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"The Analects" (c. 500 B.C.E.)
Confucius claimed to possess no special genius or knowledge. He simply
saw himself as someone who revered the old ways and followed them zealously.
As far as we know, nothing he wrote or edited survives. Early Confucian
disciples, however, managed to preserve several sayings ascribed to Confucius
and his immediate pupils. In time these were gathered into a book known
as The Analects (Lun Yu). We do not know which of these maxims Confucius
actually uttered, but collectively they provide us with the best available
view of Kong Fuzi's teachings as remembered by those who knew and followed
There is no question that much of what Confucius taught was already
part of Chinese culture. However, he took such traditional values as filial
piety (respect for ones parents and ancestors) and propriety (regard for
proper decorum) and turned them into moral principles. He insisted that
human beings are moral creatures with social obligations. He also believed
that humans, or at least men, are capable of perfecting themselves as
upright individuals. His ideal moral agent was the superior man (zhunzi)
who cultivated virtue through study and imitation of the moral Way of
the past. As you study the following selections, note the role that propriety
(li) plays in Confucius's system. For him propriety meant much more than
good manners or proper etiquette. It was the primary interior quality
that set the superior man apart from all other humans.
The Master said, "In serving his parents, a son may remonstrate
with them, but gently; when he sees that they do not incline to follow
his advice, he shows an increased degree of reverence, but does not abandon
his purpose; and should they punish him, he does not allow himself to
Mang I asked what filial piety was. The Master said, "It is not
Fan Chih said, "What did you mean?" The Master replied, "That
parents, when alive, should be served according to propriety; that, when
dead, they should be buried according to propriety; and that they should
be sacrificed to according to propriety."
The Master said, "If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought
to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment,
but have no sense of shame. "If they be led by virtue, and uniformity
sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the
sense of shame, and moreover will become good."
The Master said, "He who exercises government by means of his virtue
may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all
the stars turn towards it."
The duke Ai asked, saying, "What should be done in order to secure
the submission of the people?" Confucius replied, "Advance the
upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance
the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit."
Ji Kang asked how to cause the people to reverence their ruler, to be faithful to him, and to go on to nerve themselves to virtue. The Master said, "Let him preside over them with gravity; -- then they will reverence him. Let him be filial and kind to all; -- then they will be faithful to him.
Let him advance the good and teach the incompetent; -- then they will
eagerly seek to be virtuous."
Ji Kang asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "To
govern means to rectify. If you lead on the people with correctness, who
will dare not to be correct?"
The Master said, "If a minister make his own conduct correct, what
difficulty will he have in assisting in government? If he cannot rectify
himself, what has he to do with rectifying others?"
The Master said, "If good men were to govern a country in succession
for a hundred years, they would be able to transform the violently bad,
and dispense with capital punishments. True indeed is this saying!"
THE SUPERIOR MAN
"The mean man does not know the ordinances of Heaven, and consequently
does not stand in awe of them. He is disrespectful to great men. He makes
sport of the words of sages."
Zi Gong asked what constituted the superior man. The Master said, "He
acts before he speaks, and afterward speaks according to his actions."
The Master said, "The mind of the superior man is conversant with
righteousness; the mind of the mean man is conversant with gain."
The Master said, "If the will be set on virtue, there will be no
practice of wickedness."
The Master said, "Riches and honors are what men desire. If it cannot
be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness
are what men dislike. If it cannot be obtained in the proper way, they
should not be avoided.
If a superior man abandon virtue, how can he fulfill the requirements
of that name?
The superior man does not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary
to virtue. In moments of haste, he cleaves to it. In seasons of danger,
he cleaves to it."
The Master said, "By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice,
they get to be wide apart."
The Master said, "By extensively studying all learning, and keeping
himself under the restraint of the rules of propriety, one may thus likewise
not err from what is right."
Ji Lu asked about serving the spirits of the dead. The Master said, "While
you are not able to serve men, how can you serve their spirits?"
Ji Lu added, "I venture to ask about death?" He was answered,
"While you do not know life, how can you know about death?"
Source: Confucius, "The
Analects," in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds. The Human Record:
Sources in Global History, Volume I, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Co., 1998): 96-99.