He was now sixty-nine years of age, and if a man is to be considered successful only when he succeeds in realizing the dream of his life, he must be deemed to have been unfortunate.
our selection from Confucianism and Taouism by Robert K. Douglas published in 1889. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in twelve easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Confucius.
Time: 551 BC – 479 BC
He was now sixty-nine years of age, and if a man is to be considered successful only when he succeeds in realizing the dream of his life, he must be deemed to have been unfortunate. Endowed by nature with a large share of reverence, a cold rather than a fervid disposition, and a studious mind, and reared in the traditions of the ancient kings, whose virtuous achievements obtained an undue prominence by the obliteration of all their faults and failures, he believed himself capable of effecting far more than it was possible for him or any other man to accomplish. In the earlier part of his career, he had in Loo an opportunity given him for carrying his theories of government into practice, and we have seen how they failed to do more than produce a temporary improvement in the condition of the people under his immediate rule. But he had a lofty and steady confidence in himself and in the principles which he professed, which prevented his accepting the only legitimate inference which could be drawn from his want of success. The lessons of his own experience were entirely lost upon him, and he went down to his grave at the age of seventy-two firmly convinced as of yore that if he were placed in a position of authority “in three years the government would be perfected.”
Finding it impossible to associate himself with the rulers of Loo, he appears to have resigned himself to exclusion from office. His wanderings were over:
“And as a hare, when hounds and horns pursue,
Pants to the place from whence at first he flew,”
he had lately been possessed with an absorbing desire to return once more to Loo. This had at last been brought about, and he made up his mind to spend the remainder of his days in his native state. He had now leisure to finish editing the Shoo King, or Book of History, to which he wrote a preface; he also “carefully digested the rites and ceremonies determined by the wisdom of the more ancient sages and kings; collected and arranged the ancient poetry; and undertook the reform of music.” He made a diligent study of the Book of Changes, and added a commentary to it, which is sufficient to show that the original meaning of the work was as much a mystery to him as it has been to others. His idea of what would probably be the value of the kernel encased in this unusually hard shell, if it were once rightly understood, is illustrated by his remark, “that if some years could be added to his life, he would give fifty of them to the study of the Book of Changes and that then he expected to be without great faults.”
In the year B.C. 482 his son Le died, and in the following year he lost by death his faithful disciple Yen Hwuy. When the news of this last misfortune reached him, he exclaimed, “Alas! Heaven is destroying me!” A year later a servant of Ke K’ang caught a strange one-horned animal while on a hunting excursion, and as no one present, could tell what animal it was, Confucius was sent for. At once he declared it to be a K’e-lin, and legend says that its identity with the one which appeared before his birth was proved by its having the piece of ribbon on its horn which Ching-tsae tied to the weird animal which presented itself to her in a dream on Mount Ne. This second apparition could only have one meaning, and Confucius was profoundly affected at the portent. “For whom have you come?” he cried, “for whom have you come?” and then, bursting into tears, he added, “The course of my doctrine is run, and I am unknown.”
“How do you mean that you are unknown?” asked Tsze-kung. “I don’t complain of Providence,” answered the Sage, “nor find fault with men that learning is neglected and success is worshipped. Heaven knows me. Never does a superior man pass away without leaving a name behind him. But my principles make no progress, and I, how shall I be viewed in future ages?”
At this time, notwithstanding his declining strength and his many employments, he wrote the Ch’un ts’ew, or Spring and Autumn Annals, in which he followed the history of his native state of Loo, from the time of the duke Yin to the fourteenth year of the duke Gae, that is, to the time when the appearance of the K’e-lin warned him to consider his life at an end.
This is the only work of which Confucius was the author, and of this every word is his own. His biographers say that “what was written, he wrote, and what was erased, was erased by him.” Not an expression was either inserted or altered by any one but himself. When he had completed the work, he handed the manuscript to his disciples, saying, “By the Spring and Autumn Annals I shall be known, and by the Spring and Autumn Annals I shall be condemned.” This only furnishes another of the many instances in which authors have entirely misjudged the value of their own works.
In the estimation of his countrymen even, whose reverence for his every word would incline them to accept his opinion on this as on every subject, the Spring and Autumn Annals holds a very secondary place, his utterances recorded in the Lun yu, or Confucian Analects, being esteemed of far higher value, as they undoubtedly are. And indeed the two works he compiled, the Shoo king and the She king, hold a very much higher place in the public regard than the book on which he so prided himself. To foreigners, whose judgments are unhampered by his recorded opinion, his character as an original historian sinks into insignificance, and he is known only as a philosopher and statesman.