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Analects | Summary



The Analects consists of 20 books, each of which has individual chapters. Different translations of The Analects follow different sources for how various pieces are split into chapters, meaning the number of a chapter in one translation may be one, two, or even a few numbers off from the same text in another translation. Translations can also be quite different, including different interpretations, so reading more than one can clarify or deepen understanding. However, scholars generally make a distinction between Books 1–10 and Books 11–20.

Books 1–10

Books 1–10, called the "upper text," are somewhat similar in length, structure, and vocabulary. Within the upper text, Books 3–7 seem to come from a single origin.

Book 1

Book 1 provides an overview of the content of The Analects. It introduces the main ideas of Confucianism, including the qualities of a gentleman (or ideal person), filial piety, humaneness, virtuous governance, and ritual. The Master expresses the principle of focusing on improving oneself instead of trying to change other people and expresses the importance of study and a "fondness for learning." As in the collection, teachings come from a number of sources, not just the Master, including followers who also came to be called "Master" and other important students.

Book 2

Book 2 begins to address how a country should be virtuously governed. The ideal government follows social and religious rituals and promotes "straight" administrators over "the crooked." It serves as a moral example for the people it governs. The section also focuses on expectations for virtuous behavior for the gentleman and others. As often happens, the conduct of a gentleman is contrasted with its opposite, the conduct of the "small man." The Master uses the stages of development he experienced to emphasize how it takes a lifetime to internalize the goal of humaneness.

Book 3

In Book 3 the focus of the Master's instruction shifts to matters of ritual, discussing its importance in differentiating civilized people from barbarians. It is connected with humaneness; following ritual in dealing with underlings helps superiors avoid abusing power. However, ritual followed insincerely is meaningless, and sincerity is more important than form.

Book 4

Book 4 primarily addresses humaneness, which is the ideal goal of a person in Confucianism and connected with success. Like many ideals it is also impossible to achieve perfectly, but everyone is capable of pursuing humaneness and should do so even if for a "single day." Self-reflection is highlighted as a vital part of the practice. This is part of The Way, or a person's ideal path, which the Master boils down to loyalty and reciprocity. To achieve filial piety—respect befitting a son or daughter—children are told to ensure their parents can always call on them and avoid resenting them even if they don't listen to advice.

Book 5

One of the ways the Master talks about humaneness and other issues of character is to give his assessment of a specific person or situation, including students, current political figures, and past heroes and rulers; some of these begin to appear in Book 5. Readers learn more about Hui, the follower who seems to have best achieved humaneness before he unfortunately died young. The Master also assesses other followers in passages both fond and gently sarcastic. He also offers his own aspirations toward the goals of humaneness and being a gentleman as examples to aspire to.

Book 6

The Master's assessment of individuals continues in Book 6, often focusing on his students. He praises Hui's humaneness and says another student is capable of ruling and a third shouldn't be held back by his humble roots. Then he turns to contrasting the qualities of wisdom and humaneness. Although wisdom is a quality to aspire to, humaneness is the higher goal. The concept of the Mean, which came to mean always finding the middle and moderate path, is mentioned for the only time in The Analects. Another aspect of The Way, the path of the virtuous government, is also addressed.

Book 7

The Master provides a portrait of himself as a teacher and a learner in Book 7. It starts with the statement "I transmit but do not create," showing his focus on using the best practices of the past to improve people and society. Importantly he is willing to teach anyone who is sincerely interested in learning. He says the journey of learning is never done; the Master himself is continuing to learn every day and from every person he meets. He also still struggles with humaneness and the expectations of a gentleman. A number of chapters in this section also expand on how to behave moderately.

Book 8

Book 8 features a section of instruction from a later Confucian teacher, Master Zeng. Besides his usual focus on filial duty, he gives his view on how the gentleman, or ideal person, should behave. Each teacher has his own style, and Master Zeng seems to focus more on the outward aspects of gentlemanly action. Some of the Master's teachings are related to ritual, which governs social interactions as well as religious ones. Notably, he points out good qualities such as honesty can become offensive if they are not tempered with the courtesy required by social rituals.

Book 9

The Master is portrayed as a legend in Book 9, with a story that includes him claiming to be the sole repository of the culture for which the idealized King Wen was known. However, many excerpts show a self-deprecating Master, who says he is not a sage, just a slightly more advanced learner than his students. That, however, doesn't prevent him from expecting his students to own their flaws as well as their strengths and to practice self-improvement. He stresses the importance of understanding the purpose or effect of rituals in order to practice them properly. Hui praises the tantalizing challenge of the Master's teaching.

Book 10

Book 10 is different from other parts of The Analects, consisting of descriptions of the Master or a gentleman, perhaps also the Master, acting according to ritual. The level of detail can be observed in rituals that prescribe everything from eating and dressing habits to how to act toward different types of government officials. In general the books in this first half of the collection are believed to generally be older because of similarities in wording, structure, and length. This section of the collection is sometimes called the "upper text" of The Analects.

Books 11–20

The second half of The Analects, known as the "lower text," seems to originate from a more varied collection of sources and time periods. Books 11–15 are more similar to Books 1–10, while some of the other books are quite different in character.

Book 11

Book 11 provides insights into the Master's feelings about a number of his followers, including his reaction to Hui's death. He expresses a degree of grief that seems more than moderate—indeed his students say it is not proper—seeming to have viewed him as a son after his own son also apparently died. Other chapters show the follower Zilu has succeeded in becoming a government official although the Master says he still needs to improve some things.

Book 12

Much of both Books 12 and 13 relate to how to govern virtuously, including the Master's answers to questions from the government officials of his time. In Book 12 he is recorded instructing both legitimate and illegitimate holders of power in his home state of Lu, among others, on questions of humaneness and proper action for the gentleman. He always advocates ruling virtuously in order to create a happy and virtuous population.

Book 13

Book 13 shows how to rule virtuously, instructing a ruler to try always to do the right thing no matter how difficult and to keep larger goals in mind. As earlier, the Master's teachings emphasize focusing on oneself to achieve humaneness; he profoundly equates humaneness with loving others in Book 12. However, in some of Book 13 the Master is again portrayed as a legend, claiming he could turn around a government in three years if he were given the opportunity to serve. Book 13 also contains the clearest expression of the "rectification of names" in The Analects. The term refers to the need to call things by their proper names in order for society to function properly.

Book 14

One of the longest books in The Analects, Book 14 covers subjects from the correct way to govern to humaneness and the gentleman (sometimes also called the "complete man"). Recurring themes appear again—public servants are instructed to focus on themselves rather than others, and things aren't necessarily humane simply because they are difficult. One story, which shows the Master objecting to first the duke of Lu and then the head of the Three Families about a political assassination, demonstrates how virtue cannot be forced on a government. He also expresses disapproval of people who try to learn by proxy and so avoid learning.

Book 15

Book 15 is another section that covers a wide range of subjects rather than focusing on one. Most of the instruction is on how a gentleman can apply humaneness in public service, again with a focus on looking within oneself to do so. On one hand he says the gentleman should act respectfully and avoid argument, but he also warns not to discount good ideas or good people because of their origins. Students should follow their consciences, and the common thread of his philosophy is reciprocity. This is the last book of those considered most "authentic" to the Master's original teachings in The Analects.

Book 16

Differences in style and instruction can be seen in Book 16. Similar things are often grouped in threes, such as the three types of beneficial friends or three harmful pleasures. Issues of proper governance are again addressed through assessment of political situations during the Master's lifetime. Expectations for the ideal person (gentleman) are again discussed but seem to focus more on external actions, even on how others should treat a gentleman rather than internal attitudes. The Master is also more closely associated with his later legendary status than with the humble teacher.

Book 17

The depiction of the Master changes again in Book 17, likely reflecting that it was written considerably later than other books. He indicates elsewhere he would not serve an illegitimate ruler, but here a number of stories show him accepting offers to serve under those who gained power by force. He asserts that his influence would be enough to make any government virtuous—clearly a revised view of his thinking earlier in the collection and of his known history. The Master is also depicted as more disapproving than in other sections, pointedly avoiding people he deems beneath him and dismissing the common people of a town. The lone chapter that explicitly belittles women also appears here.

Book 18

Book 18 most notably responds to the Daoist (Taoist) reverence for virtuous recluses. Daoism, or Taoism, is a religion that follows the teaching of Lao-tzu, a philosopher from sixth century BCE. A number of stories contained in this section show the Master arguing against the Daoists' preference for withdrawing from societal problems, although he is generally complimentary of their virtues. He argues, however, society must be engaged with to be improved, though the method and timing of doing so must be decided on individually for each situation. These stories were likely later additions to the collection, or perhaps earlier chapters that were added to, since these Daoist views didn't take hold until after the Master's death.

Book 19

Book 19 seems to have more in common with Books 1–10 than the others in the second half of The Analects. This might indicate it is an earlier book that was moved after other sections were added. Its chapters mostly quote important followers of the Master, and their different takes on his teachings and approaches to handing it down to others can be seen. Zixia makes the most pronouncements, widely covering the Master's main ideas. Zizhang seems to most closely capture the depth and nuance of the Master's teachings. Zigong uses metaphors and analogies to show the Master's greatness, saying he is as unreachable as Heaven.

Book 20

Book 20 closes the collection with a scant three chapters. The first contains only excerpts of the words and actions of "historical" figures, presumably to serve as examples for rulers rather than instruction from the Master. The second and third provide a sense of conclusion by reviewing some of his ideas, but they also don't completely reflect his most authentic teachings. Fate, an idea that underlies the Master's thinking but is not much examined in the collection, takes on a prominent role here. This probably indicates these conclusions attributed to him were recorded much later.

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