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Analects | Book 4 | Summary



Book 4 is the first to focus primarily on humaneness, or virtuous thought and action, and its related behaviors. The Master holds humaneness up as the ideal goal, saying in Chapter 4 a person who is determined to think and act humanely will be "without evil," and in Chapter 5 that true success is not possible without it. However, it is also impossible to achieve perfectly: No one "loves humaneness"—perfectly embodies it without error—or "hates inhumaneness"—perfectly avoids it without error. It is still worth striving for, though: everyone is capable of trying to be humane "for a single day." Self-reflection is a vital part of the practice; every mistake can be contemplated to provide a better understanding of humaneness.

A number of passages focus on The Way (dao or tao), which in The Analects means the ideal path of thought and action a person should follow. (It should not be confused with the philosophy of Daoism [Taoism], which gained influence in China after the Master's death.) Two chapters are particularly important. Chapter 8 famously shows the power of The Way: Someone who "has heard the Way" in the morning can die without regret that evening. It might take a lifetime to master, but a single day of genuinely trying to walk the right path can change a person profoundly. In Chapter 15 the Master says a "single thread" connects all aspects of his Way. The thread is composed of the qualities of loyalty, or doing your best for another, and reciprocity, or benefitting others to also benefit yourself.

A number of chapters in Book 4 also address specific ways to practice filial piety. In Chapter 21 children are reminded to know their parents' ages, both to celebrate them and to "feel anxiety," presumably that every year is one closer to death, and then in Chapter 19 to always have destinations planned when traveling, so they can be located if their parents need them. Perhaps most difficult, they must avoid resenting a parent who doesn't listen to even gently offered advice.


Book 4 brings into focus at least one way that Confucian philosophy is very different from our own capitalist culture: The Master taught that a focus on profit would lead to "much resentment," and while the small man is "familiar with profit," the gentleman is "familiar with what is right."

These ways of looking at financial profit, as well as of honoring and revering parents, may seem quite foreign to Western readers, but they are the roots of values still held in Chinese and other Asian cultures today. Conversely, sometimes a Confucian principle rings as true in the West as in China. In Chapter 17 the Master reminds us that a perceived inequality in status is an opportunity to think of ourselves differently. We shouldn't automatically accept when society labels someone "superior"—instead we should think of how we are equal to them. And when society labels someone inferior, we should think about our own flaws: what we can improve and whether we are truly better than they. The values of introspection and self-reflection are strengths of Confucian philosophy that cross cultures with ease.

The Master teaches another aspect of the value of moderation in Chapter 23, saying few people fail by exercising restraint. This may be truer of speech than action, however, since the next chapter says a gentleman should be "slow in speech but prompt in action."

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