There are 20 books in the Analects, or “selected sayings” of Master Kong. In reading along, we imagine Master Kong (“Confucius” or “Kongzi”) reciting his wisdom, while his followers diligently listen and compile his teachings. It is written in the past tense, for example: “The Master said, “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?” (opening lines, which echoes the goal of investigating things as taught in The Great Learning, the first book of the Four Chinese Books).
All throughout Book 1 we are exposed to different philosophers who make declarative statements, but what is unique about “The Master” Confucius is that makes declarative statements posed as questions – “is it not the case that…” However, unlike Socrates, Confucius professes knowledge and claims to impart it upon others. He knows “The Way.” In contrast, Western civilization begins in the duality of Socratic skepticism, and Abrahamic humility and piety. Confucius died sometime around 479 BC and after his death his followers compiled these aphorisms throughout the 4th and 5th centuries BC.
It is difficult to decipher any consistent plot or message among or between the 19 books, however as in reading Nietzsche’s aphorisms, there are certain strands that may be followed in each. The target at which Confucius is aiming is a noble state, filled with virtuous people who act in accordance with perfect virtue, filial piety, and tradition. Confucius, the man, is held up as an example by his followers. The biography of Confucius contained within the Analects is perhaps just as important as his teaching.
Book 1 of the Analects addresses the questions of education, and why it is important in becoming a man of “complete virtue.”
What is “complete virtue” in the Analects? A man has complete virtue when he: 1) takes no discomposure even when other men take no note of him, 2) Flowery words and an insinuating appearance are not true virtue, 3) a man of complete virtue is not gluttonous and he is in earnest with everything he does, he loves to learn and frequents the company of men of principle.
The question of learning is again returned to in Book 2 when Confucius says he was bent on learning by age 15 and he stayed firm through age 30, and 40, and 50, and by age 70 his “ear” was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
Book 2 focuses on exercising government in virtue. If the common-people are led only by means of laws, they will follow them out of fear of punishment, however if they are led by a virtuous leader, the common-people will instead look upward and mirror that virtue.
Virtue in a city or nation requires “filial piety” which means following the proprietary obligations of children to their parents.
As with the ancient Greeks, the ancient Chinese had a particular focus on the question of virtue.
Book 3 is obscure, focusing on a controversy surrounding a sacrifice to a mountain, which Confucius finds to be lacking in virtue. In addition the book contains Confucius’s review of a musical performance.
Book 4 concerns the “virtuous manners” which constitute a neighborhood. Thus far the text has addressed learning, as the perfect virtue of an individual, and progressed to the virtuous ruler of a city, and now concerns a neighborhood -a dwelling place among families. The superior man clings to virtue, and he cares not for riches or power if they are not attained in the proper way.
Virtue does not stand alone, it must have neighbors. For Confucius, the good life is not simply an isolated existence engaging in pure contemplation. His goal is to cultivate noble citizens, for the purposes of a great empire.
Book details an odd exchanges between the Master and Kung-ye Ch’ang, Nan Yung, Tsze-chien, and Tsze-kung. Confucius concludes the exchanges by announcing some of his friends and followers to be virtuous, but none is more surpassing in their love of learning.
In Book 6, Confucius plays a somewhat muted role. It details regional political squabbles. As with the rest of the text, it is interspersed with quotations from the Master:
The Master said, “The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in hills. The wise are active; the virtuous are tranquil. The wise are joyful; the virtuous are long-lived.”
He also expounds more on the man of perfect virtue:
“Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.
“To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves;-this may be called the art of virtue.”
Here is a beautiful passage from Book 7 on the importance of solitude and contemplation:
The Master said, “A transmitter and not a maker, believing in and loving the ancients, I venture to compare myself with our old P’ang.”
The Master said, “The silent treasuring up of knowledge; learning without satiety; and instructing others without being wearied:-which one of these things belongs to me?”
The Master said, “The leaving virtue without proper cultivation; the not thoroughly discussing what is learned; not being able to move towards righteousness of which a knowledge is gained; and not being able to change what is not good:-these are the things which occasion me solicitude.”
When the Master was unoccupied with business, his manner was easy, and he looked pleased.
As the text progresses, the scribe narrates more of the character qualities of Confucius, along with his aphorisms. “The Master was mild, and yet dignified; majestic, and yet not fierce; respectful, and yet easy.”
The Book of Poetry and the Book of Rites, and others, are variously alluded to in the Analects.
Note the Master’s praise of another man:
“I can find no flaw in the character of Yu. He used himself coarse food and drink, but displayed the utmost filial piety towards the spirits. His ordinary garments were poor, but he displayed the utmost elegance in his sacrificial cap and apron. He lived in a low, mean house, but expended all his strength on the ditches and water channels. I can find nothing like a flaw in Yu.”
In Book 9, Confucius’s followers list his sayings regarding profitableness, the appointments of heaven, and perfect virtue, among other topics.
Book 10 is perhaps the most consequential section of the Analects (appropriately hidden in the middle of the full text). In Book 10, Confucius is described. He dressed simple and sincere in his village, and he spoke cautiously in political situations. He spoke respectfully to his rulers. When he came away from an audience, he appeared relaxed. He ate very little, never drank wine or dried meat, and always had ginger with him while eating. The various ways he changed his countenance are described on Book 10.
In Book 11, Confucius clearly identifies himself as a conservative. He contrasts the people of former times (the rustics) with the current people (self-proclaimed gentlemen), and he says he stands with the people of former times. Confucius lists the great men he respects and how he behaved toward them.
One of the Master’s followers asks him about “perfect virtue” -the notion raised in Book 1. The Master said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, an under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him. Is the practice of perfect virtue from a man himself, or is it from others?”
Confucius further describes the process of acting in accordance with perfect virtue: when you go abroad to act as if you are receiving a great guest, to employ people as if you are making a great sacrifice, not to do unto others what you would not wish done unto you (notably inverting the “golden rule”), to have no murmuring about you in the country or in the neighborhood.
Government is also discussed in Book 12: The Master said, “The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler.”
In Book 13 Confucius advises certain government officials of the Chi family.
The Master said, “The firm, the enduring, the simple, and the modest are near to virtue.”
Shamefulness is discussed in Book 14. Much of the text is opaque and unclear. It reads as odd and particular to ancient China.
In Book 15, Confucius declines to advise a Duke on military tactics. Perhaps he does not wish to see the city in motion in the same way that Socrates did?
Confucius continues his aphorisms about the Superior Man (notice how the ancients believed in a kind of spatial superiority between those who wish to be higher and better, and those who act according to inferiority).
In Book 16, a leader of the Chi family wishes to make war but Confucius discusses right principles:
“When right principles prevail in the kingdom, government will not be in the hands of the great officers.
He also discusses friendships, and he continues at length listing three things of advantage to men, and three things that are not advantageous:
Confucius said, “There are three friendships which are advantageous, and three which are injurious. Friendship with the uplight; friendship with the sincere; and friendship with the man of much observation:-these are advantageous. Friendship with the man of specious airs; friendship with the insinuatingly soft; and friendship with the glib-tongued:-these are injurious.”
Confucius discusses wisdom and lack of wisdom with an admirer. The book continues with an obscure conversation of particular issues pertaining to ancient China among and between his disciples.
Book 18 is a list of royal families, their employees, musicians, and so on. It contains very little of Confucius, but, no doubt, provides modern scholars and anthropologists with a fruitful supply of information to examine the ancient Chinese aristocracy.
Confucius is wholly absent from Book 19. It contains a discussion among other teachers and followers.
Book 20, the final book of the Analects, points to several doctrines that are later expounded upon by ‘Confucianism’ -the doctrine of the Mean, the ordinances of heaven (which are required to rule a state justly), and Propriety.
The closing words of the text are:
“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.”
[For this translation I used the famous translation by Scottish missionary and translator of classical Chinese texts, James Legge. This was his 1861 translation.]