The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius Summary and Analysis of Books XII and XIII


Books XII and XIII focus on questions posed by the disciples for clarification on Confucian ideals. Most of the questions are related to topics of governance. While the topics of discussion can shift from passage to passage, these two books are fairly easy to follow and contain several passages that have aroused scholastic debate and research. The issue of "knights of the Way" is brought up several times in these two books. It is important to remember that a "knight" in this case was not meant to evoke the warrior of medieval times we are familiar with, but rather a scholarly figure who is devoted to the cultivation and spread of the Way. Like the former knight, the qualities of bravery and courage were seen as essential to Confucian knights as well.

Book XII begins with Confucius's favorite disciple, Yen Hui, inquiring about goodness. Confucius responds by reminding Yen Hui of goodness's connection to ritual. He tells Yen Hui that if a ruler were to submit himself to ritual, goodness would be spread to everyone under Heaven. When Yen Hui asks for further clarification, Confucius tells him to always be in accordance with ritual. Notice that Confucius's answer is vague. When asked about goodness he responds with a lecture on ritual. This same vagueness continues in Chapter 3, when Ssu-ma Niu asks about goodness also. Confucius responds that the "good man is chary of speech", implying that good men are cautious of a discussion, or that good men are cautious of discussing goodness. When Ssu-ma Niu asks for further clarification, Confucius responds that because goodness is difficult, one must be cautious when discussing it. This implies that Ssu-ma Niu has not progressed sufficiently in the Way to be given an answer to his query.

In Chapter 7, the disciples' questions turn to government. Tzu-kung asks what is needed for a successful government. Confucius replies food, sufficient weapons, and the confidence of the people. Of these, Tzu-kung asks which is the most important, assuming that it would be food. Confucius responds that the confidence of the people is paramount, otherwise no such government can be successful. The role of government is therefore to first meet the approval of the people. Confucius believes that a government that is not seen as just or fair by its people cannot make amends by simply providing food and protection.

The disciples continue asking about government in Chapter 11. In this particular passage, Duke Ching of Ch'i agrees with Confucius's statement about knowing one's role and place in a societal hierarchy. However, there are other reasons for his agreement. Duke Ching spent the last years of his reign menaced by the Ch'en family, who were no longer content serving as ministers. In addition, his own sons argued amongst themselves over who would succeed their father. This relative instability is believed to have had great effect on Duke Ching. The last line of the passage indicates a fear of death on his part that was no doubt compounded by the squabbles over his kingdom.

Chapter 20 returns to the topic of the knight. Tzu-chang asks what a knight must do to be considered influential. Confucius considers the definition of the term in giving his answer. Tzu-chang counters that if employed by a ruler or by the State, the knight's influence would be greater. Confucius argues that Tzu-chang discusses fame, not influence.

Book XIII continues in the discussion of government, but a few passages stand out. Chapter 3 deals with what is commonly referred to by scholars as the rectification of names. Tzu-lu asks Confucius what his first action would be if the Prince of Wei were to call on him to administer his country for him. Confucius replies that correcting language would be his first goal. Tzu-lu dismisses this as somewhat preposterous but Confucius establishes a causal relationship that would lead to a breakdown in proper 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.

Chapter 20 also touches on the topic of the knight of the Way. Chapter 20 is interesting because after Tzu-kung asks about the characteristics of a knight, he asks Confucius how those in government today compare. Confucius quotes a poem or song in talking about the knight before discussing what qualities are next best in an individual. When comparing the politicians of his time, he states that they are mere "thimble-fulls" by comparison.

The final two passages of the book, Chapters 29 and 30, find Confucius discussing warfare. He argues that only when someone versed in the Way has ruled over a people for seven years can any discussion of leading them into war be made. To do otherwise, he says, is to betray them.


In Book XII, Chapter 3 goodness, or jen, seems as elusive as enlightenment. Confucius argues both that it must be inherent in an individual to blossom, and that it cannot be discussed without caution. This elusiveness may have been employed by Confucius to keep his disciples on their toes. Still other scholars believe that Ssu-ma Niu's brother was Huan T'ui, Minister of War in the state of Sung (Book VII, Ch. 22), presented as something of a threat. It is also possible that Confucius did not have total confidence in Ssu-ma Niu's allegiance or judgment. Nevertheless, the pursuit of goodness is obscured to other disciples as well, possibly because its attainment required each disciple to discover it for themselves.

Consider the dichotomy presented in Book XII, Chapter 20. Confucian ideals stress the pursuit of what is right as a means of living the best life possible as well as drawing others toward the Tao. This is entirely different from simply being well known. A knight's "influence" lies not in drawing others to himself but in drawing them toward goodness. This is reflected again in Chapter 24 when Master Tseng, discussing the gentleman, says that he "collects friends about him, and through these friends promotes goodness."

Book XIII, Chapter 3 states clearly that problems cannot be solved until they are called by a proper name. Consider how in our own time euphemistic terms can appear in the media to discuss an unpleasant topic ("ethnic cleansing" instead of "genocide", for example). While Confucius may not have been able to foresee such things or meant to apply this passage to so specific an issue, he did believe that without being able to address things by their proper term, ritual would be not be able to flourish. However, he does not specify just how this relationship exists, and so this passage, while important, is seen by most scholars as largely rhetorical.

Some scholars have compared Chapters 29-30 with Chapter 11, in which Confucius argues that if the right sort of ruler were in place there would be no slaughter or killing after a hundred years of rule. Since there is a great difference between seven and a hundred years, it becomes unclear what Confucius's stance on war truly is. Unfortunately, the text does not provide much more context in either chapter's case. Perhaps it can be interpreted to mean that war is itself reprehensible, but in the event that it becomes necessary, a period of seven years of rule is necessary for a ruler to lead people into such a thing.

It is clear throughout the text that Confucius had low opinions of politicians but was still compelled at times to serve public office. This seems to have been a point of some contention for him; he was reluctant to get involved yet saw that he could not affect change from the sidelines. In books to come we will see this reluctance addressed more directly.