The Analects of Confucius is an anthology of brief passages that present the words of Confucius and his disciples, describe Confucius as a man, and recount some of the events of his life. The Analects includes twenty books, each generally featuring a series of chapters that encompass quotes from Confucius, which were compiled by his disciples after his death.
Book I serves as a general introduction to the various disciples in the work. Book II deals largely with issues of governance. Books III and IV are seen as the core texts, outlining Confucius's ideology. Much of the work concerns itself with the concept of the Tao or the Way, the chun-tzu or the gentleman, Li or ritual, Te or virtue, and Jen or goodness. There are additional terms in the work, but these comprise the core concepts. Taken together they form the backbone of Confucian ideals.
The Tao, or the Way, refers to a literal path or road. In the context of the work it refers to the manner in which anything is done; a method or doctrine. Confucius speaks often about the Tao under Heaven, meaning a good way or path to achieving morally superior ends. This could include self-conduct or how a kingdom is ruled.
Jen is most often translated as "goodness" or "humanity". The gentleman, or chunt-tzu, possesses this quality. Its translation is a bit difficult to represent exactly in English, but the text provides a good deal of context when discussing the gentleman and goodness. It is helpful not to simply think of the term as meaning "goodness" but also to see how its juxtaposition with the other terms forms a greater picture of how Confucius defined goodness and other positive human qualities. For example, words like "altruistic" or "humane" are useful in understanding this term.
Te corresponds most closely to the word "virtue", although you may encounter some disagreement among scholars regarding this translation. A better definition, some scholars say, is to think of it as "character" or "prestige", an attribute that would have been desirable in a human being.
The gentleman or chun-tzu is the central term in The Analects and the other terms are generally used in reference to this persona. For this reason it is difficult to summarize the gentleman easily, but considering the term in the light of the other ideas in the text is helpful. The gentleman is one who follows the Way and acts according to a system of morals and beliefs that are not common amongst other individuals. The use of the term "gentleman" to describe the chun-tzu is itself problematic, as it can conjure images related to an aristocratic existence. Some scholars see a similarity between the term and Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch, although there is dispute over this idea as well. A "superior man" is another suggested translation of the term. Taken in consideration with the other terms presented, a more complete concept of the chun-tzu emerges.
Li, or ritual, is another core concept in the text. Although the work does not go into great detail on what ritual traditions actually entailed, their importance is presented as paramount in the cultivation of te and an understanding of the Tao. The general principles of conduct comprise much of what this term encompasses. Here, moral initiatives outweigh pure historical knowledge. In other words, practicing what we might call good manners and conducting oneself in a moral and fair affectation were considered characteristic of a gentleman. An appropriate attitude was also necessary: one of reverence and respect for one's elders and for rites and cultural norms that had been handed down by past generations.
Also important to consider in reading The Analects is the historical context in which Confucius lived and the events that surrounded his struggle to spread his doctrine. During the Sixth century, powerful warlords and families gained control of the state of Lu, gradually undermining and marginalizing the ducal house. Consequently, the normal structure and function of government and social rituals were altered, much to the dismay of Confucius. Confucius sought a revival of the Chou traditions that once had been the norm in Lu. He saw these ways as legitimately bettering society. The term li fits best in understanding the Chou traditions that Confucius so eagerly wished to reinstate.
Eventually, Confucius and his disciples sought an audience with various leaders in Lu to help bring these traditions back. Confucius's plan failed, however, and he left Lu after becoming convinced that the sort of rulers he needed to enlist to his side were not present there. So began a long period of traveling around to neighboring states seeking out such a ruler. Some of this period is captured in the text. Confucius eventually returned to Lu upon the invitation of Jan Ch'iu and lived out his days teaching young men about the Chou traditions. However, he was not able to set up a state based on the teachings he held so dear.
The structure of The Analects can make it a difficult work to comprehend. On first reading, the passages can appear to be quite haphazard in their arrangement. From an academic standpoint there is more disagreement than agreement over how best to translate and represent the text for a modern reading audience.