking only to further their own interests and ensnare others. The charming manners are a thin patina on ugly self-interest, dishonesty and lies. They will betray your trust because their interest lies not in your welfare, nor in the community’s well-being, but in their own goals and agendas.

12.15: The gentleman broadens his learning in literature and holds himself back with the practice of the rites. And so he is able not to go beyond the bounds of the moral way.

By gentleman, today we understand to mean a person (male or female) of character: honourable, respected and respectful, honest, upright and compassionate. The superior person. If this person is a councillor, we can assume ‘literature’ means the laws, codes, policies and guides that guide council members in their behaviour and the rites are their procedures. The upright councillor learns the laws and practices the proper procedures. Only then is he or she able to act in the best interests of the community and not stray from the path (the “narrow way”).

12.16: A gentleman helps others to realize what is good in them. He does not help others to realize what is reprehensible in them. A petty man is just the opposite.

Muller translates this as, “The noble man develops people’s good points, not their bad points. The inferior man does the opposite.”

Good councillors practice inclusive politics, bringing together people of all walks, regardless of their interests or opinions. Good councillors bring out the best in everyone and work for greater goals. Weak and petty councillors practice exclusive politics; they appoint only their friends to positions, look to punish opponents, and seek only to accomplish small, private agendas and hand out favours.

Which pretty much defines today’s council.

15.30: To make a mistake and not correct it – now that is called making a mistake.

Humans make mistakes. That is our nature. Nothing can change that. But the superior councillor admits the mistake and corrects it. With the numerous mistakes already made by this council, one can only assume the silence on them to be admissions of guilt without any effort at correction. That’s the real mistake. This is reinforced in 19.18:

When a petty man makes a mistake, he will try to gloss it over.

One cannot help but recall the comments Councillor Doherty made when she was accused of not declaring a conflict of interest in the Integrity Commissioner’s report. No mea culpas in her words!

16.8: The great man stands in awe of… Heaven’s mandate, of great men, and of the words of sages. The petty man is unaware of Heaven’s mandate; he belittles great men; and he regards the words of sages with mockery.

One might add that the petty man, who has done nothing to contribute to the greater good, attacks those who have done their best for the welfare of the community and delights in defaming others. The petty man has no concept of the greater good, only of his own interests and desires.

The ‘decree of Heaven’ or ‘Heaven’s mandate’ can be construed to represent the greater good. The superior politician puts it before all else. The inferior one pursues petty goals, vindictiveness, and personal agendas.

17.14: To hear something on the road and then right away launch into disquisition, that is to forsake virtue.

To heed and spread gossip, rumour, unsubstantiated allegations, defamation and lies is to lack virtue. Many good people in this town have been hurt by slander and libel, none of which has any basis in truth. But still some people – including several on council – prefer the disingenuous to the truth, the lie to the facts, even when demonstrably false, because it helps further their personal agendas and ambitions. They have forsaken their virtue.

Interestingly, Muller lists this as 17.12: “To apprehend the Way and lecture on it before actualization is to throw away your accumulation of virtue.”

In other words, to pontificate on government and process before you have read and understood all the laws and policies, before you have studied the agenda and procedures, is dishonourable. That definition fits the election campaigns of several at the table today.

19.10: The gentleman earns the trust of his people first, before he subjects them to arduous labour. If he does not have their trust, they will think he is trying to abuse them. He earns the trust of his ruler before he remonstrates with him. If he does not have this man’s trust, the ruler will think that he is trying to malign him.

There is so much contained in this section. Change ‘arduous labour’ to tax hikes and the first part becomes clear. Before raising taxes, council needed to earn the trust of the people by proving itself. It needed to prove its vision, its goals, its ability to manage our affairs. Which, of course, our council didn’t bother to do: council immediately raised our taxes and gave themselves a pay hike, while throwing $40,000 at “Senator Kathy” Jeffrey so she could party around the country at your expense. Little wonder few people trust this council.

The second part is about the relationship between council and mayor. This council immediately began with a confrontational, antagonistic approach to the mayor and has continued to push private agendas – many driven by outsiders – ahead of the greater good. Showing disrespect to the mayor only underscores the malignant pettiness of some councillors.

Interestingly, Muller translates this somewhat differently as: “After the ruler has the trust of the people, they will toil for him. If he doesn’t have their trust, they will regard him as oppressive. Only after gaining his trust will they criticize him openly. If he doesn’t trust them, he will take their criticism as backstabbing.”

Similar in wording to the first part, trust of the people has to be earned first. However, here Muller suggests that once trust is earned, people and council can engage in open, honest dialogue. If it is not earned, then council will see criticism as confrontation and hostility. Walls will be erected.

For decades, I have maintained that one can judge a government not by how it handles consensus, but rather by how it handles dissent. A good, open, accountable and transparent government embraces dissent as part of the healthy, democratic conversation. A bad one treats is as confrontation, as opposition, and tries to repress and stifle it. That was the unfortunate situation a couple of councils previously, and now it’s back again.

But of course, as the section notes in both translations, first the government has to win the people’s trust before any dialogue can occur. Otherwise it’s only the sycophants, flatterers and dissemblers who are listened to. But that trust has already been squandered.  Winning trust here is still but a far-off dream.

In Muller’s version, 17.5, Confucius lists the five attributes of a good person:

Courtesy, generosity, honesty, persistence, and kindness. If you are courteous, you will not be disrespected; if you are generous, you will gain everything. If you are honest, people will rely on you. If you are persistent you will get results. If you are kind, you can employ people.”

This list in Chin’s translation (17.6) includes: being respectful, large-minded, trustworthy, quick in response, and generous.

Quickness and boldness matter to the superior politician: procrastinating, waiting for ephemeral “plans” and “reports” in order to delay making a decision or sloughing off responsibility onto staff or committees is the sign of an inferior person.

In 17.6 (17.8 in Chin), he warns that each attribute requires learning to complete:

If you love being kind to others, but don’t like to study, then your kindness will be distorted into simplicity.
If you love wisdom, but don’t like to study, then your wisdom will be distorted into aimlessness.
If you love trustworthiness, but don’t like to study, then your trust will be distorted into harm.
If you love candor, but don’t like to study, your candor will be distorted into rudeness.
If you love boldness, but don’t like to study, your boldness will be distorted into unruliness.
If you love persistence, but don’t like to study, your persistence will be distorted into rashness.

As in many sections, Master Kong emphasizes the importance of learning: simply being good – or thinking you are good – is not enough. Learning makes us whole. Learning is an ongoing process, and has to be tackled actively and wholeheartedly, every day. For another example, in 19.6 it says:

Learn broadly and be constant in your effort. Ask questions that are pressing to you, and reflect on things close at hand…

One wonders how anyone who doesn’t even read his or her agenda before a meeting can be expected to ‘learn broadly.’ Even learning what was under discussion that night would be an improvement for some.

In many sections, Confucius refers to music – playing an instrument and singing – with the appreciation that a superior man of position was also cultured and understood the importance of the arts in political, social and private life.

8.8 The Odes are to stimulate our mind and spirit. The rites are to steady us. Music is the final lesson.

The Odes are poetry. Poetry and music, he says, are needed to perfect our nature. In a broader sense, we all need culture to perfect ourselves. It can be poetry, art, literature, film, music… in the Confucian world, culture is something one actively engages in. It raises us above the uncouth. It opens horizons and broadens our sensibilities.

And in our leaders we expect cultural sensibilities, not simply bureaucracy and taxation. Sadly what we have at present is a council heavy on the latter and remarkably light on the former. To paraphrase an old joke, “What’s the difference between Collingwood Council and a cup of yogurt?” “A cup of yogurt has culture!”

How can a council with such a tissue-thin understanding of culture and the arts appreciate the economic value of creativity? The strength in culture? It can’t: it is a council of Philistines whose main interest is their own paycheque. The creative economy and the landscape of culture are concepts wholly alien to them.

There are more sections that I will undoubtedly raise at a later date. But I think from this selection you can see that, if one judges council on Confucian terms, it fails in every aspect. It is too self-centred, petty, secretive, confrontational, exclusive, hostile to learning, unapologetic and uncultured to fit any resemblance to the Confucian” superior” ruler. Council has a lot of learning before it will be ready for the business of government.


A small digression: Politics, even when local, or a part-time position, is a full-time occupation. If you are at all serious about politics, if you take the business of governing as more than a lark, you have to eschew your personal life and your personal business for the matters of government. That also means showing up at every meeting, even when it interferes with other things. Like the critically important water meeting in Alliston last week – held on a Friday – that, although invited and expected, Deputy Mayor Saunderson didn’t attend.

George Washington Plunkitt, that deft master of machine politics, knew that you had to work at your trade to succeed:

That’s the a, b, c of politics. It ain’t easy work to get up to q and z. You have to give nearly all your time and attention to it. Of course, you may have some business or occupation on the side, but the great business of your life must be politics if you want to succeed in it.

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