Interview with Confucius

Posted: May 16, 2008 12:01 AM
Interview with Confucius

It was definitely time to see the old man again. Things were starting to get to me. I found myself replying to the day's crank letters. I was even opening my irate e-mails, a sure sign things had gotten out of control. I needed a cup of hot tea and a long talk with a wise elder.

That's how I found myself once again in the obscure little Chinese restaurant where he hangs out these days. The aroma of won ton and orange-flavored beef greeted me as I opened the door, welcoming and soothing. The tea was already brewing, the steam rising like good sense above vain things.

It had been a long time, yet it was as if the master had been expecting me. He greeted me with the hint of a smile, neither obsequious nor haughty, but welcoming without showing it.

"Inscrutable as ever," I murmured, easing into the booth across from him.

"See how he operates, observe what path he follows, examine what he is satisfied with, and how can a man remain inscrutable, how can a man remain inscrutable?" (Book 2, Saying 10.)

"Easy enough for you to say," I replied, "sitting here removed from it all. But what about those of us out there peddling our opinions in the public prints who must put up with the slings and arrows of readers? Not to mention the condescension of life's winners and the anger of its losers, the envy of the poor and the indifference of the rich, the stupidity of clods and the charity of our betters, the jealousy of the untalented and, worst of all, the pity of the gifted. Intolerable."

"One does not worry about the fact that other people do not appreciate one. One worries about not appreciating other people." (Book 1, Saying 16.)

"But we can't all be sages, Master Kong. Some of us are just inky wretches. I don't ask a philosopher to empathize, but can't you sympathize?"

"Not to be resentful at others' failure to appreciate one - surely that is to be a true gentleman?" (Book 1, Saying 1.)

"The tea is delicious, master, and fortifying. Much like your words. But may I be so bold as to point out that we're talking about newspaper people here, not gentlemen. Anyway, how could you tell a gentleman these days even if you ran across one? Aren't they extinct?"

"The gentleman puts his sayings into action before adopting them as mottoes. The gentleman has universal sympathies and is not partisan. The small man is partisan and does not have universal sympathies." (Book 2, Sayings 13-14.)

"Yeah, well, a philosopher might say that, but the rest of us have got to operate in a two-party system. I notice you steer clear of politics. How come you never took part in government?"

"It is because I have not yet been tried out in office that I have developed accomplishments." (Book 9, Saying 7.)

"Is there any way to boil down your counsel into some simple principle that even a round-eyed barbarian might grasp?"

"If you do not want others to inflict something on you, you also should want to avoid inflicting it on others." (Book 5, Saying 12.)

"Good advice. It sounds familiar somehow. Like a golden rule. But I need something, well, more original. If I'm going to get a column out of this interview, I'll need something zingier, something with a clever twist to it."

"Clever words upset virtue. (Book 15, Saying 27.) What is the point of eloquence? Those who confront others with a ready tongue are often hated by them." (Book 5, Saying 5.)

"Yeah, so I've discovered, but the virtuous are often hated, too, especially those who aren't eloquent."

"I have never come across anyone who admires virtue as much as he admires sexual attraction." (Book 9, Saying 18.) "How perceptive. We are sexual creatures, after all. Male and female He made us. But what about those of us who aren't so attractive, and risk criticism every day? We yearn for admiration instead."

"My disciple Hui is of no help to me. In my words there is nothing which he does not admire." (Book 11, Saying 4.)

"I suppose we do learn from our critics."

"One does not worry about the fact that other people do not appreciate one. One worries about not being worthy." (Book 14, Saying 30.)

"Thank you, Master Kong, and not just for the tea."

The master smiled a smile neither obsequious nor haughty, but bestowed with a certain guarded but clear beneficence. I bowed in farewell. And gratitude. The old man does put things in perspective. The food looked good in the Chinese place, but I passed it up. I already had my take-out.

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