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Analects | Main Ideas


Ren: Humane Thought and Action

The Chinese concept of ren (or jen) has no equivalent in English. Often translated as "goodness" or "humaneness," it is not just acting correctly but actually wanting to act considerately and correctly toward other people and society at large. The Master's core teachings show that humaneness can be achieved only through continual self-evaluation and correction. Since it fights some of the less positive parts of human nature, it can take a lifetime or more to fully internalize its goals.

Junzi: The Ideal Gentleman

The gentleman (junzi or chun-tzu) is the ideal person in Confucianism. This person was envisioned as being of relatively high social standing, whether by birth or through study and achievement. Fully internalizing and embodying the virtue of humaneness is an important element of being a gentleman, as is acting according to ritual. A gentleman should always be learning and improving; in fact the Chinese word is sometimes translated as "ideal scholar." Rather than learning specialized skills, the Master's ideal person is a generalist, learning broad principles that govern correct behavior in any situation. The gentleman should also practice moderation, avoiding extremes of emotion and behavior.

Li: Importance of Ritual

Ritual (li) in Confucian philosophy includes much more than religious practices. It establishes correct behavior in nearly every social situation and helps the gentleman relate to people of different statuses as well as the spirits of nature. Ritual also governs the worship of ancestors. The concept supports the ideal gentleman in being considerate and respectful, helping to preserve humaneness and filial piety as well as maintaining a harmonious culture. However, the Master felt it important to keep ritual meaningful. Those that no longer make sense should be eliminated and those preserved must be practiced sincerely.

Fondness for Learning

Calling someone fond of learning was one of the Master's highest praises. The virtuous society he pictured was created by rulers and civil servants who improved themselves and their societies by learning to think and behave virtuously. This was accomplished through studying the classics and the examples of idealized past rulers and dynasties. For the Master learning should be a lifelong passion. When the Master compared himself to others, one of the main things that set him apart was being truly fond of learning. He also saw learning as the key to social mobility, feeling anyone could improve themselves through learning rather than being confined to the social roles they were born into.

Filial Piety

The tradition of filial piety, the idea of respecting and being loyal to parents almost to the point of worship, was highly valued by the Master. This value was focused primarily on the father-son relationship, but it also extended to older and younger siblings (usually brothers) and, by extension, rulers and their subjects. Although the Master overturned or discarded other traditions, he seemed to support a strict application of filial piety, saying a son should not change any practices of the father for three years after his death. Civil servants were also expected to show filial piety to a legitimate ruler. Filial piety was important enough to even overrule uprightness, or doing the right thing, in some cases.

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