Class #5

The Confucian Path

Reading:  Analects, Books IV & IX, plus passages 12.1 and 12.2 in Book XII

Lecture PowerPoint Deck

The Analects is in many ways the hardest of all Chinese books to read: although you can go through it in an hour and feel that there have been no sentences you haven't understood, it's unlikely that you'd understand why anyone would think the book was particularly interesting. Finding the "philosophy" in the text - as opposed to the apparently obvious platitudes - is very difficult.

The Analects is unsystematic, but it is rarely random. As you read each book, you are likely to feel at first that you are just hearing one sententious maxim after another. If you were to read each book many times in the conviction that the book as a whole must make sense, you would find that many groups of passages actually form coherent discussions: the editors of the text arranged them with considerable care (although this is not consistently true, and in certain books of the Analects it's hard to avoid a sense that you've stumbled on "The Post-Its of Confucius"). What we are missing is the crucial thing given to every disciple along with the text: a Confucian Master to link the passages together for us, and explain thematic continuities.

We will begin close analysis of Analects  doctrines with Book IV. It is the most coherent of the books, both stylistically and thematically, and the easiest point of entry in the world of ideas in the Analects. In style and placement in the text, it also appears to be among the earliest of the books. Two terms central to Confucius' teachings dominate Book IV:  the holistic virtue called ren and the holistic ideal character profile called the junzi. You can read more about these two terms in the Glossary.  Your reading for Friday's class also includes Book IX because some of themes of Book IV re-emerge there, and I have included two important passages from Book XI - probably compiled somewhat later than Book IV and by a different group of Confucian teachers - because those passages will help us bring out some implications of Book IV that are not explicit there.

Among the groupings of passages in Book IV which seem thematically linked are these:

  • Passages 1-7 all deal with ren, and generally speak of ren in terms of matters of choice or of attitude. For example, 1, 5 and 6 all discuss crucial choices which reveal whether a person is or is not ren, and 7 relates to this. 2, 3, and 4 discuss attitudes. All the passages suggest that the issue of being ren is cast in terms of simple alternatives: to do what is right, or not to.
  • Somewhat further on, the discussion begins to focus more on the junzi, but again, dual options seems to be the mode of thought (9-11, 16-17). The junzi is repeatedly contrasted to people called, in the Chinese, "small men."

 A great deal of Book IV seems to involve defining these two types by contrast. Another linked group appears at 18-21, all on filiality: a simpleminded Confucian virtue repellant to many Westerners, which is, in fact, subtle, and relates to the Chinese portrait of human beings as innately social. Some passages which do not appear side by side are, nevertheless, thematically linked (5 and 23; 22 and 24; 18 and 26). Passage 15 is interesting as a profound intrusion in this book -- it most certainly was incorporated long after the book was basically in its current formed.