[Reflections] Quixotic Confucius

The Analects of Kongzi (Confucius) is full of delicious little anecdotes. In one, a gatekeeper speaking to Zilu, a disciple of Kongzi, asks of Zilu’s master: “Isn’t he the one who knows that what he does is impossible and yet persists anyway?” (Analects 14.38). The tone is mocking but the description is pretty accurate. Living in the turbulent Spring and Autumn period of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, Kongzi looks wistfully back at the golden age of the Western Zhou dynasty several centuries earlier. “I transmit rather than innovate,” he says. “I trust in and love the ancient ways” (Analects 7.1).

Kongzi doesn’t so much argue for the superiority of Western Zhou virtue as try to exemplify that superiority in his own conduct and bearing. He’s out of step with his times but refuses to bend to expediency or what others see as common sense. “If wealth were something worth pursuing, then I would pursue it,” he remarks. “Since it is not worth pursuing, however, I prefer to follow that which I love” (Analects 7.12).

On a recent reading of the Analects, it struck me that Kongzi has a lot in common with Don Quixote. Both feel nostalgic for a nobler time several centuries in their cultural past and persist in living out the values of that time in a world that doesn’t understand them. Many of their contemporaries find them laughable but they carry out their duties with unruffled dignity.

Of course there’s the obvious difference in tone. Don Quixote is a comic novel and the Analects take Kongzi seriously. The comedy of Don Quixote gets its lift from the title character’s delusional state. Don Quixote seems genuinely to believe that he’s a knight errant in the Medieval past. Kongzi is under no illusion about his times or his place in them. He persists even though he knows that what he does is impossible. In that regard, Kongzi is a tragic figure rather than a comic one.

Like so much comedy, Don Quixote plays on a yawning gap in perspectives. Don Quixote sees the world one way, his foil Sancho Panza sees it another, and we the readers see it in yet another. Kongzi, too, sees his world radically differently from most of his contemporaries but he also sees them more acutely than they see themselves. There are touches of humour in the Analects but they mostly consist in wry aperçus from Kongzi. When Kongzi learns a disciple who is given to criticizing others, he remarks, “What a worthy man that Zigong must be! As for me, I hardly have the time for this” (Analects 14.29). The primary figures of fun are blustering and militaristic lordlings for whom the ends justify any means. One advantage Kongzi draws from his careful study of archaic ritual is a perspective that transcends his turbulent present.

But then maybe the same could be said of Don Quixote. We may misread him when we take him to be the butt of the joke. If Don Quixote seems ridiculous, it’s because the world he inhabits is spiritually debased and has no place for chivalry. Like Kongzi, he’s too good for our world. If there’s a joke here, the joke’s on us.

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