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Analects | Book 17 | Summary



Book 17 also features a number of differences from earlier parts of The Analects that seem to reflect a later origin. One striking difference is the Master's apparent willingness, demonstrated in three different stories, to serve in a corrupt state. In the first chapter he displays disapproval of Yang Huo (Yang Ho), who has seized a city by force, but agrees to serve in his government when Yang argues his talents are being wasted. In another story the Master seems to believe his influence would transform even the government of a rebel into a "Zhou in the East," referring to the idealized early Zhou dynasty.

Although challenged with his former teachings again by Zilu in Chapter 6, the Master seems to think it is more important for him to use his skills than to avoid serving in an illegitimate government. He expresses frustration at not being made use of and uses metaphors to assert he will not be corrupted by a nonvirtuous state. He says he is like something so hard it cannot be worn down by grinding, or something so white it cannot be blackened by pitch. The view of the Master's influence as stronger than that of a corrupt ruler is more consistent with a legendary figure than a real person. This view also conflicts not only with his earlier attitudes in The Analects but also with his history of serving the duke of Lu earlier in his life.

In another unusual chapter the Master is shown being successfully corrected by one of his students. When he implies townspeople are not suited to learning music Chapter 3, Ziyou (Tsze-yu, also called Yan) uses the Master's own words to argue The Way benefits both gentlemen and common people. This atypical story may have been recorded by later followers of Ziyou to demonstrate his importance in the Confucian tradition.

The Master of this book also seems to display his disapproval of others more pointedly. In addition to avoiding Yang Huo in Chapter 1 and undervaluing the townspeople in Chapter 3, he deliberately snubs a visitor in Chapter 18 by saying he is ill and then playing music to show that's not actually the case. This deliberate display of contempt seems quite unlike the Master of earlier books, who responds to people of all characters and statuses so neutrally it is sometimes hard to tell what he thinks of them.


Women are rarely mentioned in The Analects. Modern readers can choose to take its teachings more broadly, but it is clear the teachings were originally directed toward men. In that time and culture, women were not thought of as filling the political roles the Master and his students were concerned with. The rare reference to the possibility—Book 4, Chapter 20 says the idealized King Wu was advised by a woman, believed to be his wife—is dismissive. Book 17 contains the only direct statement on women, equating them to small men (in this case seeming to mean servants).

Since this is part of a section believed to be added later, it's unclear whether this view is authentic to the Master and his attitudes or a reflection of the sexism later encoded into the official practice of Confucianism. Either way, the Master's teachings don't do anything to discourage sexism; his philosophy argues for a society ruled with highly structured roles and doesn't envision women having any influence in the system.

Book 17 also contains one of the Master's strictest prescriptions for filial piety—a gentleman mourns for three years, likely referring primarily to a son mourning a father. One of his students is shown arguing against it, saying rituals and crops will deteriorate in that time. The Master sarcastically tells him in Chapter 19 he can shorten his mourning if he wants and later calls him inhumane. The reason the Master is depicted as giving this length of time is rather arbitrary, but the practice was nonetheless enshrined in Confucian tradition because of this passage.

One passage open to much interpretation is in Chapter 2: "by nature close to each other, but through practice far apart from each other." As the only reference to human nature in the collection, it is difficult to put in context. However, it seems to emphasize the influence of practice over nature, perhaps meaning all people can improve themselves or their circumstances through their own practices, such as humaneness, ritual, and study. The following statement—only the very smartest and stupidest cannot change—can be read as reinforcing this interpretation. Using a reading focused more on shared human nature, UNESCO adopted this as part of its "Statement of Race" in 1950.

Although there are significant differences from earlier (presumably more authentic) books of The Analects, it is worth noting this and other later books also contain chapters that repeat and reinforce earlier teachings. Albeit in the more structured, numbered style, Chapter 7 reinforces the value of a fondness for learning, saying even good qualities such as humaneness and straightforwardness can have bad results if one isn't open to learning. It is interesting to note the moderation of the Master's language seems to have been lost over time. It is now "love of" rather "fondness for" learning, and the Master and others "hate" things rather than making more detailed or nuanced statements.

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