The Analects of Confucius

Quotes and Analysis

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"The Master said, 'At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from complexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right.'"

Book II, Ch.4, p. 88

In this quote, Confucius outlines a life devoted to learning and the pursuit of jen. It demonstrates that attaining the status of the "gentleman" or "superior man" is a lifelong pursuit achieved only through a sincere devotion to self-cultivation. This quote also demonstrates that if such devotion is carried out, one can follow his or her heart's desire without concern for moral quandaries, as goodness will then be innate. This quote also presents a small portrait of Confucius himself. It is likely that the quote was transcribed or completed after his death and could be seen as a loving portrait by the disciples of their teacher.

"Meng I Tzu asked about the treatment of parents. The Master said, 'Never disobey!' When Fan Ch'ih was driving his carriage for him, the Master said, 'Meng asked me about the treatment of parents and I said, Never disobey!' Fan Ch'ih said, 'In what sense did you mean it?' The Master said, 'While they are alive, serve them according to the ritual. When they die, bury them according to ritual and sacrifice to them according to ritual.'"

Book II, Ch. 5, p. 88-89

This quote introduces the topic of filial piety in the text. This quote can be misinterpreted to mean that one should never disobey their parents, but most scholars believe Confucius meant that it was the rituals that should never be disobeyed. The later clarification that Confucius provides to Fan Ch'ih seems to agree with this interpretation. It is also unlikely that Confucius would instruct anyone to obey their parents without regard for what is wrong or right. Even if instructed to do something by a parent, if the task was ethically dubious, Confucius would likely instruct anyone to always remain true to the principles of jen, te, and the Tao.

Also, consider that matters of filial duties seem to have been applied to sons only. The Analects does not provide any material that would suggest that Confucius held women in lower regard, but teachings and literature of the time were assumed as the property of men. Although Confucian ideals did argue for some changes in Chinese society, on this matter, they did not conflict with the larger social construct.

"Wang-sun Chia asked about the meaning of the saying: Better to pay court to the stove than to pay court to the Shrine. The Master said, 'It is not true. He who has put himself in the wrong with Heaven has no means of expiation left.'"

Book III, Ch. 13, p. 97

After finding that he could not reform the politics of Lu, Confucius traveled to other kingdoms in the hopes of presenting his political ideology and having it implemented. In this case, Confucius travled to Wei and met with Wang-sun Chia, the Commander-in-Chief in the state of Wei. Chia asks if it is not wiser simply to be on good terms with the hearth god and have food than it is to waste food on ancestors who cannot enjoy it. Confucius rejects this concept outright, as we might expect him to given his beliefs and strong feelings about propriety and ancestors. Some scholars also feel that Chia was using this bit of peasant lore to make an analogy about his own power, here represented by the hearth god, vs. the power of the Duke of Wei, here represented by the Shrine. He is suggesting that he is the true seat of power in Wei, and should be treated as such. Likewise, Confucius rejects this assessment, which is consistent with his beliefs.

"The guardian of the frontier-mound at I asked to be presented to the Master, saying, 'No gentleman arriving at this frontier has ever yet failed to accord me an interview.' The Master's followers presented him. On going out the man said, 'Sirs, you must not be disheartened by his failure. It is now a very long while since the Way prevailed in the world. I feel sure that Heaven intends to use your Master as a wooden bell.'"

Book III, Ch. 24, p. 100

The frontier-mound at I (or Yi in some translations) lay on the border of the state of Wei, where Confucius had traveled but failed to find any interest in his teachings. Upon departing, he is evidently stopped by the keeper of the pass, who tells the disciples that he believes Confucius has been placed here as a "wooden bell". The bell in question refers to a rattle used to alert the populace in times of danger. This quote depicts Confucius as a concentrated effort to re-establish the Way and reintroduce goodness into the kingdoms of China. Remember that the text was established well after Confucius's death and such quotes may have been added to honor or even exaggerate Confucius's contributions to Chinese society. It is interesting that Confucianism would come to be the official ideology of the state following the abandonment of Legalism.

"Tzu-kung said, 'What I do not want others to do to me, I have no desire to do to others.' The Master said, 'Oh Ssu! You have not quite got to that point yet.'"

Book V, Ch. 11, p. 110

This quote captures the concept of reciprocity, which is discussed several times in the text. Many scholars compare the quote to the Golden Rule and comment on the near universality of this concept in major world religions. Confucius reprimands Tzu-kung in this quote for not having quite yet achieved the mastery of his own self to be able to make such a statement. Consider the importance of this concept of reciprocity within the larger construct of Confucianism. Benevolence, goodness, and virtue are characteristics that Confucius presented as of the highest importance. In order for a society to function at its moral peak, it would have been important for all its members to extend such respect to one another so that malevolence could not, in theory, become a temptation.

"The Master said, 'A horn-gourd that is neither horn nor gourd! A pretty horn-gourd indeed, a pretty horn-gourd indeed.'"

Book VI, Ch.23, p. 120

In this quote Confucius is referring to a particular type of ceremonial bronze goblet, which is written as "horn" next to the term "gourd". The goblet is neither a gourd nor a horn in reality. Confucius uses it as a metaphor to comment on the political state of China. Power in the country at this time was usurped by feudal lords and ministers from kings, hence decentralizing power and leading to what Confucius felt was an erosion of the traditional values and culture of the region. Here, he compares the lords to a pretty object that may shine and sparkle but is not what it appears to be. In other words, such feudal lords may appear to be kings but they are not, and therefore are not the true keepers of the ways of the ancient kings.

"Tsai Yu asked saying, 'I take it a Good Man, even he were told that another Good Man were at the bottom of a well, would go to join him?' The Master said, 'Why would you think so? A gentleman can be broken but cannot be dented; may be deceived, but cannot be led astray.'"

Book VI, Ch. 24, p. 121

This quote has been interpreted a number of different ways by scholars. Some see Tsai Yu's question as one of insolence and disagreement with Confucius's ideology, while others see it as playful banter. Most feel that this was an indication of some tension between Confucius and Tsai Yu.

Confucius responds to Tsai Yu's question with a maxim about the true gentleman, stating that such a person cannot be led to commit wrong acts. Confucius also implies that if one does deceive a gentleman, it does not diminish the stature of the gentleman, but rather exposes the deceiver. This is the "small man" that Confucius speaks of in other parts of the text when comparing the traits of such a person to those of the gentleman.

"The Master said, 'How utterly have things gone to the bad with me! It is long now indeed since I dreamed that I saw the Duke of Chou.'"

Book VII, Ch. 5, p. 123

The Duke of Chou was a figure revered by Confucius, as indicated by statements in The Analects. The Duke of Chou was said to have saved the dynasty through his wise rule. Some sources also report that he was responsible for devising the rituals of the Chou government. If such reports are to be believed, it is of little surprise that Confucius held this man in high esteem, as these are issues that would have been close to his heart as well. In this quote he again laments the state of government and public affairs in China. His statement can be seen as an indication that he has not seen one such as the Duke of Chou anywhere in recent memory and that he has lost hope of such a figure emerging in politics anytime soon. Indeed the lamentation seems to be a personal reflection on his own state of mind. Confucius regrets having given up hope.

"The Master said, 'From the very poorest upwards - beginning even with the man who could bring no better present than a bundle of dried flesh - none has ever come to me without receiving instruction.'"

Book VII, Ch. 7, p. 124

Here Confucius comments on the accepting, open nature of his school, where he claims to never turn away anyone for being poor. However, there is disagreement on the translation amongst scholars. This is a common problem with any text whose lineage is so old and which has had the input of several authors. The phrase "bundle of dried flesh" was used to describe school fees after the Han Dynasty and can still be found to mean this in modern China. However, Confucian ideology preceded the Han Dynasty, so it is unclear if the text here is meant to be taken literally as a small offering of meat or idiomatically as a school fee. Cheng Hsuan, a Confucian scholar who lived during the end of the Han Dynasty, believed that the phrase actually means "fourteen years old" or someone who has reached manhood, indicating that as long as a student had reached this age he could be accepted as a student. Given that some pre-Han texts describe small offerings of meat, most scholars believe that this quote should be taken literally.

"Tzu-lu said, 'If the prince of Wei were waiting for you to come and administer his country for him, what would be your first measure?' The Master said, 'It would certainly be to correct language.' Tzu-lu said, 'Can I have heard you aright? Surely what you say has nothing to do with the matter. Why should language be corrected?' The Master said, 'Yu! How boorish you are! A gentleman, when things he does not understand are mentioned, should maintain an attitude of reserve. If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what was meant; and if what is said does not concord with what was meant, what is to be done cannot be effected. If what is to be done cannot be effected, then rites and music will not flourish. If rites and music do not flourish, then mutilations and lesser punishments will go astray. And if mutilations and lesser punishments go astray, then the people have nowhere to put hand or foot.

Therefore the gentleman uses only such language as is proper for speech, and only speaks of what it would be proper to carry into effect. The gentleman, in what he says, leaves nothing to mere chance.'"

Book XIII, Ch. 3, p. 172

This quote deals with the concept of the rectification of names, in which Confucius explains that calling things by their proper names is the first step towards maintaining a better society. He establishes a causal relationship, or chain effect, which would lead to a breakdown in social propriety. Many scholars feel this quote was added later in history to the text. They point to the mention of "punishments" in the text, a concept that was never heralded by Confucianism.

Some scholars do see a connection between the rectification of names and other Confucian concepts (li for example, in Book III). From this perspective, Confucianism can be seen as something of a holistic philosophy in which all the terms discussed (li, Junzi/Chun-tzu, te, tao) are inter-related and when viewed together present a rounded image of the implicit goals of self-cultivation in each individual and a means to a more just society.