Learn some ancient wisdom from one of the world’s most influential philosophers.
Few books have quite as complex a background as the Analects. While there are many competing theories as to how far back and how recent the texts in this ancient book go, there is no argument that it contains some priceless wisdom. The Analects is a collection of quotes and stories, written and compiled by the disciples of Confucius, the beloved Chinese philosopher.
The teachings of Confucius may be seen as refreshingly practical. While he was a man of his time and fundamentally spiritual in his thinking, the teachings of Confucius are more or less value-based. He speaks primarily about being rigorous in maintaining a virtuous lifestyle and acting in accordance with your beliefs. Even though the words and ideas in the Analects date back centuries, you’ll see why they continue to be considered highly relevant today.
Because this content comes from a translation of a very old bit of wisdom, the original teachings will – predictably – have more than one translated version. We’re aware of this and have been mindful to stick to the most accurate translations, where possible.
Okay, so without further ado, let’s dive in.
The teachings of Confucius are a response to the changes going on in China at the time.
Before we dive into the words and wisdom of Confucius, we need to get into some of the context surrounding this ancient book. In this case, context is important because much of the writing and wisdom is in direct response to, or even referring to, what was going on around Confucius at the time.
Confucius lived between the years of 551 and 479 BC. During this time, China went through some changes, some of which Confucius wasn’t too happy about. In particular, Confucius felt that people were losing sight of the importance of traditional rituals. There is a lot of talk about “rituals” in the Analects. A ritual could refer to how one should dress or properly bow before a higher-ranking official, or to the details of a sacrificial ceremony.
Rituals like these had been passed down for generations. They had formed the backbone of the religious worldview of many Chinese people. Through adherence to ritual, men could be seen as “gentlemen” of virtue. And in turn, through virtue, one could attain Heaven’s favour. So, it stands to reason that few things were as important to Confucius as a virtue. True virtue not only leads to good fortune from Heaven smiling down upon you, but it also brings the kind of balance and harmony that allows a person to be an effective leader.
However, by the time Confucius was alive, during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, rigorous attention to ritual began to slacken. Rather than promoting harmony through virtuous leadership, the newly appointed heads of vassal states were enacting strict rules and laws in order to get people to fall in line. So, in addition to explaining how one can live the virtuous life of a true gentleman, many passages in the Analects are also about these new laws, the lack of adherence to ritual, and what Confucius did and didn’t like about specific officials of the day.
Finally, because the quotes and stories in the Analects were collected by the disciples of Confucius, these specific individuals are also constantly referenced in the book. Their shortcomings and strengths are often highlighted to show how one either does or doesn’t adhere to “the Way.” The Way is the morally upright path – the path of a gentleman, the path that is demonstrated through adherence to ritual, and the path that is approved and rewarded by Heaven.
For our purposes, and because the Analects contains twenty different volumes of collected sayings and passages, we’re going to focus on the more practical and eternally relevant bits of wisdom the book has to offer. After all, one of the things that define Confucius as a teacher is that he’s very interested in offering practical advice. He doesn’t want you to sit and think about something, he wants you to take action that reflects your virtuous belief.
For example, in the fourteenth passage in Book One, Confucius says, “The gentleman is not motivated by the desire for a full belly or a comfortable abode.” Instead, he is extremely careful in his behaviour and speech. And he surrounds himself with those who possess the Way so that he may learn from them.
This one entry in the book says a lot about the fundamental ideas of Confucius’s teachings. The Way is not about wanting material comforts. It’s about being precise in your actions. A gentleman doesn’t blather on and talk nonsense. Both their words and their behaviour match the virtue and goodness of their beliefs. In addition, the Way is also about presenting yourself in a way that attracts like-minded people, so that you may, as Confucius puts it, “be set straight by them.” This reflects another important hallmark of being a gentleman: the love of learning. They never stop in their pursuit of self-betterment. Even Confucius remained humble in his regard, always admitting that he still had much to learn.
We’ll begin to move through the 20 books that make up the Analects and look at more passages that offer practical advice on how a person can follow the Way.
Through virtuous actions, a leader can achieve effortless and harmonious influence.
Doing by not doing. If you’re familiar with Eastern philosophies you’ve probably heard of this seemingly contradictory idea before. In traditional Chinese, it’s called “wu-wei.” Taken literally, it means “non-doing,” but what it implies is more like “effortless doing.”
As we’ve already alluded to, Confucius was really interested in how you do something. And this is precisely what wu-wei is about – this ideal way of doing something without even really trying to do it. These days you might hear terms like achieving a state of flow or creating new positive habits. This isn’t too far off from what Confucius was trying to teach. He wanted his students to always be acting and speaking in accordance with the Way, with the goal being that it eventually becomes effortless.
In terms of leadership, wu-wei was also ideal. Many passages in the Analects reflect the belief that a leader who embodies the Way, in their actions and their words, could effortlessly influence the people to also lead virtuous lives. With the Way, no effort, and no restrictive rules or laws are necessary.
Take this third passage in Book Two: “If you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame.” On the other hand, if you guide them with virtue, and proscribe ritual, the people will have a sense of shame and reform themselves – without the need for oppressive laws. This is the power of the Way and the power of wu-wei.
This comes up again at the end of Book Two. Ji Kangzi, one of the most powerful people in the Chinese state of Lu, asks Confucius directly, how can he lead people toward being industrious, obedient, and respectful. Confucius explains that the leader has to have the virtuous qualities of dignity, kindness, and a love of learning. With these in place, the results he’s looking for will naturally, effortlessly, follow. In his words: “Oversee them with dignity, and the people will be respectful; oversee them with filiality and kindness, and the people will be dutiful; oversee them by raising up the accomplished and instructing those who are unable, and the people will be industrious.”
But it doesn’t matter if you’re a leader or not. As Book Three makes clear, the important thing is that you’re not relying on empty gestures. There must be sincerity behind your actions for them to be truly aligned with the Way. There’s another Chinese term, “zhi,” which means “native substance,” and can be roughly seen as meaning to act with genuine, sincere feeling.
For Confucius, it wasn’t enough to simply act out the rituals in the proper fashion. You had to perform them sincerely. This was certainly more important than performing the rituals extravagantly. If someone talks a lot about being virtuous and makes a big show of doing good deeds – this was cause to be sceptical, as far as Confucius was concerned. He considered these to be “petty people.” If they’re not following the Way for sincere reasons, they must have ulterior motives. This was not how a gentleman behaved.
At the end of Book Three, Confucius doesn’t mince words, he says, “Someone who lacks magnanimity when occupying high office, who is not respectful when performing a ritual, and who remains unmoved by sorrow when overseeing mourning rites – how could I bear to look upon such a person?”
Confucius also has little tolerance for those who blame others when things don’t go their way, which can be seen as another poor leadership trait. He mentions that a gentleman is someone who thinks about how he should be appropriately punished if he makes a transgression. Whereas the petty person thinks about how he could possibly escape any punishment whatsoever.
Remember, one of the big lessons Confucius tried to impart was that of a love for learning. He was definitely one of those people who saw mistakes as an opportunity to look within and see how you might be able to improve. In fact, in Book Fifteen, he says, “To make a mistake and yet to not change your ways – this is what is called truly making a mistake.”
Virtuous behaviour includes a devotion to learning and acting in accordance with your beliefs.
We’re going to speed things up a little bit. While some of the books in the Analects can be seen to have a unifying theme, others can be seen as being more of a loose collection of quotes and stories. Book Six and Eleven, on the other hand, are collections of comments and judgments on contemporary figures and disciples. Book Twelve is also about virtue in relation to the government.
Throughout all of the books, however, there are passages that either reinforce or elaborate on what it means to be a gentleman, to embody the principles of wu-wei, and to follow the Way. For example, early in Book Seven, Confucius talks about the value of remaining silent in order to fully comprehend, never tiring of learning, and never growing weary in the noble cause of encouraging others. These are things that should ideally come without difficulty.
Another thing that reveals itself over the course of the books is that the Way, and the process of learning, need to be incorporated into every aspect of one’s life. Confucius asks his disciples to think about how someone behaves when no one is looking. These are the actions that can be truly indicative of a person’s character.
Likewise, when it comes to learning, one needs to go all the way and put the lessons into action, and fully incorporate them into the daily life one has before one can say one has truly learned something. There is very little value put on abstract and theoretical knowledge – you have to walk the walk. You have to put your beliefs into tangible actions and behaviours.
As Confucius puts it in Book Nine, “A person who finds respectful words pleasing but does not live up to them, or agrees with others’ reproaches and yet does not change – there is nothing I can do with one such as this.” Saying something is one thing, backing up those words with action, is a virtue.
Throughout the Analects, Confucius also has some advice on relationships or how best to treat and respect those around you. As we’ve already mentioned, part of the wu-wei nature of acting with virtue is that it will naturally, effortlessly attract other virtuous people toward you. Of course, no one is perfect, and so it is part of the Way to treat friends and associates with care and respect. In Book Twelve, a passage reads, “A gentleman helps others to realize their good qualities, rather than their bad. A petty person does the opposite.”
Likewise, if you need to admonish a friend’s behaviour, be gentle about it. And if your words are ignored, don’t press the matter. If you do, it’s likely that your good intentions will come across as an insult. In the same vein, Confucius advises that we can also learn from the faults of others. Rather than criticizing people, we should look inward and see if we too can’t learn from someone else’s mistakes.
One of the more important characteristics promoted by Confucius is known as filial piety, which is essentially having respect for one’s family, especially your elders and parents. Many rituals were based around the outward showing of respect for elders, and Confucius had no tolerance for those who were half-hearted or insincere in paying their elders the respect they were due.
Confucius also placed a high value on being able to recognize other people for who they really are. So he gave a lot of advice on how to recognize petty people and others who are best kept at a distance. As he puts it, one of the traits of a wise person is “knowing others.” We’ve touched on some of the qualities of petty people already. Loud, boastful people, to be sure, but also those who say one thing and do another. In other places, we see more characteristics mentioned unfavourably, like people who are easily flattered, or who learn for the purposes of fame and money, rather than for the purpose of self-improvement or being of service.
When one of his disciples asked, “What does it mean to accumulate virtue?,” Confucius had a very straightforward answer: “Put service first and reward last…”
Finally, another distinction between the gentleman and the petty person is how they deal with hardship. In Book Fifteen, a disciple asks Confucius if the gentleman ever encounters hardship. This can be considered a fair question since a gentleman is a man of virtue, and those who are virtuous follow the Way, which means that Heaven should favour them with good fortune. But Confucious quickly clears up any doubt. Of course, everyone is susceptible to encountering hardship from time to time. But a gentleman will rise to the occasion, while the petty man will be overwhelmed by it.
We’ll look at the last few books of the Analects and see how they hint towards the legendary figure that Confucius would posthumously become in later generations.
With diligence and empathy for others, one can adhere to the Way.
There’s a chance that if you’ve only heard a little bit about Confucius, you might be under the impression that his teachings are complex or cryptic. But even during his lifetime, Confucius tried to explain that his philosophy was really not complicated at all. In fact, he even mentioned that it could all be tied together with a “single thread.”
The “single thread” is mentioned in both Book Four and Book Fifteen. In the fifteenth passage of Book Four, Confucius says, “All that I teach can be strung together on a single thread.” Now, he goes on to say that this thread is to fulfil your obligations while also having an understanding and sympathy for others.
Maybe that sounds simple enough, but the thing is, like any ancient text that has been translated over and over again, there are different takes. The Analects has inspired countless translations and countless debates. The original text is that the single thread is a combination of the words “zhong” and “shu.” One of the simplest ways to put this would be “dutifulness tempered by understanding.” Either way, this idea of being devoted to your responsibilities, and being able to put yourself in the shoes of others, aligns well with much of how Confucius describes virtuous behavior.
Just as there has been constant analysis and disagreements over the translation of ancient Confucian texts, there is also debate about how the Analects came to be in the first place. While most scholars agree that the book is a collection put together by disciples in the years following the death of Confucius, how these individual books ended up being compiled and when the different passages were written is still debated. For example, the last five books in the Analects are significantly different from the ones that follow. We start to get references to Confucius’s later years, when he left his homeland of Lu and went on a journey through the surrounding states, holding court with various governmental leaders.
Some of the entries in the later books seem to simply document exchanges Confucius had while travelling, and others entries are entire quotes from disciples about their master.
Interestingly enough, some of the later passages already begin to mythologize Confucius. Of course, while he was alive, Confucius was a man of some renown. But it wasn’t until the Han dynasty, starting in 206 BC, that Confucianism really began to grow in popularity in China.
In Book Nineteen, we see that the Confucian school of thought is being referred to as a wall that few have been granted access to walk through and understand. We also see a reference to Confucius being considered a man of immense profundity and someone who set impossibly high standards for himself.
It is clear in the Analects that Confucius was uncompromising in his beliefs. But it is also clear that those beliefs were grounded in some very practical thinking. What may be important for us to remember is that Confucius never expected anyone to be perfect and meet his highest ideals. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t constantly be striving. The Way is a journey, after all, it’s not a destination.
The most important thing to remember/take away from all this is:
The Analects is an ancient book collecting words and wisdom given by the Chinese philosopher Confucius to his disciples. It contains twenty volumes, or “books,” that are made up of many different passages that attempt to explain the philosophy of Confucius through quotes that are attributed to the master and various disciples, and stories that reflect his beliefs. Many of the passages are focused on how one can attain virtue and be considered a “gentleman” who follows “the Way.” The advice that Confucius gives is focused on making sure one’s actions reflect one’s virtuous beliefs. These virtuous beliefs include a devotion to learning, and doing so in order to be of service, rather than for the purposes of money and notoriety. Virtue is also attained by being responsible for your duties and being thoughtful and sympathetic to others.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Follow the three stages of learning. The very first passage in book one sums up a fundamental principle in the teachings of Confucius. Confucius explains three aspects of life that can result in satisfaction, joy, and virtue.
The first step is learning, and practising what you learn. This is satisfaction.
The second is meeting with friends to discuss and master what you’ve learned. This brings joy.
The third is teaching others with patience and understanding. As Confucius says, this is the “mark of the gentleman.”