The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius Summary and Analysis of Book I


With Book I, the text introduces two of the basic themes of the work: what qualities are desirable in a human being and how morality can be reflected in one's behavior. Different translations offer various interpretations of some of the language from the texts, but "virtue" is a recurring quality that is revisited many times. Some translations may introduce the term chun-tzu or junzi, translating as "prince" or "gentleman" respectively. In either case, the terms refer to a person of superior moral character, not necessarily a person of nobility. Some translations present this word as "scholar".

The text quickly shifts to matters involving government and family. On the topic of family, the text begins to grapple with the issue of filial piety, or xiào. Filial piety refers to the virtue of respect for one's parents or ancestors. In Chapter 6 of Book I, the text presents this sense of duty to one's parents as paramount. Only after one has ensured that their parents are taken care of can they pursue other matters, even if such things are the serious study of literature or other arts.

Contrast this chapter with Chapter 7, Book I. Tsze-hsia states that the cultivation of one's character is not solely achieved through academic study but through one's relationships with others. In his esteem, a person may not be academically inclined but he would still consider them learned. Chapter 7 seems to gently correct aspects of Chapter 6 while echoing much of its content. Ultimately, the impression given is that the content of one's character is a better measurement of a person than his or her status or intellectual acumen.

Chapter 8 continues with this theme, adding that a person of moral superiority is not infallible. This person can still make mistakes, but retains his or her standing by making amends for these mistakes immediately.

Chapters 11 and 13 continue with the theme of filial piety. Here, the text introduces the concept of reverence for one's parents or ancestors after their death. If a son adheres to his father's path for three years following his father's death, he can be considered filial. It is not clear as to why a period of three years is necessary, or why adhering to the will of one's parents after their death is considered admirable. What is of relevance is that in Confucian ideals such adherence is necessary to fulfill an obligation to one's parents. This passage also implies a reverence for tradition and respect.

The concept of Li, sometimes translated as "propriety", is introduced in Chapter 12. In this sense, li can come to mean any pattern of behavior appropriate to the situation. This is discussed specifically with regard to the customs of ancient kings.

In Chapter 15, Tsze-Kung remarks on poetry from the Book of Odes. The simile of cutting and polishing is one found throughout Confucian literature. It implies that embodying the ideals presented in the text is a process unto itself in which one should never be fully satisfied. The path, or Tao/Dao, extends forward, so there is always room for further refinement. Chapter 16 echoes elements of Chapter 1 in this book.


One term you may encounter in various translations is jen or ren. This term forms the basis of much of the Analects. Many scholars find this term difficult to translate and there is some disagreement over how best to represent the term in English. Generally, it mostly nearly can be interpreted as "humanity" or "goodness", referring to an inner capacity possessed by all human beings to do good. Some scholars see jen as an embodiment of all the best of human attributes, including piety, honesty, courtesy, and love. Therefore, a person who possesses this attribute can be seen as having a superior moral character.

The themes of government and family recur throughout the text. Some scholars see the use of the phrase "the employment of the people at the proper seasons" in Book I, Chapter 5 to coincide with the importance of agriculture in Confucius's time. Farmers were sometimes pulled from the fields during wartime to fight or to participate in public works projects. The text appears to favor a more principled, balanced approach to such affairs, recognizing the importance of allowing crops to be planted and harvested at the proper times and how the production of food affected all the peoples of a region.

These characteristics do not paint a portrait of an individual that is above everyday human concerns but who, instead, inhabits his or her humanity to the best of his or her abilities. The text suggests that these philosophical points are not simply rules that should be memorized and followed but are representative characteristics of an individual who pursues the best in himself.

In Chapter 12, propriety is contextualized specifically in adherence with the ways and customs of ancient kings, again signaling a reverence for tradition. However, such reverence is not blind devotion to a set of rules. People with knowledge of such customs without a thorough understanding of their subtleties are still considered unlearned.

In both Chapter 16 and Chapter 1, Confucian ideals stress that the pursuit of the admiration of others is not a worthwhile goal. Instead, the betterment of self is achieved through the knowledge and cultivation of the best in others. Consider how this concept can be applied to the fabric of a society. Confucian ideals place the needs of others before the needs of oneself. If everyone in a society practices such diligence, imagine how it would function.