I recently read Confucius’ Analects. Specifically, I read the Penguin Classics version, for which D.C. Lau was the translator. Lau also provided an informative introduction.
Here are some of my thoughts:
A. I will quote a paragraph from the back cover because that paragraph provides a cogent summary of Confucius’ thought. I did read the entire book, though!
“‘How dare I claim to be a sage or a benevolent man?’
“By constructing the philosophy expressed through The Analects, Confucius might well dare to make such a claim. The Analects are a collection of Confucius’ saying, compiled by his pupils shortly after his death in 497 B.C., and they reflect the extent to which Confucius held up a moral ideal for all men. The aim is the perfection of one’s moral character, the method one of arduous pursuit of such moral attributes as benevolence, wisdom, courage; the result is no recompense in this life or the next—-to follow the Way must be its own reward. A harsh philosophy perhaps, but shining through it is the splendid intellect and spirit of one of the most reasonable and humane thinkers of all time.”
B. The Analects remind me of the biblical Book of Proverbs. Proverbs instructs people about how to impress authorities and the importance of being humble. As the summary above says, Confucius believed that people should follow the Way, even if they do not receive a reward in this life or the hereafter. Yet, the Analects do contain a measure of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” (not a quotation): a belief that following certain rules can bring a person advancement. There is also a notion that, when the Way is prevalent in society, adherents to the Way should be prospering. But there is also a belief in contentment where one is, as one is nourished by the Way itself and finds a home therein.
C. An idea that appears more than once in The Analects is that a ruler can bring out the best in his subjects by being good and compassionate rather than attempting to inspire fear. A ruler is to be concerned about the well-being of his subjects, whatever their stations in life, and Confucius also supported trying to reform convicts rather than hastily executing them. As I read these passages, I was comparing them with the biblical portrayal of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God rules people benevolently, yet they respond with stubborn disobedience; the Bible appears more pessimistic than Confucius about human nature. God also rules through fear, in a sense, since the Torah in the Hebrew Bible prescribes the death penalty for all sorts of offenses, and the prophets forecast woes as divine punishment for disobedience. In the New Testament, beliefs about human stubbornness in the face of divine benevolence as well as divine retribution persist, yet there is also a notion that the law, with its condemnations, is a dead end in terms of encouraging people to change, so now God focuses on grace.
D. I was comparing Confucius’ political philosophy with God’s governance according to the Bible, but what was Confucius’ theology? Did he regard the divine realm as benevolent? There is a passage in The Analects that states that Confucius did not discuss the gods. Although Confucius does not present a theology, there are still assumptions about the gods in The Analects. There are gods in heaven and below. People should sacrifice to these gods, and sometimes this occurs at mealtimes. People can displease Heaven, in which case they have nowhere to go with their prayers. Overall, they should keep a respectful distance from the gods. You would think that Confucius saw the gods as beings to appease, not so much as the embodiment of virtue. Yet, Confucius states at one point that Heaven placed virtue within him.
E. Another theme that recurs in The Analects is the importance of rites, which include sacrifices to the gods, honoring ancestors, and civic rituals. For Confucius, the rites ground people in the essentials. They humble those who are of high station. In the Gospels of the New Testament, Jesus accuses scribes and Pharisees of legalism: of being rigorous in observing rites of the Torah while missing the point on such vital principles as justice and compassion. The apostle Paul believed that the Torah served a purpose at one stage of God’s plan but with the coming of Jesus has been superseded, at least partially. In The Analects, Confucius was sensitive to such concerns, within his own context. In places, Confucius seemed to maintain that literal observance of the rites were not enough, that motivation and character were important. Observing the rites in an obsequious manner was not the proper path, for Confucius. Confucius also held that there could be flexibility in observing the rites and following the Way, since historical contexts and situations varied over time.
F. In some places, Confucius could be quite rigid: be courageous! In other places, though, he recognizes human flaws and foibles, both his own and those of his disciples. He realizes that he is a work in progress. But he also acknowledges what he believes to be his strengths. Moreover, his compassion and mercy notwithstanding, he only spends his time teaching students who are willing to learn, and who demonstrate that willingness by trying to figure things out on their own. Confucius’ disciples varied in their level of character and aptitude: some mastered virtue quickly, some missed the point at times and needed correction, and some failed to think before speaking or acting. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ disciples often did not understand what Jesus was saying. The agenda behind the portrayal of a master’s disciples may be an interesting topic to research.
G. I put a question mark beside some of Confucius’ statements. I had to think about them, and sometimes I hit a dead end. One passage that I contemplated is 4:3: “The Master said, ‘It is only the benevolent man who is capable of liking or disliking other men.” How so? The conclusion I reached was that, when we are benevolent, we judge people according to their character, how they are. We like or dislike them, in short. When we lack benevolence, by contrast, we value them according to how well they benefit us. We are not liking or disliking them, per se, but rather are focusing on our own benefit. I could be wrong on this, but that was my way of trying to make sense of what Confucius said there.