What does Confucius have to say about revenge?

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Thursday May 29, 2014

From our previous discussion, it is clear that Confucius believes that we should not retaliate by returning evil for evil. People who are evil should be met with uprightness and justice, as they will always reap what they sow. Virtue should be recompensed with virtue which goes without saying. It is of course utterly despicable to repay virtue with malice.

Malicious and unprincipled people there will always be. Instead of getting into such company, Confucius urged his disciples to first check themselves that they are principled and imbued with the right values, such as trustworthiness and propriety. He then taught them to identify knaves (小人), who are unprincipled and untrustworthy, in order that they can avoid untoward encounters with them.

Confucius set his goals on establishing a social order based on virtue 徳and consistency of applying the precepts of virtue at all levels of human interaction 仁(ren) . 君子(junzi), in Confucius’ parlance describes an aristocracy of nobility of character. Confucius asserts that someone who is worthy of the title of a 君子(junzi) continues to help others to achieve good deeds and builds them up; they never would help anyone perpetuate evil. A knave 小人on the other hand does the opposite.

His goal of nurturing an elite not of wealth but of character is a bottom up approach and was dependent on his students with the values to influence those around them and bring up their offspring with virtues. He believed that one cannot love (offspring or students) without being strict and one cannot claim to have their interests at heart without instruction.

Why is instruction stressed? Confucius said that the mind of a君子is conversant with propriety, a sense of right and wrong; whereas the mind of a knave小人 (the opposite of a 君子) is conversant only with gain and personal benefits, with no regard for principles, ethics or morals.

He makes the distinction between teaching adults and nurturing children. Children are likened to empty vessels and they are dependent on their parents to instruct and fill them with values. Failure to instruct is negligence on the part of parents.

Instructing adults on the other hand, Confucius concedes that he should not waste a good person by failing to instruct one. However, if one is not teachable, he also does not believe in wasting his words.

Therefore instead of taking revenge, first check if we are firmly grounded in ethics and virtue, and examine why we have failed to foresee an untoward encounter with小人, someone who is unprincipled and malicious. Do not take revenge as we are reminded of the old adage that “When you begin a journey of revenge, start by digging two graves: one for your enemy, and one for yourself.”