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The Analects Hardcover – March, 1997
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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His Chinese name was K’ung Fu-tzu, 孔夫子, and the Latinate name that he bears today was probably bestowed by Jesuit missionaries to China in the 16th century. By any name, however, Confucius is a great philosopher who speaks to us today just as clearly as he spoke to the people of Chinese antiquity. He lived a long time ago – when he died in 479 B.C., the Spartan defense of Thermopylae had taken place just one year before – but it is astonishing how current and relevant his words and ideas remain.
“Analects” is, of course, a Latin- and Greek-derived term; in Chinese, the book is 論語,the "Lun Yü." It is divided into 20 books, and contains a total of 512 Confucian sayings, most of them quite short. On this re-reading of "The Analects," I encountered some sayings that were already familiar to me: e.g., “To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge” (II.17, p. 65). Yet on this reading, I learned many things that I found new.
Perhaps because I’ve been reading a good deal of classical Greek philosophy lately, I found some striking parallels between Confucius and the Greeks who wrote sometime after him. For instance, when “The Master said, ‘Barbarian tribes with their rulers are inferior to Chinese states without them’” (III.5, p. 67), it made me think of how the ancient Greeks considered any non-Greek-speaking society to be βάρβαροι, barbaroi, barbarians. I found myself thinking of the doomed tragic heroes of ancient Greek drama, men and women brought down by their tragic flaws, when I heard Confucius reflect that “In his errors a man is true to type. Observe the errors and you will know the man” (IV.7, p. 73).
Confucius knows that his disciples aspire to government service in the bureaucracy of the Empire – hence the prevalence of sayings in which Columbus offers advice such as, “Do not worry because you have no official position. Worry about your qualifications. Do not worry because no one appreciates your abilities. Seek to be worthy of appreciation” (IV.14, p. 74),
Additionally, in an acutely status-conscious society, Confucius’ listeners are very interested in what will help them achieve the distinction of “gentleman.” With considerable focus on the value of benevolence, Confucius suggests that “The gentleman understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable” (IV.16, p. 74). And in one of my favorite passages from the Analects, Confucius remarks that “the gentleman hates to dwell downstream for it is there that all that is sordid in the Empire finds its way” (XIX.20, p. 155).
Readers who are interested in the Judeo-Christian philosophical and moral tradition may be struck by the ways in which Confucius disagrees with one of the primary moral imperatives of Christianity. In contrast with Lao Tzu, who in the "Tao Te Ching" tells his disciples to “do good to him who has done you an injury”, Confucius says, “What, then, do you repay a good turn with? You repay an injury with straightness, but you repay a good turn with a good turn” (XIV.34, p. 129). In other words, the only thing you owe to someone who has wronged you is straightness, directness, honesty. For Western readers, many of whom have been raised in the tradition of “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39), this may be the most challenging passage in the entire "Analects."
At the same time, Confucianism invokes the Golden Rule in a way similar to all the other great moral, philosophical, and religious systems of the world. In response to a disciple’s asking, “Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?”, Confucius replies, “Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire” (XV.24, p. 135).
Perhaps because it is the dawn of a presidential election year here in the United States of America, I found that I was particularly interested in one particular example of Confucius’ advice to his disciples: “Be sure to go carefully into the case of the man who is disliked by the multitude. Be sure to go carefully into the case of the man who is liked by the multitude” (XV.28, p. 136). Good advice in the state of Lu during the Zhou dynasty, and good advice in any modern nation nowadays.
I had this edition of "The Analects" with me when my wife and I were traveling in Beijing, home of the second largest Confucian temple in the world. Walking in the Forbidden City, my copy of "The Analects" in my jacket pocket, I wondered how many readers, imperial or otherwise, referred to their own copy of this book while traveling between and among the buildings of this most impressive city-within-a-city.
This edition of "The Analects" includes a glossary of names and places mentioned in the book, an appendix on events in the life of Confucius, a textual history of the book, and a chronology of Confucius’ life. Particularly helpful is another appendix, one that describes the characters of the different disciples with whom Confucius speaks in the Analects. For readers of Confucius’ time, and indeed for followers of Confucianism nowadays, the differences in character among disciples like Tzu-kung, Tzu-lu, and Yen Yüan would be as self-evident as the differences in personality that Christians see among Saint Peter, Saint John, and Saint Thomas in the New Testament. This Penguin Books edition of Confucius’ "Analects" is a very fine way to acquaint, or reacquaint, oneself with one of the most important books ever written.
“The Master said, To men who have risen at all above the middling sort, one may talk of things higher yet. But to men who are at all below the middling sort it is useless to talk of things that are above them.”
“As to be being a Divine Sage or even a Good Man, far be it from me to make any such claim. As for unwavering effort to learn and unflagging patience in teaching others, those are merits that I do not hesitate to claim.”
~ Confucius from The Analects of Confucius
We’re going old school on this one.
Believed to be rockin’ it in the 5th/6th century BCE (around the same time as Lao Tzu and Buddha), Confucius was super passionate about learning and developing himself into the best person he could be according to the dictates of his classic society.
The book can get a little funny as Confucius goes into some detail on how to live properly according to ancient Chinese customs (don’t forget to wear the black silk on special occasions! :) but it’s packed with a lot of great gems.
Here are some of the Big Ideas:
1. Let There Be No Evil - In your thoughts.
2. Recognizing Merit - See it in others!
3. Practicing - What you preach.
4. What Needs Doing? - Get on it!
5. I Can Always Be Certain - Of learning.
As we embrace these Big Ideas, let’s remember Confucius advising us: “There is one single thread binding my way together… the way of the Master consists in doing one’s best… that is all.”
(More goodness--including PhilosophersNotes on 250+ books at http://www.brianjohnson.me)
Yet this is a very difficult book to follow because it presents no clear narrative and no obvious structure in our normal Western mode of Aristotelian definition, division, and classification. Rather, it is almost a stream-of-consciousness collection of gnomic utterances from a variety of characters (mostly Confucius) presented with little in the way of context or chronology. It works more by recursive themes, juxtaposition, and unexpected free association.
So it's kind of like the way we experience the reception of insight in real life, which is one of the things that makes this a masterwork worthy of repeated study. Indeed, I think this book is only profitable if reread and reread (I would say the same of Lao Tzu and the Bible).
I find this Penguin edition to be a great choice for the first reading experience: D.C. Lau's introduction and notes give the first-time reader enough context and background to read this work with some understanding and admiration, but not so much as to impose an interpretation. Please note that I do not read Chinese so I cannot judge the quality of the translation.
I look forward to revisiting this little book again and again.
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I love his methods and his philosophy is still using it by thousands of followers!
Its a great great book!