Confucius of the Analects

a selection from the texts, translated with a commentary

Yakov Rabinovich

part two

The Gentleman

Noblesse Oblige

Confucius' program for the education of gentlemen was intended to restore the gentlemanly ideal to its original meaning. This it did, after a fashion, for in archaic societies learning means mores as much as it does education and culture in our sense. In archaic societies, however, there is no notion of the "gentleman," that is, one of a higher social class who embodies the ideals of a society. In a tribal context, mastery of traditional "learning" is open to, and aspired to, by all. It means becoming fully human, rising above the status of an outsider or foreigner.

The most important archaic features of the Confucian ideal of the gentleman are its egalitarianism --- open to all, regardless of rank --- and its broad moral basis.

Now when societies enlarge and organize themselves hierarchically, we find the ideal of being human replaced by something more like the medieval idea of man who is "gentle" noble, privileged in wealth, and distinguished in military action. This was the concept of the gentleman held by Confucius' contemporaries.

Confucius ( 551-479 BC) lived at the end of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), when the Jo dynasty rule, never strong, had been reduced to sovereignty in name alone. The kingdom had fragmented into a number of feudal states that warred continually as the larger ate the lesser. The sixth and fifth centuries, when Confucius lived, saw a period of relative peace, due to general exhaustion. It would be followed four years after Confucius' death by the Warring States period (475-221) an age of outright civil war. This would end with the founding of the Chin dynasty, which lasted some twenty years, and then the Han, which endured for about two hundred.

In Confucius' time the fractious Jo kingdom was coping with another sort of stress in addition to the power struggles of the great lords. The new forces of urbanization, trade, and the emergence of a merchant class, were also eroding traditional ways and the old social order.

Confucius' father was a distinguished warrior who held a fief. After his father's early death, Confucius lost any claim to the family wealth because his mother was a concubine who was disliked by the number one wife. Confucius grew up in poverty, acutely conscious of his lost status. His sympathy with aristocratic ideals, and his novel infusion of these with moral concepts, like the exaltation of hard work, may readily be understood from his circumstances.

A Grand Minister said to Zih Loo, The master is some sort of a sage, isn't he? Then why does he have so many practical skills, as if he were a craftsman or practiced a trade?

Zih Loo said, It is true that heaven granted he would truly be a sage, yet it cannot be denied he has many useful attainments.

When the master heard this, he said, The Grand Minister is right to wonder about this. I grew up in poverty, so I had to become a fairly handy fellow. A gentleman doesn't need such abilities. (9: 6)

Confucius is fond of drawing a distinction between the gentleman and the vulgar, new-money arriviste, whom he calls, literally, the "small man."

If you examine the actions of a gentleman, you'll see that his motivation is public spirit. If you examine the actions of a new-money man, you'll see that his motivation is profit. (4: 16)

The following should be understood as a rejection of the idea that a gentleman ought to do something useful, practical and profitable, rather than perfect his character morally and culturally.

A gentleman is not a tool to be used. He is something, he is not for something. (2: 12)

Not that Confucius was shy about working,

I'd accept any employment that let me pursue wealth honorably, even holding the whip to drive a coach. But if no honorable work presents itself, I may be pardoned if I spend my time doing what I enjoy. (7: 11)

What is at issue for Confucius is not birth, or whether one earns or already has wealth, but the purposes pursued with one's resources. In themselves, possessions and rank are neutral matters.

A gentleman is honest and loyal, a lover or learning, a protector of the Way till the day he dies.

He doesn't enter a dangerous country, or remain in one that is heading into chaos.

When the Way prevails below heaven, he gains eminence; when the Way is hidden, he is too.

In a country that possesses the Way, poverty and lack of status are disgraceful; in a country that has lost the Way, wealth and rank are marks of shame. (8: 13)

Confucius was not a snob, and his dislike of bourgeois strivings was not a matter of class rivalry.

Alluding to Ran Yong, the disciple of humble origins, the Master said, One might be reluctant to use the offspring of a common plough ox for a sacrifice, but if it was red and undappled and had good horns, do you really suppose the spirits of the rivers and mountains would reject it? (6: 4)

The master said, As for my disciple Ran Yong, though a man of humble birth, he has the abilities necessary to sit on the throne of China.

Ran Young, who was present, asked about Song Bo Zih.

The master said, He'd do as well. He's a plain, direct man.

Ran said, a man of respectful courtesy who puts on a plain, blunt manner when he deals directly with the common people --- that would be fine. But a man like Song Bo, who acts unpolished because he actually lacks polish --- wouldn't he just be crude?

The master said, It is as Ran says. (6: 1)

Confucius' slightly shocking statement, that a common man like Ran Yong would make a good emperor, shows Confucius' egalitarianism, and also his critical attitude towards the unworthy, arrogant aristocracy of his time, eager to assume the trappings of kingship.

Being himself of aristocratic birth, Confucius was at ease making light of the idea of aristocracy. Ran, a commoner who had become a Confucian gentleman by diligent effort, was uncomfortable with so strong a criticism of aristocracy. It is rather touching to note how Confucius, realizing he has touched a sore point, graciously concedes the argument to Ran.

Confucius offers many a criticism of the presumptuous splendor of the aristocracy. This example will suffice here. More are offered below in the section "The Restraints of Tradition."

The Jee clan, one of the three families that usurped most of the powers of the Duke of Loo, now has eight companies of dancers performing in their courtyard, as if they were royalty! If people put up with this, they'll put up with anything. (3: 1)

Confucius also believed privilege should based on service, not self-aggrandizement.

The high-born disciple Zih Hwa was made a minister in the state of Chee. Yong Ran, a disciple of quite humble origins, asked for some millet to help out Hwa's mother in his absence.

The master said, Give her a kettleful.

Ran asked again. The master said, Give her two kettlefuls.

Ran gave her five bushels of millet.

The master said, When Hwa went to Chee to assume office, he rode a well fed horse and wore fine furs. As I understand it, a gentleman helps those in distress, he doesn't make gifts to the rich (6: 3a)

When they made the disciple Yiwan Sih a governor, they wanted to give him nine hundred measures of millet. He declined them.

The master said, Don't accept them! You might end up sharing them with your neighbors, your friends, your fellow villagers! (6: 36)

To some extent Confucius drew his idea of the gentleman from the actual traditions of the aristocracy --- but he surely selected from and emended this to create something more urbane. Had it been otherwise, he would not have had to so often draw his paradigmatic men from the records of antiquity. Confucius' gentleman, with his genteel virtues, is a genuine innovation.

In archery, that most aristocratic of sports, what counts is striking the center, not how deep the arrow penetrates its target. What counts is not strength, which varies by nature, but skill, which is won by work. Such was the way of the ancients. (3: 16)

When the master fished, he did not use a net; when he went shooting, he wouldn't aim his arrow at a roosting bird. (7: 26)

The master said, Yan Ping Jong, wise minister of the state of Chih some fifty years ago, was good with people. He was friendly by nature, yet he never forgot to show respect to a man no matter how long he'd known him. (5: 16)

The master said, Mung Jih Fan, the military officer of Loo, doesn't boast. When his men were retreating, he was the last to turn back, and he kept to the rear until he was about to enter the city gates. Then he spurred his horse and galloped in. He said, I didn't guard the rear out of courage, my horse just refused to turn back. (6: 13)

Confucius made use of the aristocratic glamour of the gentlemanly ideal to put forth what was finally his own conception, one based on meritorious conduct alone.

The master said, A gentleman who eats to still his hunger and doesn't continue till he's gorged, who wants a house to rest when he's tired and not a comfortable place to be idle, who isn't social for distraction but seeks out people who possess the Way, whose example he can use to improve himself --- such a man could be called educated and well bred (1: 14)


To study, and to pass on what you have learned, at the right moment --- isn't that a pleasure? To have friends who travel far to visit you --- doesn't that make you glad? To refuse to become resentful even though you don't get the recognition you deserve --- isn't that what's expected of a gentleman? (1: 1)

These, the opening lines of the Analects, are justly admired for their bravely deliberate cheer. But they also attest the isolation of a man who is ahead of his time and maintains standards too high to ever be popular. Every unrecognized artist and non-mainstream thinker will identify with this image of the sage who pieces out a personal happiness from his work and the few friends who appreciate him.

The want of acceptance for his teaching was always a strain on Confucius' patience.

Who can go out properly except through the doorway? Who can turn out properly except by following the Way? Yet how few there are to take th easy, direct route! (6: 15)

One of the worst problems with the idealization of Confucius, making him a static statue for veneration, a "marble man" like Robert E. Lee, is that it defrauds us of the moving spectacle of Confucius' struggle against discouragement.

Don't be distressed because others don't recognize your merits. Worry about whether you fail to recognize the merits of others. (1: 16)

Don't worry about rank and position, be concerned about whether you have the merits that deserve such. Don't be pained because people don't notice your worth, take pains to be sure you have worth that deserves to be noticed. (4: 14)

His outsider status moved Confucius to one of his few expressions of impatience.

A man from the village of Da Shang said, A great man, that Confucius! All that learning, everyone's heard of him, but he's never actually done anything.

When this was repeated to the master, he said to his disciples, What should I do to deserve my reputation? Shall I take up chariot racing? Or maybe competition archery? No, to show what I can really do it has to be chariot racing! (9: 2)

More important than Confucius' patience or impatience with his marginalization, is the way it accounts for the personal, private and usually psychological view he takes of the world. Since he could not be a man of action or affairs, he became a man of introspection. An outsider, all he could really do was watch, but this he learned to do amazingly well.

Zih Chin asked Zih Gong, I know that when the master visits a country he always learns about its style of government; does he ask questions or simply observe?

Zih Gong said, Neither. The master obtains his information by seeing how people respond to his warmth, kindliness, modesty, circumspection, respectfulness and deferential manner. The master's mode of enquiry is far different from that of other men! (1: 10)

It is interesting to note that Confucius was such a good anthropologist. He didn't skew the data by questions that would limit it in advance, nor did he miss the fine detail by remaining aloof.

Confucius applied the same method of observation to people he dealt with closely,

Consider a man's intentions, observe the means he uses to realize them, examine what satisfies him. No one can hide their real nature, no one! (2: 10)

Silently taking careful note of what I see, never surfeited with learning nor tired of teaching people --- in these matters at least I think I have achieved somethiing. (7: 2)



As for the education of the gentleman, Confucius calls this "learning" (shweh, .) It was quite unlike what we mean by education (public or private) today. Confucian learning is approximated by some terms we use: breeding, etiquette, culture, refinement --- the things that make one, as the old phrase goes, "a gentleman and a scholar."

Confucius does not call anyone simply "educated and well bred," though this is how I might render his phrase. He praises a man's attainments by calling him "one who loves learning," thus emphasizing that learning is something to be ever pursued, which cannot be completed. Love of learning is the basis of Confucian practice, and it is the accomplishment he was proudest of.

In a village of only ten houses you'd assuredly find people as loyal and sincere as I, but you wouldn't find people with my diligent love of learning from the ancients and striving to emulate them (5: 27)

I only expound the classics, inventing nothing. I am a trustworthy lover of antiquity. In this regard, I would beg to suggest I resemble Lao Pung, the Chinese Nestor. (7: 1)

When I was fifteen I resolved to pursue learning; when I was thirty I had acquired a good foundation in morals and culture; when I was forty I was no longer confused about them; when I was fifty I understood heaven's commands; when I was sixty, I listened to them; when I was seventy I could follow the promptings of my own heart: finally they coincided with heaven's will and I no longer transgressed against it. (2: 4)

Confucius' ideal of learning is however a fairly bookish one, as shown by amount and precision of the practical advice he offers to scholars .

To study the classics without thinking critically is a waste of time; to think critically without a study of the classics is dangerous. (2: 15)

You can instruct an mediocre man in higher things if he has the will to better himself. It that will is lacking, don't waste your breath on him. (6: 19)

When the master was visiting the state of Chen he said, Let's go home right now! My young disciples have become careless and arrogant, elegantly perfecting their knowledge of culture with no idea of its purpose and limitations. (5: 21)

A gentleman takes the broad general view of a topic, he doesn't focus on every minute difference and exception. A vulgar, petty man is a captious, comparing specialist, he never sees how different aspects of a matter form a whole. (2: 14)

The master said, What a comfort it is to read in the Spring and Autumn Annals of the worthy persons who lived a few hundred years ago. It it weren't for the eloquence of the priest Twoh, or the beauty of the lady Song Chow, it would be hard to find an escape from the present age. (6: 14)

Diligence is the queen of the Confucian virtues, but when we look carefully at his statements on this subject we see that they all apply directly to study.

If the student isn't burning to learn, I don't open my mouth. If he isn't seething with eagerness, I don't teach. I lift up one corner of a topic; if he doesn't come back with the other three, I don't repeat myself. The lesson is over. (7: 8)

The disciple Ran Choo said, It isn't that the master's teaching doesn't delight me, I just don't have the strength for it.

The master replied, One whose strength fails him gives up halfway there. You haven't reached your limit, you've set it. (6: 10)

Zih Gong asked what it meant to be a gentleman,

The master said, One who begins by doing what he said he would and ends by following through. (2: 13)

Those who miss the point of my teaching by applying it to themselves too strictly are actually quite rare. (4: 23)

The disciple Zai Yoo would sleep during the day.

The master said, What's the use of carving rotten wood? What's the point of whitewashing a wall built of mud and dung? Would even punishment improve Zai Yoo?

When I first brought out my teaching, I would listen to people and trust they'd do what they said. Now I listen to their words and watch to see what they'll do. Zai Yoo inspired this change. (5: 9)


Confucius hated learning and refinement that concealed a want of character

A man with a skillful ease in speech and an elegant appearance very rarely has much in the way of goodness. (1: 2)

Glib, clever speech, deceptive charm, hypocritical courtesy --- Zwo Chyoo Ming, that ancient paragon of virtue, would have been ashamed to act like that, and I would too. To hide resentment and pretend friendship --- Zwo would have been ashamed to act like that, and I would too. (5: 24)

Someone said, That disciple Ran Yong, he's just a commoner. He possesses goodness, but he lacks eloquence.

The master said, What's the use of eloquence? To baffle people with a glib tongue? Usually that just makes them hate you. I don't know whether Ran Yong possesses goodness, but what's the use of eloquence? (5: 4)

What is interesting in the next quote is not the rather conventional social advice, but the initial insistence that a gentleman's manner be sober and earnest.

If a gentleman lacks gravity, he will not get respect, and though he have learning his knowledge will not be given weight. A gentleman's main concerns should be loyalty to superiors and sincerity to friends --- let him be sure the latter are persons who share his seriousness. If he makes a mistake, he shouldn't be afraid to admit it or slow to correct it. (1: 8)

Of course Confucius justified this rule of style by an appeal to antiquity,

The ancients were men of few words because they dreaded to make any promise they couldn't perform. (4: 22)

The same standard of sincerity Confucius held for personal conduct he also applied to social duties.

The disciple Lin Fang asked about the principles that underlie traditional observances

The master said, A great question indeed! The key is sincerity. Rituals, for example, should be carried out with appropriate pomp, but not ostentatiously. Mourning should be performed with simplicity, to show sorrow, not make a display of it. (3: 4)

A corollary of Confucius exaltation of personal simplicity was his rigorous subordination of learning itself to the development of character

At home a young person should be reverently obedient; outside, he should be brotherly to all. With a general affection for humanity, he should become close only to those who possess goodness. If he has enough energy to do more than this, let him apply himself to acquiring culture. (1: 6)

Though this advice owes some of its austerity to the fact that its topic is raising children, who need more structure, it is worth noting that culture takes such a decidedly second place. Bear in mind that the study of the writings and culture of the ancients was the entire educational program Confucius proposed!

Zih Shah asked how he should understand these verses from the Book of Songs,

Winsome, with an impish smile,

bright, clear and alert, her eyes,

her simple dress, on her, looks somehow

rich and fine.

The master said, Good material comes first, decoration is second in importance.

Zih Shah asked, Does knowledge of ritual and tradition come second then?

The master said, Zih Shah, you're the one who cheers me up! It seems I've finally found someone I can discuss poetry with. (3: 8)



A scholar, Confucius introduced his new ideas as deeper interpretations of older materials. This is the rule in traditional societies, and we see it in play particularly in the way scripture has been interpreted in the west. When Confucius says

One who restores warm life to the records of antiquity through his knowledge of the new and now --- that's a real teacher. (2: 11)

we should be wary of taking the statement at face value, appealing as this would be. The sort of vivifying interpretation he advocated is of an exaggeratedly conventional, moralizing sort. This is because he quoted scripture (so to speak) particularly where he wanted to give his thought the force of law, and this he did when he offered tradition as a remedy for the chaos of his society.

Zih Gong said, "Let the poor man not be obsequious nor the rich man proud." How would that do as a precept?

The master said, Not bad. But it would be preferable if a poor man were content with his lot --- then he wouldn't be enviously flattering those who have more. The rich man should be zealous for traditional manners and customs --- then he'd abhor violent usurpation and arrogant show.

Zih Gong said, That would indeed be refinement and polish! Perhaps that's what the Book of Songs alludes to in the lines

. . . like a gemstone carved and burnished,

like a cut and polished jewel . . .

The master said, now that I have Zih Gong with me, I can start to talk about poetry! Give him an ancient verse and he brings it right up to the present day! (1: 15)

If a gentleman has a broad knowledge of culture, and subordinates this to the demands of tradition and ritual, then he really couldn't go far wrong, don't you think? (6: 25)

This moralizing about duties, well called for in the last years of the Jo dynasty's disintegration, is unfortunately what made Confucius the official philosopher of China from the second century AD to the end of the nineteenth. Confucius' canonization gave undue prominence to a relatively minor aspect of his thought and radically misrepresented it. Confucius' advocacy of duty, diligence and appropriate social subordination would be used to justify a powerful bureaucratic state which Confucius never imagined.

What Confucius did advocate was the set of relatively private duties owed one's family and local lord. More than this he does not discuss. Even this little may be severely summarized, as in the following quote, where Confucius' teaching is summed up as compassion (the foundation of goodness in the special psychological sense he had developed) and loyalty (the basis of the limited and local duties he actually enjoins.)

The master said, Shen! There's a single thread that runs through all my teachings about the Way.

Shen Zih said, Yes.

When Confucius left, the other disciples asked, What does that mean?

Shen Zih said, The master teaches loyalty and compassion. That the sum of his teaching. There is no more to it. (4: 15)

There is a great deal more in Confucius about family duties than about local political ones --- a further evidence of the limited relevance politics and government actually had for him.

Mung Yee, a grandee of the state of Loo, whose father had sent him to study with Confucius, asked him what it meant to be filial.

The master said, Being filial means never forsaking.

Later, when the disciple Fan Chih was driving the carriage, Confucius said to him, Meng Yee asked me what being filial was. I told him: never forsaking.

Fan Chih said, Meaning . . .

The master said, While your parents are alive, serve them reverently in accordance with tradition; when they die, bury them reverently in accordance with tradition, and sacrifice to them as ancestors, reverently, in accordance with tradition. (2: 5)

It is interesting to note that while Confucius gave Meng Yee a cryptic answer, to encourage curiosity, he kindly adapted his teaching on this head to the understanding of Mung Yee's son.

Mung Woo Bo, the son of Mung Yee, asked what it meant to be filial.

The master said, Acting in such a way that your health is the only thing about you that could worry your parents. (2: 6)

The disciple Zih Shan asked what it meant to be filial.

The master said, It's all in one's manner --- that's the difficult part. Of course when something needs to be done, the children take care of the work, and at a meal they see to it their parents get enough to eat and drink. But once upon a time being filial meant more than that. (2: 8)

The disciple Zih Yo asked what it meant to be filial.

The master said, Nowadays someone is considered filial if he manages to keep his parents fed. One would do as much for a dog or a horse. Unless one is respectful as well, what's the difference? (2: 7)

In attending to your parents you may, at need, almost disagree with them. If you see that they are unwilling to be persuaded, respectfully comply with their wishes. You may not simply walk away. Though you find this hard, you must not grumble. (4: 18)



Confucius had no liking for force or compulsion; he propounded a philosophy, not a law-code. His basic optimism, his belief that people's better nature could simply be appealed to, is nowhere so elaborately worked out as in his thoughts on government.

Confucius thought that government should be carried on primarily by example.

With government to lead them and punishments to regulate them, a people becomes sneaky and without self-control; with virtuous examples to lead them and tradition to regulate them, a people becomes self-disciplined and principled. (2: 3)

One who governs with upright honesty is like the north star; it keeps its place, unshaken, and the many lesser stars circle round it as their center. (2: 1)

Rarely, Confucius gives more detailed advice on how to govern, and when he does it is as personal as it is political.

The master said, Zih Chan, minister in the state of Chung, had the four traits of a gentleman: he was courteous to his equals and respectful to his superiors, he provided kindly for those he governed and set fair limits to what he asked of them. (5: 15)

Similarly interior in emphasis is Confucius' advice that that governing must not be over-thought.

Jee Wen Zih, a loyal officer in the state of Loo, would always reflect three times before he acted.

When the master was told of this he said, Twice would suffice. (5: 19)

The underlying idea here seems to be that good governing requires some reliance on intuition and feeling. Too much reflection could lead to timidity, self-interested action, or an unduly theoretical or doctrinaire approach.

Confucius was genuinely uninterested in the practical details of government and politics.

If you can govern a state on the basis of tradition, ritual and courtesy, what further political science would you need? If you can't use tradition, ritual and courtesy for this, what possible good would they be? (4: 15)

This disinterest was another consequence of his being an outsider. He spent his life as an itinerant philosopher, like the Greek sophists, eking out a hardscrabble existence with interludes of genuine danger and privations. When he did take closer note of statecraft, it was when his attention had been called to it by some clumsy injustice.

The master said of Gong Yeh Chang, There's no reason not to form a connection by marriage with such a man. Yes, he was manacled and imprisoned, but through no fault of his own.

The master married his daughter to Gong.

The master said of Nan Rong, In a country where the Way prevailed, he would not be passed over for preferment and rank. In a country where the Way didn't prevail, he would at least avoid the capital punishments of mutilation and execution.

The master had his elder brother's daughter marry Nan. (5: 1)

Confucius did not have a high esteem for government as it was generally understood, or the qualities it required. His ideal demanded a new kind of man with interior qualifications.

The master encouraged Chee Dyao Kai to take office. He replied, As for me, I fear I might lack the trustworthiness for such a pursuit.

This answer pleased Confucius. (5: 5)

Mung Woo Bo, a young lord whose father had sent him to study with Confucius, asked the master if the disciple Zih Loo possessed goodness.

The master said, That I don't know.

Mung asked again.

The master said, Loo is a soldierly man. He could certainly marshall the army for a state big enough to deploy a thousand chariots. But does he possess goodness? That I don't know.

Mung asked, What about Ran Choo?

The master said, Choo is a fine liegeman to his lord. He could administer a town with a thousand families, or a noble household with a hundred chariots. Does he possess goodness? That I don't know.

Mung asked, What about Gong Shee?

The master said, Gong Shee is an aristocrat. He'd be good in a palace conversing with guests and envoys, dressed in ceremonial robes and a belt of office. But does he possess goodness? That I don't know. (5: 7)

Zih Chang said, Zih Wang, the famous seventh century BC Grand Minister of Choo, held that exalted office three times. He never smiled on learning of his appointment, he never frowned when he was dismissed. Each time he left office, he scrupulously informed the new Grand Minister of all the details of his administration. What would you say of him?

The master said, A loyal man!

Chang asked, Did he possess goodness?

The master said, I've no idea. How could I infer that?

Chang continued, Back in the seventh century, when Tswey Zih, a minster of Chih, killed his lord for seducing his wife and usurped the state, another minister, Chen Wen Zih, left Chih, abandoning his estate and ten chariots with their horses. He traveled to another state, but when he saw it he said, "The sovereign here is no better than my old lord Tswey!" He left and went to another state, where he said and did the same. What would you say of him?

The master said, A man of purity!

Chang asked, Did he possess goodness?

The master said. I've no idea. How could I infer that? (5: 18)

The Restraints of Tradition

Traditional mores, which Confucius refers to by the rather general term "ritual" (lee, ) have the ordering function of law of law in the Confucian theory of government. It is worth noting that Confucius makes positive prescriptions for how ritual should be applied only for the sphere of private life. When he speaks of the abuse of ritual, he turns to the examples offered by powerful and public persons.

The master said, To decide whether a man is truly filial, observe his inclinations while his father is alive, and his action after his father has passed away. One who continues to run the household as his father would have, during the three full years of formal mourning, could be called truly filial. (1: 11)

The master said, Tsang Wen Jang, minister of the state of Loo two hundred years ago, famed for his wisdom, decorated his home as if he were an emperor: a sacred tortoise as a pet, towering columns with capitals carves in a water-plant pattern --- I'd question his claim to wisdom. (5: 17)

Members of the three great families, who usurped most of the powers of the Duke of Loo, started using the royal hymn "Harmony" in their sacrifices.

The master quoted from the hymn,

Noble and commoner aid and sustain

the son of Heaven, solemn and grave.

and asked, How is that appropriate for the halls of the three families? (3: 2)

Confucius' exaltation of tradition also attests to his optimism. Believing that human nature is essentially good, he believed that naturally developing human institutions are also fundamentally good. Thus he praises the unspoiled ways of the "barbarians," by which he means the less civilized neighboring Chinese states outside of the Jo kingdom..

The barbarians to the east and north of us still have real aristocracy. Our aristocratic tradition died with the Shah dynasty, fifteen hundred years ago. (3: 5)


Time, Man and Heaven

Confucius had the view of time that is standard for traditional societies, that things have steadily degenerated since the beginning of history

Nowadays, if someone were to serve his prince with all the formalities that ritual requires, people would think him a sycophant. (3: 18)

But he tempered this with a belief in cultural progress.

The Jo dynasty, under which we live today, can look back on the Shang dynasty and further to the Shah dynasty which was founded some fifteen hundred years before the first King of Jo.What a splendid wealth of culture! In addition to this, we have five hundred years of Jo civilization to draw on! (3: 14)

Alongside this he had a basic confidence in human goodness, though he well appreciated how embattled this trait could be,

Uprightness is the very lifeblood of a man. If someone turns his back on this, and survives, it's due to luck. (6: 17)

The scornful disciple Zai Woo said, If someone told your ideal good man, "goodness is at the bottom of this well," I suppose he jump down the well to get it?

The master said, Why do you think that is? A gentleman can be ambushed --- but he can't be entrapped. He can be misled --- but not led astray. (6: 24)

A believer in human progress and goodness, Confucius had no interest in the mystical or supernatural side of things

The master didn't talk about strange phenomena, unusual feats of strength, unnatural events, or the spirit world. (7: 20)

Fan Chih asked about wisdom.

The master said, To work to protect the people's rights, to keep the ancestors and spirits at a safe distance by showing them ritual reverence, you could fairly call that wisdom. (6: 20)

This is not to suggest Confucius lacked a socially appropriate reverence for the gods and ancestral spirits. He did not however extend his involvement with them beyond what was required by duty.

Someone asked the meaning of the imperial ritual of sacrifice to the ancestors.

The master said, I do not have such knowledge. One who did --- would be able to reveal all the mysteries on earth as easily as I can show my palm. (3: 11)

Wan Sun Jyah, commander in chief of the state of Wey, asked Confucius what he made of the verses

Give due praise and adoration

to the spirits of the ancestors,

but first give your adoring praise

to the kitchen god whose altar

is the stove, protector of your home.

The master said, Not so. One who had offended heaven and the ancestors could expect no help from any lesser spirit. (3: 13)

For the most part, when Confucius did mention mythological matters, it was in an ironic, metaphorical way --- though later tradition made these casual remarks the basis of a mythological Confucius.

No phoenix-bird arrives in our land to indicate the coming of a righteous king, no dragon rises from the river to teach us the secrets of the future. To establish the Way --- is that an equally forlorn hope? (9: 8)

The master said,When King Wen founded the Jo dynasty five hundred years ago, his brother the Duke of Jo established the aristocratic hierarchy and religious ideology of the empire. He also wrote a number of poems in the Book of Songs, and after his death he became the god of dreams.

I really must be getting decrepit. It's been so long since the Duke of Jo appeared in my dreams to advise me, perhaps too little time remains to my life. (7: 5)



Looking back over the materials I have here surveyed, excerpted and clarified, the Confucius that emerges appears to be more of a psychologist with a moral focus than a philosopher in the modern sense. The second half of the essay shows the private, outsider position he held in his own society. We learn from this as much about him as we do about ancient China.

Confucius' teachings are characterized by elegant brevity, calm moral force, and an overall concern with what is proper. These features combine to make the Analects a timeless, almost cosmic, book of etiquette. Though there is little in this thinker from two and one half millennia ago that will strike us as altogether new, much of it seems jarringly modern, more of it relevant, and all of it interesting.

At the center of Confucius' enduring fascination is the fact that the Analects form a very personal testimony. This is precisely what we should expect from a a man who believed that real teaching, like real leadership, depended not on rules and precepts but on the power of example. As Walt Whitman observed in his Song of the Broad-Axe,

Nothing endures but personal qualities.


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