The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius Essay Questions

  1. 1

    The concept of The Golden Rule appears in almost all the world's religions in one form or another. Examine its usage in The Analects (Book V, Ch. 11; Book XV, Ch. 23). Why is this such a universal concept?

    Such a concept would fit easily into the ideology presented in The Analects. Confucius repeatedly stresses the concept of goodness or humaneness (jen) in the text. The Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity, dictates simply that behavior should be determined by an understanding of another human being's capacity for goodness, as well as one's own humanity. If we were to engage in abusive behavior, we could not ask anything better for ourselves. In doing so, we not only destroy our capacity for jen but also could contribute to its erosion in others. Its universality only underscores its importance in the maintenance of a civilized society. As such, it is no surprise that it is found in nearly every major religion.

  2. 2

    Examine Book VII, Ch.1, in which Confucius states that he only transmits what has been taught to him but does not innovate or add anything of his creation. Why do you think this is the case? How does this approach complement Confucian ideology?

    Confucius placed great value on the ways of the ancients before him. In Chapters 2 and 3 of Book VII, he continues to elaborate on this idea by professing his love of learning, but not of teaching specifically. It can be inferred that if a relationship between learning and teaching could be ascertained, Confucius would place greater weight on learning. In this manner the knowledge that he has gained is simply passed on but not to be reinterpreted. He states in Chapter 3 that the thought of not having perfected his learning is among those things that would bring him great sadness. At numerous times in the text, Confucius tells his disciples that he is not himself an example of perfection, and that he does not know one who is. It can be argued that he saw himself more as an arrow pointing to the Way, rather than presenting himself as one who had lived it.

  3. 3

    Examine the passage from Book II, Chapter 4 ("At fifteen, I set my heart upon learning. At thirty I had planted my feet firm upon the ground..."). What is the significance of this passage and how does it relate to the larger thematic principles of the text?

    The passage ends with the phrase "At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right." Confucius reveals that self-cultivation is a lifelong goal. The self that Confucius wishes to cultivate is one that looks within and compares himself with the moral and social canons of tradition. The standard of Chun-tzu/junzi is not one that is simply reached and then used as an example to others. Rather it is a constant process of refinement, in which every thought and action must be evaluated against the moral ideals of Confucius's time. Confucius states that it took him until the age of seventy to be able to feel he had internalized this moral canon as his own.

  4. 4

    Examine the concepts of li, te, and jen/ren. How are they related to the manifestation of the junzi/chun-tzu?

    In examining these concepts it is helpful to see jen/ren as a characteristic, while the other terms can be seen as a means to attain it. A gentleman applies te, or moral force, in accordance with what is proper (li), in order to achieve ren/jen, or goodness. By providing this outline, the text makes an argument for their relationship, but more importantly illustrates how the moral attitude of a gentleman is manifested. It can be argued that it is actually goodness which is necessary to first seek out the knowledge of li, for example. By examining the terms in a related but not necessarily linear arrangement, this relationship can take on an almost cyclical nature. This would also explain not only how goodness is achieved, but also how it is maintained.

  5. 5

    Examine the concept of filial piety hsiao/xiao in The Analects. How does it relate to the guidelines presented regarding governance over a population?

    The text repeatedly stresses the importance of how each action can affect one's parents, while also stressing the importance that one's parents have in his or her daily life. Deference to them is praised as a virtue unto itself. Duties were assigned not only to the living but also to the dead. As part of the larger fabric of Confucianism, there is an underlying theme of consideration for others. Book II of the text in particular contains passages on both filial piety as well as governance. While seemingly unrelated, both stress the importance of the responsibility to care for others. Confucian ideals about governance also stress fairness and leading by virtue (te). Although a relationship between the two is never literally spelled out, their inclusion as topics together in Book II draws an implication that caring for others as part of one's duties applies just as directly to the expectations of public office. This connection is revisited again in Book XII, Ch. 11.

  6. 6

    Are Confucius's ideas on the governance of common people realistic or idealistic?

    Confucian ideals stress that a ruler should rule by example and te/de, or moral force, rather than by the use of fear or physical force. As presented in The Analects, Confucius believed that a just and benevolent ruler would be able to spread such goodness and positivity by example and thus help it spread throughout a kingdom so that all the people within it would learn to apply it in their own lives. While this is somewhat idealistic on its face, it also illustrates that Confucius's beliefs stemmed from benevolence and not the later ideologies represented by Legalism. While this is a sound basis for a philosophy of governance, The Analects does not deal in specific examples but rather in general statements. As such, there is no clear guidance on how to best deal with complex problems. For example, Confucian ideals teach that if a ruler is not able to act in what is right or best, that ruler should step down. By stepping down, a ruler may actually invite greater difficulties and problems into a kingdom. Good and bad are presented as largely black and white ideas, with no shades of gray.

  7. 7

    In opposition to the gentleman (junzi/chun-tzu), the text presents the character of the "small man". Compare and contrast these two characters.

    The junzi/chun-tzu is described in the text as being benevolent, concerned with the welfare of others, governed by ritual and tradition, honest, and also deferential to ancestors and the Way. Such an individual is concerned with doing what is right in any and all situations. By contrast, a small man is not concerned with morality but with what is profitable. Such an individual is on the look out for what can benefit only himself and has no concern for benevolence. The text describes a small man as easily agitated and stressed, whereas the gentleman is calm and centered. Beyond describing these characters simply in terms of superior vs. inferior moral codes, the text also presents the life of the gentleman as being of greater benefit to others and to himself. In this sense, Confucius elevates this standard because he believes it is in every person's self-interest to cultivate the gentleman within.

  8. 8

    Confucius was born into a poor family and managed to climb the social strata by becoming one of a growing number of shi, an intermediate class between commoners and aristocracy. Discuss why Confucius's ideas are of particular note considering his background and class status.

    Considering his own climb through the social classes on a path that would have led to a possible political career, Confucius could have easily become a goal-oriented individual seeking wealth and status. Instead he eschewed these principals and substituted a moral philosophy that was concerned with the betterment of all classes in society. It is certain that Confucius was disillusioned by some of the behavior he witnessed men in power engaging in. His exile from the kingdom of Lu is evidence of that. Confucius imposed this exile on himself in order to travel to neighboring kingdoms to spread his particular brand of philosophy. In keeping with his own beliefs, he continually engaged in seeking out and spreading what he saw as good. A lesser man may have simply given up or decided to join those in power. Confucius's occupation in the intermediate class also gave him perspective. Coming from a poorer home, he had knowledge of the lives of commoners. In the shi class he was able to move up and had some exposure to aristocracy. This unique position allowed for the development of his social and political beliefs.

  9. 9

    Confucius travels to several kingdoms to try to spread his particular brand of gospel but does not see it implemented anywhere. Afterward he returns home. Why do you think Confucius's ideology did not gain support amongst the leaders of these kingdoms?

    Confucius's ideology called for rulers who did not act out of personal gain but out of benevolence for their people. Given that the power was beginning to be usurped by feudal lords during his lifetime, it is likely that many kingdoms did not see the practicality of his teachings. They may even have seen benevolence as partially responsible for the scattering of power. Confucius's beliefs also limited the power of the ruler to some extent. Ruling by what was just and right was considered paramount, even superior to the ruler himself. In this framework, a ruler was always to be held accountable to interests that may benefit others but not necessarily benefit his own political interests. Though the teachings of The Analects are steeped in morality and ritual, they may have been seen by rulers as being old-fashioned as well as a check on their own power.

  10. 10

    It is clear from textual analysis as well as dating of the work that The Analects were written after Confucius's death as well as the death of some of the disciples mentioned. Despite this fact the work has had great influence on Chinese society and philosophy. Examine the content presented in the work. Why has it resonated with so many people for so long?

    While the practicality of Confucius's ideas may be called into question, the principles have a timeless quality that have encouraged the pursuit of what Confucius believed was the best in all people. Confucius presented an underlying order of justice in his assessment of human existence. If someone were to behave selfishly or treat others poorly, a punishment was not necessary. This individual's life would simply not be one of happiness but one of anxiousness and despair. Contrast this with the concept of punishment awaiting them in the afterlife. Meanwhile someone who lived according to a moral code and followed the Way would find that to be its own reward. This is of particular importance to someone who may have suffered injustice at the hands of others and could be tempted to simply behave in the same manner. In this sense it can argued that a concept of faith can be found in Confucianism, and this may explain its reach and longevity.