Introductory Essay to Confucius’ Analects

Updated 19-Sep-2023

Confucius' Analects - Introductory Essay

Emerging several millennia ago, Confucius' Analects are aphorisms and short dialogues between Confucius and other masters and students. Some of these are historical figures, while regarding others there is ambiguity, and many recede, like Confucius, into legendary status. Regardless of historical authorship, the work has exerted a profound effect on the political history of China. However, reading the work is not straightforward. There are many repetitions, a large number of commentaries, and not a few contradictions.

This introductory essay is meant to help orient those who are faced with a forest of aphorisms which much of Confucius' Analects tends to become. There is great effort needed on the part of the reader. Our new edition is meant to better organize and winnow the number down to a reasonable amount which are nonetheless representative and paradigmatic of the work in general. This makes this important text more accessible and readable.

Key to Understanding Confucius' Analects

A key to understanding the pronouncements of the Master and the Analects in general is found in section 11.2, when two different individuals ask the Master the same question at different times, and get different answers. A third individual noted this and asked:

> When Zilu asked you whether or not one should immediately take care of something upon learning of it, you told him one should not, as long as one's father and elder brothers were still alive. When Ran Qiu asked the same question, however, you told him that one should immediately take care of it. I am confused, and humbly ask to have this explained to me. (11.22)

The Master replies:

> Ran Qiu is overly cautious, and so I wished to urge him on. Zilu, on the other hand, is too impetuous, and so I sought to hold him back. (11.22)

We thereby understand that the pronouncements in the Analects may be directed at specific audiences, to their particular needs. In addition, the work can and has been treated as a source of pronoucements, which can be dipped into and selections made to apply to a given context. This is similar to many ancient works that are fragmentary compilations.

Themes in Confucius' Analects

There are several major themes found throughout the Analects. The two primary themes animating this text are ritual and rightness (or righteousness). In addition, the ideas of learning, trustworthiness, courage, and goodness are of interest. Many of these elements are considered virtues, though there is a hierarchy of them. First and foremost of the virtues is rightness, driven by the predominent idea of filial piety.

Filial piety [xiao]

Filial piety is a predominant theme in the Analects. Filial piety is the devotion of children to their parents, but applies more broadly as well to elders and those higher up in a hierarchy. Filial piety is more than simple exhortation to respect and obey the wishes of one's parents. Indeed, there are also practical aspects. For example, one who has respect for elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors (1.2). And there has never been the case of one so disinclined, to foment rebellion (1.2).

In addition, there is the pragmatism of the situation in which a parent or other elder is not providing for the needs and wishes of a youth, who must remain dutiful. For, if the parent is not responsive to a dutiful youth, how is it that they would be responsive to a rebellious one? Yet, when the parent recognizes the dutifulness of the youth, the parent is able to change their behavior without loss of status.

Ritual [li]

Ritual is one's place, and can be seen in etiquette, religious and moral practices. However, it is not empty or simple compulsion. Confucius believes that a particular attitude toward ritual is what makes it empowering.

> When it comes to the practice of ritual it is harmonious ease [he] that is to be valued… If you merely stick to rigid ritual in all matters, great and small, there will remain that which you cannot accomplish. Yet if you know enough to value harmonious ease by try to attain it without being regulated by the rites, this will not work either. (1.12).

Ritual is a key element in the Analects, and is a touchstone and compass for much of the other virtues. Indeed, the focus Confucius has on burial rites and rituals for ancestors can be seen as extending filial piety back into the recent and distant past. Confucius recommends strongly to take great care in seeing off the deceased and sedulously maintain the sacrifices to your distant ancestors, and the common people will sincerely return to virtue. (1.9).

By making these connections to the past, the present and future will come back in line with the past, and order and respect will prevail. Confucius, when asked if we can know what it will be like ten generations from now, replied that we can know what it will be like even a hundred generations from now, as long as dynasties preserve ritual observance.

Figure 1. Connection between maintaining past rituals to the predictability of the future.

However, it is not only the common people who need ritual, as abandoning ritual is a danger of the rich as well. Confucius implicates the rich in not loving ritual, in placing the two in opposition (rich and yet loving ritual, (1.15)). As well, ritual is certainly not the same as coercive regulations [zheng], and punishments, as then the people placed under such demands will become evasive and will have no sense of shame. The use of virtue and ritual will on the other hand create in the people a sense of shame and they will indeed rectify themselves (2.3).

Effective Rule

For Confucius, effective rule is nothing more or less than virtuous action and the employment of ritual. The relationship of the Lord to the people is the same as that between the Lord and their ministers. Lord is to employ ministers with ritual and they are to serve the Lord with dutifulness (3.19). Indeed, the employment of filial piety and other virtues will result in corresponding virtues in the people. Oversee them [the common people] with dignity, and they 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. (2.20).

For Confucius, governing through ritual propriety and deference (4.13) has the effect of compelling correctness and propriety in others. To govern [zheng] means to be correct [sheng]. If you set an example by being correct yourself, who will dare to be incorrect? (12.17). Confucius' emphasis on ritual is not to be overlooked. If those above love ritual, then the common people will be easy to manage. (14.41).

Learning [xue]

Learning is understood by Confucius as study, but in terms of actual practice, and not mere reflection. Learning is counterbalanced by ritual, and as a curb on it, allows for and in fact demands that learning be broad. Ritual should provide restraint or self control (6.27, also 9.11, and 12.15). It should be noted that this is different than the training of the guardians in Plato's Republic. In that case, learning is to be limited or restrained as well. Plato's guardians are brought up without any corrupting influence, until they are fully matured, at which point they are then brought into contact with immorality and unethical teachings and situations, and tested as to their ability to discern and act properly.

Courage [yong]

Courage is a necessary, virtue. To see what is right, but to fail to do it, is to be lacking in courage. (2.24). Courage also has the character of instrumentality, or providing a means to an end, and can be destructive by itself. A gentleman who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would create political disorder, while a common person who possessed courage but lacked a sense of rightness would become a bandit. (17.23).

Trustworthiness [xin] and Rightness [yi]

Confucius downplays the virtue of trustworthiness, which is understood by him to be a minor, but nonetheless useful, virtue that unfortunately -- like purity or uprightness -- can easily be taken too far by those who are not virtuous in other ways. (p. 242).

The commentary on the Analects by Huang Kan recounts the story of Wei Sheng, who promised to meet a woman under a bridge the next day, come hell or high water. That evening it began to rain and turned into a flood. The woman stayed home because of the torrential downpour. Wei Sheng kept his appointment, and ended up drowning for his troubles.

Huang Kan writes that This is an example of trustworthiness not according with what is appropriate to the situation [yi], where in fact it would be best if one did not keep one's word (1.13). Rightness is a sense of doing what is exactly correct for a particular moment. This is a highly contextual concept, which has flexibility above and beyond any other virtue. This concept appears to be missing from Western thought.


Goodness is somewhat elusive in the Analects. At one point Confucius states that resolute, decisive, straightforward, and reticent -- these qualities are close to Goodness (13.27). Yet still, this statement only indicates what is close to goodness, not goodness itself. Goodness as embodied by an individual provides a certain orientation, namely focusing on the difficult task of self-cultivation.

> One who is Good sees as his first priority the hardship of self-cultivation, and only after thinks about results and rewards. (6.22).

Goodness itself as a virtue can be understood to overrule even filial piety, as Confucius states, when it comes to being Good, defer to no one, not even your teacher (15.36).

At one point, Confucius declares that if someone is able to, everywhere in the world, put five virtues into practice they could be considered good (17.6). At the same time, Confucius is reticent to call anyone good, and when asked says that the person could be called by a virtue they were exhibiting, but wondered if they could be called good.

From these points, it appears that goodness is to some degree a dedication to virtue, and the difficult path of virtue alone. Goodness has therefore an element of seriousness. As Confucius writes,

> [I]f a gentleman is not serious, he will not inspire awe, and what he learns will be grasped only superficially.

Figure 2. Suggested relationships between goodness, ritual, filial piety, courage, and rightness.

Inherent Conservatism

The Analects have been used in a variety of ways, and have had significant influence on the structure of the civil service in a variety of kingdoms in China across millennia. There is the fairly common belief that Confucianism is to a large degree conservative, and tends to support the status quo, and in that case functions as an ideology of the ruling classes.

At the same time, the Analects can be read as instruction in the knowledge and acquisition of power, and can therefore aid those who wish for and would implement change.

> When the state possesses the Way, be audaciously correct in both word and action; when the state lacks the Way, be audaciously correct in action, but let one's speech be conciliatory. (14.3).


The pagination referenced and commentary resources were drawn from Confucius. (2003). Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Slingerland, E., Trans. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.