The Analects (Lun yu)

Review by Roy Smith, 2008

Confucius, Confucius: The Analects (Lun yu), trans. and intro. by D.C. Lau (London: Penguin Books, 1979).

Legend holds that a great sage named Confucius (551-479 BC) lived and taught many people in China. The teachings accredited to him have been passed down in the Lun yu, or The Analects, and have influenced Chinese culture enormously. He is said to have been of noble birth, which would seem to indicate a life contrary to that which he lived. But he was disheartened by the declining political climate of his time (imperialism), which stimulated his desire to affect the community in which he lived. Rather than pursue a life of self-interest, Confucius wanted to make a difference. He believed this could be accomplished by encouraging good virtues, careful thinking, and discipline. He also believed that if rulers could become better people, the ruled would follow their example, yielding a better community for everyone (II.20). Thus Confucius taught a philosophy rich in benevolence and right behavior, employing an ideal archetype in which moral qualities could be symbolized. This archetype is the Chun tzu.

Chun tzu is the word which is translated as “gentleman”, denoting “the man with a cultivated moral character” (14). With the example of the gentleman, then, the Analects record many of Confucius’ aphoristic sayings encouraging his audience to take on characteristics of the gentleman. First and foremost the gentleman follows the Way (dao), which means that he strives for virtue (te) and benevolence (jen), and that he loves his “fellow men” (XII.22). The process of developing these character traits must be cultivated with discipline and tenacity (VII.6). Importantly, this can only be accomplished through self-denial, or overcoming the self (XII.1) Thus following the way is getting virtue, and that is subsumed under benevolence, which one cannot be a gentleman without possessing. Benevolence presupposes knowledge that will make one careful with words (XII.3), wise, and free of fear and worry: “The man of wisdom is never in two minds; the man of benevolence never worries; the man of courage is never afraid” (IX.29; XIV.28). Further, knowledge means that one is honest about what one does and does not know (II.17). However, the gentleman is guided not only by his knowledge. He relies on governing rules for his conduct. These are referred to as the rights (20), which demand self-denial and are coterminous with benevolence (XII.1).

The process of becoming a Chun tzu is difficult, and the Way makes one benevolent “only after overcoming difficulties” (VI.22). Interestingly, what is often referred to as the “Golden Rule” is only an echo of what Confucius said long before Jesus: “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (XII.2; XV.24). This is shu, and is part of what ideal moral conduct entails. One can only hope to acquire this state of existence through understanding: “A man has no way of becoming a gentleman unless he understands Destiny; he has no way of taking his stand unless he understands the rites; he has no way of judging men unless he understands words” (XX.3). Last, the gentleman, in contrast to more elitist archetypes, shows respects and reverence towards others (XVI.10).

I found the Analects a reproving read saturated with life application. This wisdom literature has survived for so many centuries; surely there must be truth and goodness within. Were one to follow the moral teachings of Confucius, certainly one would be none the worse. This brings me to the most valuable component of the Analects, its universality. No matter the religious worldview of the reader, these proverbial pages can yield fruitful advice for living a good life. Refreshingly the Way of Confucius can be communicated (in contrast to the Way of the Dao), and is such that it benefits not only the person who follows, but those in his or her community. Now who could say that is a bad thing?