Narrative arcs and social media fodder

有子曰:「其為人也孝弟,而好犯上者,鮮矣;不好犯上,而好作亂者,未之有也。君子務本,本立而道生。孝弟也者,其為仁之本與!」
Youzi said: “A man who respects his parents and elders is not likely to question the authority of his superiors. Such a man will never provoke disorder. A leader focuses on the fundamentals; once these are established the Way appears. Respect for parents and elders constitutes the essence of goodness.”

One of the pleasures – and frustrations – of reading the Analects is that it has no coherent narrative arc and instead comprises a random collection of pithy sayings from the sage and his disciples as well as some curt mini-dialogs between them.

This of course makes the content of the book ideal for today’s social media age, providing a rich and ready source of free fodder for numerous Twitter and Facebook feeds aimed at enlightening and inspiring us. But it also means you have to work that much harder as a reader to pick your way through the multiple threads of the sage’s thinking.

Hence, after a brief introduction to the joy of learning and some advice on how a leader should behave in the first chapter of the book, you are confronted with a couple of more critically important themes in the second one.

The first such strand revolves around the importance of filial piety (孝/xiào), which I have rendered here rather loosely as respect for parents and elders. The second centers around 仁/rén, which I have translated as “goodness”. I will look at these in more detail in future entries .

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