- What Would Confucius Do? Wisdom and Advice on Achieving Success and Getting Along with Others
The scholar’s professional hazard is becoming a pedantic pain in the posterior. In her new book, E. N. Berthrong argues that the Analects of Confucius contains a wealth of messages that could prove very helpful and important to our modern world if they were simply extracted from the wrapping of scholarly mumbo-jumbo that surrounds them. She no doubt has a point: it is a rare scholarly treatment of the Analects that is able to communicate the basic messages of the work to a layperson in a succinct and accessible fashion. This lively book, written in a popular, self-help style, succeeds in making important aspects of traditional Confucianism vivid for the contemporary reader in a way that more technical treatments simply could not match. In other respects, however, the popularization drive at times undermines the original goal: by turning Confucius into a self-help guru—a spokesman for “enlightened self-interest,” dispensing practical advice on how to climb the corporate ladder effectively—some genuinely important messages that Confucianism has for the modern Westerner become obscured.
Each section is introduced by a set of passages from the Analects, based on James Legge’s translation, but also echoing at times the contemporary style of Simon Leys, whom the author also consulted. The renderings are generally quite loose, at times overly so. For instance, Analects 6.16 reads in the original something like: “These days it is hard to get by without possessing the glibness of Priest Tuo or the physical beauty of Song Chao,” two unsavory historical characters of whom Confucius clearly disapproved. The comment itself is obviously a complaint —in Confucius’s corrupt age, superficial appeal substitutes for substance—and is part of a general theme in the Analects concerning the danger of glibness and physical beauty. Berthrong renders the passage, “A silver tongue and a comely face can make getting along with others a little easier,” which rather subverts the message, putting Confucius in the position of advocating glibness as a helpful social lubricant. For the most part, though, Berthrong’s version of the Analects works quite well, and these impressionistic renderings of the text are perhaps the best feature of the book—preserving the basic sentiments of the original Chinese, but rendering it in a lively, idiomatic form that speaks much more directly and clearly to the modern ear. Analects 17.24, for instance, reads in her version:
A civilized person should despise those who proclaim others’ shortcomings, those in low stations who slander their superiors, those who are brave but lack proper behavior, those who rush into action without thinking, the rigid of [End Page 71] mind, those who steal others’ ideas and pretend they are their own, those who think haughtiness is courage, and those who spout gossip as truth.
Some of the translations of technical terms, for instance junzi君子 as “civilized person,” are also very effective—less historically accurate than “gentleman,” perhaps, but also presenting less of a barrier to the modern reader, while still effectively conveying the basic range of the term.
The body of the text that follows the quotations consists of Berthrong’s commentary, which attempts to relate them to issues that are likely to concern the average white-collar, Western professional: someone attempting to balance personal and professional life, get along with others, and advance up the institutional or corporate hierarchy. At its best, this commentary makes the spirit of Confucius’s teaching come alive for the average reader in a way that simply cannot be achieved by a traditional scholarly approach. For instance, Berthrong presents a scenario involving a spiteful aunt who sends, as a belated wedding gift, a $15 gift certificate for a store in receivership. Natural responses might include returning the gift with a dismissive note or simply tossing it in the trash. A third possibility, though, would be to “thank Aunt...