Zhuangzi (4th C. b.c.e.) is often riddling and provocative. Here he is on the topic of integrity. The imagined conversation is between Yan Hui, who plans to go to a disordered state in order to advise the ruler there and make the state orderly, and ‘Kongzi’ (Confucius), who is a character Zhuangzi is creating here for his own purposes, and is skeptical of the proposal:
Yan Hui, “Suppose I am upright but dispassionate, energetic but not divisive. Would that work?”
“No! How could that work?” said Kongzi. “You’d use all your energy to sustain the performance, and your face would be unsettled. Other people can’t stand that, so they would have to resist what you suggest in order to ease their own minds…”
Yan Hui said, “Then how about being inwardly straight and outwardly bending, having integrity but conforming to my superiors? By being inwardly straight, I could follow Heaven…If I speak only for myself, why worry about the approval or disapproval of other people? I could be what people call childlike…By being outwardly bending, I could follow other people. Lifting the cermonial tablets, kneeling, bending, bowing – this is the etiquette of a minister. Others do it, why should’t I? As long as I do what other people do, who can complain?… Having integrity and conforming to superiors, one follows olden times. My words, whether they are in fat instructions or even criticisms, belong to antiquity; they are not my own. This way one can be straightforward without causing injury…”
‘Kongzi’ remains unpersuaded that this will be efficacious. The difficulty is a familiar one concerning the possibility of integrity in politics. (What has integrity to do with ‘conforming to superiors’?!) But the proposed solution also has elements of an on-going policy of ‘inner exile’ – unless one can simultaneously ‘lift the ceremonial tablets’ and ‘speak only for myself’; and how does that fit with casting the advice as ‘not my own’?
The translation is from Ivanhoe and Van Norden’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Ch. 4 of the Zhuangzi.