Confucius "Analects"­

Confucius lived during the 5th century BCE, at a time when Chinese society was plagued by intermittent wars, mass executions, and moral indifference. Nostalgic for earlier periods, particularly that of the Western Zhou Dynasty, Confucius wanted to restore values that reinforced social harmony and stability. The vehicle for doing this was a form of Virtue Ethics, wherein ruling males, both in the family and in government, modeled desirable behaviors. These included wisdom, strength, and equanimity. Subordinates were expected to be respectful and obedient to persons with higher status. Filial piety was especially important. Yet it was the duty of those who held power to be sensitive to the needs of those under them: fathers to family members, monarchs to those whom they rule.

How one demonstrates virtue is often done through performative rituals. These can take various forms--how one dresses, plays musical instruments, prepares food, dances; each reflects two levels of spiritual harmony, the harmony of mind and body, and that of the individual and the greater cosmos. Confucius takes care, however, to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic performances: rituals done as a means to an end (e.g., to impress a prospective employer) rather than as an end in themselves, are discouraged. Moreover, there is no ritual to demonstrate Confucianism’s highest virtue, which is Goodness. This must be cultivated within the self and is manifested through empathy and acts of kindness. Six hundred years before Jesus, Confucius espoused a variation of The Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

One of the most important skills a person could develop was Wu-wei (often translated as “effortless action”). It is the art of doing something well, each step so seamless that it is almost undetectable. Wu-wei is essential for a ritual to be successful. It is also expected of people holding political power: how they present themselves in public, the subtle nuances of their voice and their demeanor, is almost as important as what they say. He who has achieved a high level of moral virtue is called a Junzi, analogous to what the British called a “gentleman” in the 19th century. He is courageous, laconic, performs rituals correctly, and behaves appropriately for his social status.

Confucian ethics in many ways is antithetical to those in the West. In Europe, and especially in America., a premium is placed on individualism and people’s right to challenge authority. As we read the Analects it is important to keep in mind that what we are reading is Early Confucianism; in the middle ages it was rivaled by Neo-Confucianism and in the twentieth century by the New Confucianism. Of the latter, one of the leading exponents is Tu Wei-ming, a Chinese scholar who is attempting to modernize Confucianism and demonstrate its compatibility with democratic forms of governance (see links to his interviews in the video resources below). A question we might address during our meeting is whether that is conceptually possible.

Normally the edition someone chooses for a classical philosopher is not critical, but in the case of Confucius it is. This is because he communicates his ideas through aphorisms, and unless you are familiar with the Chinese language and history, they will seem cryptic. For that reason I am recommending an edition highly praised by book reviewers and that frequently appears in the syllabi of Asian Philosophy courses: Confucius Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Translated by Edward Slingerland. Hackett Publishing Company, 2003. In addition to the valuable commentaries that follow each aphorism, the appendices include a Glossary of Terms and an annotated list of historical personages mentioned in the text. This edition is available from amazon for $12.95 new and from $7.08 used. For those preferring to read a free bare bones edition provided by Project Gutenberg, click here.

The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, interviews, lecture notes, and videos.

Wikipedia: "Confucius", "Confucianism", "Analects", "Ren (Confucianism)", "Li (Confucian)", "Junzi", "Filial Piety""Role Ethics", "Family as a Model for the State", "Rectification of Names", "Neo-Confucianism", "New Confucianism"

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Confucius", "Chinese Ethics", "Comparative Philosophy: Chinese and Western"

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Confucius", "Individualism in Classical Chinese Thought", "Neo-Confucian Philosophy"

Toe Nilar. “The Concept of ‘Li’ in Confucius’ Social Ethics." Universities Research Journal 4.7 (2011), pp. 51-62.

JeeLoo Liu. “Confucian Moral Realism.” Asian Philosophy 17.2 (July 2007), pp. 167-184.

Dong Rui. “A Comparison between the Christian and Confucian Major Doctrines: A Survey.” Canadian Social Science 3.6 (December 2007), pp. 112-115.

Justin Tiwald. “Confucianism and Virtue Ethics: Still a Fledgling in Chinese and Comparative Philosophy.” Comparative Philosophy 1.2 (2010), pp. 55-63.

W. M. Theodore de Bary. “The Trouble with Confucianism.” The Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Delivered at the University of California, Berkeley (4 and 5 May 1998).

Joseph A. Adler. “Confucianism as Religion/Religious Tradition/Neither: Still Hazy After All These Years.” Abridged version of a paper presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Washington, D.C.

Joseph A. Adler. “Confucianism in China Today.” Pearson Living Religions Forum. New York (14 April 2011).

Francis Fukuyama. “Confucianism and Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 6.2 (1995), pp. 20-33.

Randall Nadeau. “Confucianism and the Problem of Human Rights.” Intercultural Communication Studies 11.2 (2002), pp. 107-118.

Hagop Sarkissian. ”Confucius and the Effortless Life of Virtue.” (Author is Professor of Philosophy at Baruch College, CUNY).

Edward Slingerland. "Trying Not to Try: Modern Science and Chinese Philosophy Tell Us Similar Stories of How We Think." Nautilus  10 (6 February 2014).

Ping Yan and Lili Pan. “From ‘Goodness’ in Chinese Confucianism to ‘Truth’ in Japanese Confucianism.” Asian Social Science 6.3 (March 2010), pp. 108-112.

Herbet H. P. Ma. “The Legalization of Confucianism and Its Impact on Family Relationships.” Washington University Law Review 65.4 (1987), pp. 667-679.

Daniel A. Bell. “Reconciling Socialism and Confucianism?: Reviving Tradition in China.” Dissent 57.1 (Winter 2010), pp.  91-99.

Lecture Notes

“Confucius and the Origins of Confucianism”, "Confucianism", and The Confucian School by Professor R. Eno, Dept. of History, Indiana University at Bloomington.

“Confucianism 1" by Professor Claudia Close, Dept. Of Philosophy, Cabrillo College.

"Role Ethics and the Family: Confucianism" by Professor Claudia Close, Cabrillo College.

"The Ethics of Confucius" (Oregon State University publication; author unknown).

“Recent Approaches to Confucian Filial Morality” by Professor Hagop Sarkissian, Dept.of Philosophy, Baruch College, CUNY.


Bill Moyers, "A Confucian Life in America" [interview with Tu Wei-ming, an ethicist, New Confucian, and Professor of Philosophy and founding Dean of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University]. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Additional Tu Wei-ming video: “Listening to Confucius”; lecture delivered at the University of Toledo February 16, 2011.

“World Religions: Confucianism.” Interview with Stephen Prothero, author of Religious Literacy.

“Confucian Role Ethics: A Challenge to the Ideology of Individualism” by Professor Roger Ames, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Hawaii.

“Understanding China: Confucianism” sponsored by Thunderbird School of Global Management.

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  • Craig Y.

    Jesus died when he was 33 and a religious revolutionary. Confucius was 72 when he died and a social moderate. He said sex is like food, a human need. It is ok to be selfish if that does not affect the greater good. Golden mean (as in the Greeks) he strived, instead of following a particular dogma. He would not mind serving a king who usurped(against his teachings) because of the opportunity to put his talents to practical use. In the middle ages, Confucianism absorbed Buddhism represented by Xunzi. Now Confucianism is on the move again in a modern society-the content changes with time under the same label.

    March 17, 2014

  • Robert

    It was great to meet everyone this weekend! I thought we had an excellent discussion. For anyone interested in taking a look at how Confucian and Western thought can be brought into a productive conversation with each other, Boston Confucianism by Robert Neville is a very interesting read. For those looking for more sustained and systematic texts from early Confucian thinkers, there are some good editions available of work by Mencius and Xunzi in English translation.

    March 16, 2014

  • Craig Y.

    The topic is enormous with active participation. Studying Greeks and Chinese Classics would be interesting for future endeavors.

    March 16, 2014

  • Craig Y.

    In the holistic approach to subject, object and nature, sincerely, honesty, humility and compassion allows you to understand yourself and open yourself to and harmonized with others and nature as one. Since nature is in dynamic motion, man should continuous improve himself. The process is more important than the end states. The gentleman's way makes one lean towards optimism that human nature is basically good and seeking for a win-win solution instead of zero sum. As with any philosophical system its strength is its weakness. There has always been a stress between rules and intent. In the end intent always prevailed. You end up with fragmented rules that pockets of people take it seriously and they pass with time.

    March 16, 2014

  • montserrat l.


    March 16, 2014

  • Kevin t.

    Been sick. I hope you guys have a spirited discussion. Thanks to Craig for the commentary.

    March 14, 2014

  • Craig Y.

    What would Confucius say today?
    1) Return to the values of the old idealized society of the founding fathers: Wise, gentleman rule, civility. Knowing at the same time it was a classed society. So he thinks the citizens have the potential to be educated to be the founding fathers. (Everybody can be the legendary wise kings.) People like himself, the professional class with higher education should rule. Leaders should do the work of leading instead of addressing to the lowest denominators using the PRs, or Kardashians.
    2) All morality in Confucianism is based on human relationships in a closed society with fixed resources. The world is increasing that way. Unless we can colonize the moon or have another big bang in new technology, we are forced to live with each other and be civil. He would be against extreme individualism or robbery for that matter.

    March 10, 2014

    • Craig Y.

      It is a male dominated society. Our founding fathers are males and most leaders and philosophers are males. It is more complex than that. In Confucianism, there are forces tuning down that tendency.1) Yang(male), aggressiveness/hard and Ying(female), nurturing/soft are equally important to solve a problem, and part of nature. 2) Content is more important than form. In the family some wives "wearing pants" are functioning with father's responsibility and is ok, as you see many Asian professionals are females. 3) It is a hierarchical society but with the rights to rebel by the common people who follow their heart, if they think the elite is not doing the job, as the regimes changed every 300 years, unlike Byzantine empire lasted 1000 years with priesthood. 4) It is very clear from Chinese historic legends that many inventions like farming, clothing, writing etc. were done by a female dominated society before the recorded history.

      March 13, 2014

    • Craig Y.

      Confucianism is much bigger than woman's issues. I wish that is one of the issues but not the dominant issues to be discussed. As with any philosophical system, its strength is also its weakness. But those are the wise people walking before us and we can learn from them. I am highlighting certain aspects of a great philosophy not understood by the West. Is Confucius right or the West is wrong or vice versa. I don't believe so, as history has proven. It is an interaction of Yang and Ying and the process of doing so that hopefully can push us to be wiser.

      1 · March 13, 2014

  • Craig Y.

    Scott has raised some good points. Let me try to address them here.
    1) In Confucianism, rebellion is justified, if the rulers do not do their jobs, as for a son to rebel against the father if the father sheds responsibility as "father". Confucianism is a code of gentleman modeling after a polite society of ideal society, where good mannerism was reserved for the nobles. Confucius re-interpreted that and gives everybody a "face", or a dignity.
    2) The goodness of humanness is inherent and equal in each human being. Thus do not look for answers in some authority or doctrine. Look into yourself for the answer. Because of this the rituals never really handed down as in Sabbath. There is always struggle for power and brutality, regardless of the philosophy. But assuming goodness in human being limited the Paranoid we often felt in dealing with others.

    February 14, 2014

    • Craig Y.

      Another interesting point is in the Western philosophy, the scientist as a subject examines the objects, like morality etc. There is not much the subject examines himself. There is plenty of self examination of Confucius by himself whether he is doing the right thing, of course without regards to the supernatural.

      1 · February 19, 2014

    • Craig Y.

      In Confucius, responsibility/love starts with people around you or charity starts at home. Anti-social behavior to people around you but love humanity cannot be agreeable in Confucius philosophy.

      March 9, 2014

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