This poem of Tao Yuanming is based completely upon Sima Qian's "A Biographical Sketch of Boyi," and it expresses the same lamentation that Sima Qian voiced. Therefore, the lines "It is said that accumulated good brings a reward, / Yet there were Yi and Shu in the western mountains" are followed by: "If good and evil are of no consequence, / Why bother to utter hollow maxims? " Though it's said that good is rewarded, humane and incorruptible men starved to death, and a man who murdered innocent people and feasted on their flesh lived out his natural years. These stories seem to discount the theory that good and evil deeds reap corresponding consequences.
However, if there really are no consequences for good and evil, then why was this discussed by the ancients and "how did our ancient maxims come to be? " If the ancients obviously knew that there were no consequences for good or evil deeds, why did they use such maxims as "A family that does many good deeds will have blessings to spare" and "Heaven shows no partiality, yet always aids the virtuous " to encourage us to be good? Aren't those sayings by ancient worthies and sages urging us to be good nothing but hollow words?
Now, if Sima Qian had ended his article with the line "If that is divine justice, is it reliable or not?" and Tao Yuanming had stopped with, "If good and evil are of no consequence, / Why bother to utter hollow maxims? " then, we could all go ahead and do bad things. In fact, Sima Qian did not end his article thus, nor Tao Yuanming end his poem there. What were they going to say next?
Right after asking the question "If that is divine justice, is it reliable or not? " Sima Qian answered himself, saying, "Although divine justice is uncertain, one can still uphold human justice." You may not know whether divine justice will ensure a corresponding retribution for good and evil deeds. Buddhism, of course, has a clear explanation of this issue: "If you want to know what you will experience in this life, it will depend on what you did in previous lives. If you want to know what you will experience in future lives, it depends on what you do in this life." This is the Buddhist answer, because Buddhists believe in previous and future lives and thus retributions need not occur in a single lifetime.
However, Confucianists don't acknowledge the idea of previous and future lives. They think that although divine justice is uncertain, one can still uphold human justice. That is why, after asking the question, "If that is divine justice, is it reliable or not? " Sima Qian quoted Confucius, the Great Sage, who said, "Since the paths you choose are different, you need not consult with one another. Simply follow your own resolution. " Confucius said this when teaching his students. He said, "Since you will take different paths, you don't have to discuss among yourselves." He wants to take that path, while you select this path. Since you choose different goals and paths, you don't really have to consult with each other; you should each 'simply follow your own resolution.' Each of you should pursue your own intentions and realize your own ideals and aspirations.
After quoting Confucius, Sima Qian continues: "When the whole world is corrupt, a righteous man can be recognized. Is it not because he esteems values other than the common ones? " When everyone in the world is doing evil, accepting bribes and twisting the laws, but there is only one pure and lofty individual who refuses to go along with the corruption, then that person can be recognized by others as being uncommon. Why do righteous individuals refuse to follow the others into defilement and corruption, but choose instead a clear and noble way to walk? The reason is, as Confucius said, "Since the paths you choose are different, you need not consult with one another. " It is because such individuals "esteem values other than the common ones." Those righteous individuals esteem "other values"—those of fine character and pure virtue. They look down upon the things that common people value, such as wealth, honor, fame, and prosperity. This separation occurs because each person's chosen path is different.
Most people would regard Boyi and Shuqi as being pretty foolish for choosing to starve to death. They would consider their case to be one of not receiving a good retribution. Someone once asked Confucius, "Didn't Boyi and Shuqi feel wronged for starving to death in the western mountains?" Confucius answered, "They pursued the perfection of humaneness, and they achieved it. Why should they feel wronged?" What Boyi and Shuqi pursued and valued was a perfect virtue. And in the end, they were able to maintain perfect virtue and not give up the humaneness they strove for in the face of starvation. They ultimately realized their goal, so how could they harbor any enmity?
To be continued