Posted by: gdevi | February 2, 2010

The Analects of Confucius

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Analects of Confucius (5BCE)

The analects of Confucius (from Gk “analekta” or selected things, selected sayings) is a compilation of philosophical axioms attributed to the ancient Chinese scholar Confucius (the “Master” in the analects) who originated the secular social philosophy known as Confucianism. Much like Plato collected the sayings of his teacher Socrates, the analects were collected and compiled by the followers of Confucius over a period of time. Of the twenty books attributed to Confucius, the first fifteen are believed to be more authentic than the last five.  The analects seem disconnected and random on first reading; the common denominator running through the twenty books is the personality of Confucius himself; other characters come and go, and the sayings themselves don’t seem to have a continuity to them the way they are sequenced in the books. However, upon closer reading, we can see that the analects repeatedly come back to four core principles critical to Chinese culture, thought and worldview. These four principles are: Li (Importance of Rites and Rituals/Tradition), Junzi (the concept of a Gentleman, virtuous man, benevolent man), Ren (axioms about ruling, authority and authoritative conduct), and Yi ( the Right and the Moral). Each of the analects may be read as Confucius’s commentary on one of these four principles, or a combination of one or more of these principles. Together these four principles help you live the Way or Tao (sometimes spelled Dao). You will notice that Confucius does not speak of God, supernatural entities, magic, spiritual life etc – there is nothing abstract in Confucius’s Tao – it is a humanistic, practice-oriented Tao and the way to the Tao is through living a certain kind of life observing Li, Junzi, Ren and Yi.

You will notice that the analects are set in a pedagogic context with often Confucius asking a question, students answering them, or Confucius answering it himself. At other times, Confucius will comment “in place” through direct observation of a particular phenomenon. Very few of these analects are in any way abstruse; occasionally you will find Confucius using figurative language, but that is by and large the exception rather than the rule. Here is a figurative analect: “Only when the cold season comes is the point brought home that the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves.” (Book 9, #28)

Confucianism evolved to become associated with the Chinese imperial culture and over time, especially after the Communist revolution, Confucianism became equated with an anti-evolutionary and socially prohibitive authoritarianism. There is much that is authoritative in Confucianism but all social philosophies, by definition, regulate human conduct in their own ways.

Here are a few analects where you can clearly read Confucius’s commentary on the four principles. For each of these analects (and the many more in the text) ask yourself

Which of the cardinal principles is evoked in this analect? How is it defined and described? What values does Confucius endorse through this analect?

Book 2, #26

Yen Yuan and Chi-lu were in attendance. The Master said, “I suggest you each tell me what it is you have set your hearts on.”

Tzu-lu said, “I should like to share my carriage and horses, clothes and furs with my friends, and to have no regrets even if they become worn.”

Yen Yuan said, “I should like never to boast of my own goodness and never to impose onerous tasks on others.”

Tzu-lu said, “I should like to hear what you have set your heart on.”

The Master said, “To bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young.”

Book 6, #20

The Master said, “To be fond of something is better than merely to know it, and to find joy in it is better than merely to be fond of it.”

Book 12, #7

Tzu-kung asked about government. The Master said, “Give them enough food, give them enough arms, and the common people will have trust in you.”

Tzu-kung said, “If one had to give up one of these three, which should one give up first?”

“Give up arms.”

Tzu-kung said, “If one had to give up one of the remaining two, which should one give up first?”

“Give up food. Death has always been with us since the beginning of time but when there is no trust, the common people will have nothing to stand on.”

Book 14, #43

Yuan Jang sat waiting with his legs spread wide. The Master said, “To be neither modest nor deferential when young, to have passed on nothing worthwhile when grown up, and to refuse to die when old, that is what I call a pest.” So saying, the Master tapped him on the shin with his stick.


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