I 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.