The Analects of Confucius


Very few reliable sources about Confucius exist besides that of the Analects. The principal biography available to historians is included in Sima Qian's Shiji, but, because the Shiji contains a large amount of (possibly legendary) material not confirmed by extant sources, the biographical material on Confucius found in the Analects makes the Analects arguably the most reliable source of biographical information about Confucius.[23] Confucius viewed himself as a "transmitter" of social and political traditions originating in the early Zhou dynasty (c. 1000–800 BC), and claimed not to have originated anything (Analects 7.1), but Confucius's social and political ideals were not popular in his time.[24]

Social philosophy

Confucius's discussions on the nature of the supernatural (Analects 3.12; 6.20; 11.11) indicate that he believed while "ghosts" and "spirits" should be respected, they are best kept at a distance. Instead human beings should base their values and social ideals on moral philosophy, tradition, and a natural love for others. Confucius's social philosophy largely depended on the cultivation of ren by every individual in a community.[24] Later Confucian philosophers explained ren as the quality of having a kind manner, similar to the English words "humane", "altruistic", or "benevolent", but, of the sixty instances in which Confucius discusses ren in the Analects, very few have these later meanings. Confucius instead used the term ren to describe an extremely general and all-encompassing state of virtue, one which no living person had attained completely. (This use of the term ren is peculiar to the Analects.)[25]

Throughout the Analects, Confucius's students frequently request that Confucius define ren and give examples of people who embody it, but Confucius generally responds indirectly to his students' questions, instead offering illustrations and examples of behaviours that are associated with ren and explaining how a person could achieve it. According to Confucius, a person with a well-cultivated sense of ren would speak carefully and modestly (Analects 12.3); be resolute and firm (Analects 12.20), courageous (Analects 14.4), free from worry, unhappiness, and insecurity (Analects 9.28; 6.21); moderate their desires and return to propriety (Analects 12.1); be respectful, tolerant, diligent, trustworthy and kind (Analects 17.6); and love others (Analects 12.22). Confucius recognized his followers' disappointment that he would not give them a more comprehensive definition of ren, but assured them that he was sharing all that he could (Analects 7.23).[26]

To Confucius, the cultivation of ren involved depreciating oneself through modesty while avoiding artful speech and ingratiating manners that would create a false impression of one's own character (Analects 1.3). Confucius said that those who had cultivated ren could be distinguished by their being "simple in manner and slow of speech." He believed that people could cultivate their sense of ren through exercising the inverted Golden Rule: "Do not do to others what you would not like done to yourself"; "a man with ren, desiring to establish himself, helps others establish themselves; desiring to succeed himself, helps others to succeed" (Analects 12.2; 6.28).[24] He taught that the ability of people to imagine and project themselves into the places of others was a crucial quality for the pursuit of moral self-cultivation (Analects 4.15; see also 5.12; 6.30; 15.24).[27] Confucius regarded the exercise of devotion to one's parents and older siblings as the simplest, most basic way to cultivate ren. (Analects 1.2).[24]

Confucius believed that ren could best be cultivated by those who had already learned self-discipline, and that self-discipline was best learned by practicing and cultivating one's understanding of li: rituals and forms of propriety through which people demonstrate their respect for others and their responsible roles in society (Analects 3.3). Confucius said that one's understanding of li should inform everything that one says and does (Analects 12.1). He believed that subjecting oneself to li did not mean suppressing one's desires, but learning to reconcile them with the needs of one's family and broader community. By leading individuals to express their desires within the context of social responsibility, Confucius and his followers taught that the public cultivation of li was the basis of a well-ordered society (Analects 2.3).[24] Confucius taught his students that an important aspect of li was observing the practical social differences that exist between people in daily life. In Confucian philosophy these "five relationships" include: ruler to ruled; father to son; husband to wife; elder brother to younger brother; and friend to friend.

Ren and li have a special relationship in the Analects: li manages one's relationship with one's family and close community, while ren is practiced broadly and informs one's interactions with all people. Confucius did not believe that ethical self-cultivation meant unquestioned loyalty to an evil ruler. He argued that the demands of ren and li meant that rulers could oppress their subjects only at their own peril: "You may rob the Three Armies of their commander, but you cannot deprive the humblest peasant of his opinion" (Analects 9.26). Confucius said that a morally well-cultivated individual would regard his devotion to loving others as a mission for which he would be willing to die (Analects 15.8).[24]

Political philosophy

Confucius's political beliefs were rooted in his belief that a good ruler would be self-disciplined, would govern his subjects through education and by his own example, and would seek to correct his subjects with love and concern rather than punishment and coercion. "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord" (Analects 2.3; see also 13.6). Confucius's political theories were directly contradictory to the Legalistic political orientations of China's rulers, and he failed to popularize his ideals among China's leaders within his own lifetime.[28]

Confucius believed that the social chaos of his time was largely due to China's ruling elite aspiring to, and claiming, titles of which they were unworthy. When the ruler of the large state of Qi asked Confucius about the principles of good government, Confucius responded: "Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son" (Analects 12.11). Confucius's analysis of the need to raise officials' behavior to reflect the way that they identify and describe themselves is known as the rectification of names, and he stated that the rectification of names should be the first responsibility of a ruler upon taking office (Analects 13.3). Confucius believed that, because the ruler was the model for all who were under him in society, the rectification of names had to begin with the ruler, and that afterwards others would change to imitate him (Analects 12.19).[28]

Confucius judged a good ruler by his possession of de ("virtue"): a sort of moral force that allows those in power to rule and gain the loyalty of others without the need for physical coercion (Analects 2.1). Confucius said that one of the most important ways that a ruler cultivates his sense of de is through a devotion to the correct practices of li. Examples of rituals identified by Confucius as important to cultivate a ruler's de include: sacrificial rites held at ancestral temples to express thankfulness and humility; ceremonies of enfeoffment, toasting, and gift exchanges that bound nobility in complex hierarchical relationships of obligation and indebtedness; and, acts of formal politeness and decorum (i.e. bowing and yielding) that identify the performers as morally well-cultivated.[28]


The importance of education and study is a fundamental theme of the Analects. For Confucius, a good student respects and learns from the words and deeds of his teacher, and a good teacher is someone older who is familiar with the ways of the past and the practices of antiquity (Analects 7.22). Confucius emphasized the need to find balance between formal study and intuitive self-reflection (Analects 2.15). When teaching he is never cited in the Analects as lecturing at length about any subject, but instead challenges his students to discover the truth through asking direct questions, citing passages from the classics, and using analogies (Analects 7.8).[29] He sometimes required his students to demonstrate their understanding of subjects by making intuitive conceptual leaps before accepting their understanding and discussing those subjects at greater levels of depth. (Analects 3.8)[30]

His primary goal in educating his students was to produce ethically well-cultivated men who would carry themselves with gravity, speak correctly, and demonstrate consummate integrity in all things (Analects 12.11; see also 13.3). He was willing to teach anyone regardless of social class, as long as they were sincere, eager, and tireless to learn (Analects 7.7; 15.38). He is traditionally credited with teaching three thousand students, though only seventy are said to have mastered what he taught. He taught practical skills, but regarded moral self-cultivation as his most important subject.[29]


In China, the traditional titles given to each chapter are mostly an initial two or three incipits. In some cases a title may indicate a central theme of a chapter, but it is inappropriate to regard a title as a description or generalization of the content of a chapter. Chapters in the Analects are grouped by individual themes, but the chapters are not arranged in a way as to carry a continuous stream of thoughts or ideas. The themes of adjacent chapters are completely unrelated to each other. Central themes recur repeatedly in different chapters, sometimes in exactly the same wording and sometimes with small variations.

Chapter 10 contains detailed descriptions of Confucius's behaviors in various daily activities. Voltaire and Ezra Pound believed that this chapter demonstrated how Confucius was a mere human. Simon Leys, who recently translated the Analects into English and French, said that the book may have been the first in human history to describe the life of an individual, historic personage. Elias Canetti wrote: "Confucius's Analects is the oldest complete intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man. It strikes one as a modern book; everything it contains and indeed everything it lacks is important."[31]

Within these incipits a large number of passages in the Analects begin with the formulaic ziyue, "The Master said," but without punctuation marks in classical Chinese, this does not confirm whether what follows ziyue is direct quotation of actual sayings of Confucius, or simply to be understood as "the Master said that.." and the paraphrase of Confucius by the compilers of the Analects.[32]

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