The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius Summary and Analysis of Book II


Book II turns its attention to matters of government. Chapters 1,2, and 3 deal with government issues and the importance of te, or character. Confucius compares the moral leader to one whose character is like the North star. Even as the ethical beliefs of those around such a person may shift, one possessing true character remains steadfast. Likewise, the text stresses the absence of evil or swerving thoughts as paramount in maintaining such character.

Chapter 3 echoes Chapter 1 in stating that a moral leader does not use punishment to rule but relies again on the strength of moral character. Simply, rule through force or fear will breed resentment, while governance through character will lead by example. These same ideas are echoed in Chapters 19 and 20.

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 return to the topic of filial piety. These chapters also serve to illustrate the rationality involved in matters of deference to one's parents or ancestors. There seems to be an effort to differentiate between a blind acceptance of a set of rules and a true understanding of the logic, or even necessity, of such cultural customs.

For example, in Chapter 7 Confucius addresses how a filial son can see to it that his parents have enough food to eat. While that behavior is commendable, the text states that even animals can be cared for to that extent. Without respect and vigilance, there is no difference. Chapter 8 also comments on this difference.

Chapters 13-17 appear to deal with a number of philosophical themes and sayings common in early Chinese texts. Chapter 16, for example, is an expression also cited in the Tao Te Ching, and is an often cited verse from the text.

The Book ends with statements on both the future or evolution of li as well as the continuing theme of ancestral worship and responsibility. Chapter 23 argues that by examining the path of history, specifically how ritual was observed, one may predict the future.

Consider the implication that the fate of a dynasty or culture can be ascertained by observing what it holds important and what is discards from the past. It can also be argued that this passage stresses the importance of foresight. Chapter 24 requires some historical context to be appreciated. In Confucius's time people were only permitted to sacrifice to their own ancestors and no one else's. Feudal lords were permitted to sacrifice to regional natural spirits, but some presumed sacrificial rights which they had not earned.


Though Book II deals with government, interestingly, the subject of filial piety is visited in this book as well. Consider the duality the text presents in dealing with how one should rule over others while also discussing how one should conduct themselves in deference to their parents. The text seems to imply a parental duty when one is tasked with ruling over others.

The word li is generally translated as "ritual" in most versions of the text, but its meaning is likewise difficult to capture completely. Some scholars see its use in The Analects as being akin to tradition, as handed down by divine leadership. The importance of li seems to be tied to the very welfare of the society a ruler governs. To abandon it is to invite tragedy. In this sense, li can be seen as part of the tao/dao, or "Way".

Notice that in all passages regarding duties to one's parents the discussion centers only on sons and excludes daughters. Although Confucian texts do not seem to exhibit any decisive prejudice against women, the assumption is that the reader is male. Therefore, in matters of polite or public society, men were still considered the only ones who would need such knowledge. As a result, the text does not escape the social norms of its time.

In differentiating between caring for one's parents and one's animals, intent becomes the contrasting element. A "filial son" has only one intention: to ensure that his parents are happy instead of simply having their base needs met. Filial piety is presented as being more than simply serving elders first or undertaking hard work on their behalf.

Some scholars see Chapters 13-17 as a kind of commentary by Confucius and his disciples. There are a variety of interpretations on how these verses were to be received. Chapter 16 is an often cited verse from the text. Some scholars feel this chapter extols the virtues of teamwork and communal effort over those of the individual. Others see it as an analogy stating the superiority of a moral way over an opportunistic one.