The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius Themes


Translated from the word jen or ren, goodness or humaneness is frequently presented in the text as a virtue attained by knowledge and the observation of ritual. It is important to note that the term does not simply mean "good," but speaks to a moral character and attitude that few can hope to possess. It is a complex term outlining a nearly divine presence. As such its attainment can take a lifetime to acquire and years of practiced polishing and re-polishing of one's values and character.

The Gentleman or Superior Scholar

From the Chinese word Chun-tzu or Junzi, depending on the translation, this term refers to an individual who lives by a refined moral code, follows the Tao, and comes to internalize jen. The life of the "gentleman" is presented in the text as inherently superior in every way to what Confucius comes to refer to as the "small man". This person is not motivated by gain or by a specific political ideology. Rather what is right in every situation is of paramount concern. The life of the gentleman is one of moderation. Any extreme is viewed as incorrect. This theme is mirrored in other works of literature and philosophy. Greek philosophy, for example, prefers the virtue of a middle path between two extremes. Arthur Waley argues that such thinking was also the basis of Liberalism.

Rites and Rituals

Derived from the term li, rituals and the way of the Ancients, or ancient kings, were of particular interest to Confucius. Li is sometimes better understood as "propriety", as it wasn't specifically limited to the understanding of literal rituals, but also extended to matters of personal conduct. At the heart of this concept is also the idea of knowing the right or just course of action in any situation. Therefore, knowledge of li was directly tied to the accumulation of character and goodness, both characteristics of the Chun-tzu/Junzi.


The Analects places an importance on learning but this should not be mistaken for education in the formal sense. While a formal education was certainly valuable, the text seems to place a stress on the continued pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as a means of constantly bettering oneself. Perhaps most egregious in Confucius's eyes was the assumption of knowledge. Confucius is recorded as making several statements on the importance of learning and how a love of learning is one of the hallmark characteristics of the "gentleman".

Filial Piety

Filial piety, or Hsiao/Xiao, is discussed at some length in The Analects. Confucius saw a duty to one's parents and ancestors as instrumental in the cultivation of virtue and as in accordance with ritual. It is important to note that this duty was not seen merely as a standard social obligation that had to be carried, however grudgingly. Confucius makes note that anyone can ensure that one's parents have enough food to eat with the same level of attention and care that they may pay to a horse or pet. In dealing with one's parents, filial duty was expected to be carried out with true intent and concern.


The Analects devotes a good deal of discussion to the topic of government. During Confucius's time much of the power previously limited to kings had become decentralized and was usurped by smaller feudal lords. Confucius advocated for governance through benevolence and placed a great deal of weight on ruling by what was right. A ruler would have to be cognizant of past rituals and traditions but also lead people by example. He should not act out of personal or political gain but instead advocate only for what would be best for his people. Confucius traveled to other kingdoms in the hope of spreading his teachings but did not see their implementation anywhere he went.

Rectifying the Names

Confucius believed that social order broke down due to a failure to correctly perceive and understand reality. Confucius stressed that the gentleman must use the correct terms and call people, things, and places by their proper names. To do otherwise, he felt, led to a less than thorough understanding of them and this, in turn, led to eventual disorder. Confucius criticized later generations for using terminology that was incorrect or inventing new nomenclature altogether, instead of using the correct terms used by the ancient kings. This theme can be expanded to demonstrate that a clear understanding of all things was the ultimate goal of rectifying the names. It was a tool for best addressing problems and calling something by what it was instead of what one may perceive or wish it to be.