The Pole Star

Confucius said: “A ruler who governs by the power of virtue is like the Pole Star, which remains fixed in place while all the other stars orbit respectfully around it.”

Book 2 of the Analects opens with one of Confucius’s most famous sayings on leadership. The role of the leader is set a shining example to everyone through their virtue (德/dé), a term which can be extended to mean moral power. Continue reading The Pole Star

Analects of Confucius: on rightness

Rightness (義/) refers to having the moral disposition to do the right thing or act in the right way in any given situation. Alternative translations include “righteousness”, “propriety”, “morality”, “appropriateness”, and “what is right”. A large number of references to rightness can be found in the Analects. Continue reading Analects of Confucius: on rightness

Analects of Confucius: on ritual

Ritual (禮/) consists of a combination of elaborate ceremonies and unwritten rules of behavior that govern smooth social interactions. The term has also been translated as “rites”, “rules”, “rules of proprietary”, “rules of behavior”, “courtesy”, “manners”, “etiquette” or “ethics”. Numerous references to the rites can be found in The Analects. Continue reading Analects of Confucius: on ritual

Analects Book 1: Overview

Lingxing Gate, Temple of Confucius, Qufu
Lingxing Gate, Temple of Confucius, Qufu

Before you read a single word of The Analects, it is important to understand that the work comprises a collection of conversations and aphorisms rather than a manifesto. Each of its twenty books features multiple exchanges between multiple characters discussing multiple topics – much like a modern-day social media feed. There are no linear arguments based on carefully-marshaled facts that build up to a resounding conclusion. It is left to you, the reader, to pick through the various threads of the text and connect them to the others to build up their overall understanding of the teachings contained in it.
Continue reading Analects Book 1: Overview

Confucius in his own words

The Analects is a wide-ranging conversation with lots of different voices adding in their own thoughts and questions about the teachings of Confucius – though of course it is the sage himself who always seems to get in the last word.

Confucius’s comments in the Analects cover a huge variety of different topics, and reveal not just his passion for learning and upholding traditional values but also his zest for life. Read through this collection of his sayings from the book to better understand his larger-than-life personality as reflected in his own words.

Appearances in the Analects of Confucius
Book 1, Chapter I
Book 1, Chapter III
Book 1, Chapter V
Book 1, Chapter VI
Book 1, Chapter VIII
Book 1, Chapter XI
Book 1, Chapter XIV
Book 1, Chapter XV
Book 1, Chapter XVI
Book 2, Chapter I
Book 2, Chapter II
Book 2, Chapter III
Book 2, Chapter IV
Book 2, Chapter V
Book 2, Chapter VI
Book 2, Chapter VII
Book 2, Chapter VIII
Book 2, Chapter IX
Book 2, Chapter X
Book 2, Chapter XI
Book 2, Chapter XII
Book 2, Chapter XIII
Book 2, Chapter XIV
Book 2, Chapter XV
Book 2, Chapter XVI
Book 2, Chapter XVII
Book 2, Chapter XVIII
Book 2, Chapter XIX
Book 2, Chapter XX
Book 2, Chapter XXI
Book 2, Chapter XXII
Book 2, Chapter XXIII
Book 2, Chapter XXIV
Book 3, Chapter I
Book 3, Chapter II
Book 3, Chapter III
Book 3, Chapter IV
Book 3, Chapter V
Book 3, Chapter VI
Book 3, Chapter VII
Book 3, Chapter VIII
Book 3, Chapter IX
Book 3, Chapter X
Book 3, Chapter XI
Book 3, Chapter XII
Book 3, Chapter XIII
Book 3, Chapter XIV
Book 3, Chapter XV
Book 3, Chapter XVI
Book 3, Chapter XVII
Book 3, Chapter XVIII
Book 3, Chapter XIX
Book 3, Chapter XX
Book 3, Chapter XXI
Book 3, Chapter XXII
Book 3, Chapter XXIII
Book 3, Chapter XXV
Book 3, Chapter XXVI

Book 1
Chapter I
Confucius said: “To learn something and apply it at the appropriate time: isn’t this wonderful? To have friends visit from afar: isn’t this delightful? To remain unconcerned when others don’t recognize your talents: isn’t this the mark of a leader?”

Chapter III
Confucius said: “Smooth talk and an affected manner are seldom signs of goodness.”

Chapter V
Confucius said: “To govern a medium-size country, you must pay strict attention to its affairs and fulfill your promises; be economical and love your people; and only mobilize them at the right times of the year.”

Chapter VI
Confucius said: “At home, a young man should respect his parents. Outside, he should respect his elders; talk little but truthfully; and love everyone but only associate with those who are good. If he still has time and energy to spare after all this, he can study the cultural arts.”

Chapter VIII
Confucius said: “If a leader isn’t serious he will inspire no awe and lack a solid foundation for learning. Hold loyalty and trustworthiness as your highest principles; don’t make friends with people who are not your equal; and when you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to correct yourself.”

Chapter XI
Confucius said: “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions. When the father is dead, watch his son’s conduct. If he has not deviated from his father’s path after three years he may be called a dutiful son.”

Chapter XIV
Confucius said: “A leader eats without stuffing his belly; chooses a home without demanding comfort; is quick to act but careful in what he says; and keeps the company of others who possess the Way so that he can be corrected by them. This is what it means to truly love learning.”

Chapter XV
Zigong said: “’Poor but not subservient; wealthy but not arrogant.’ What do you think of that?” Confucius said: “Not bad, but this would be better still: ‘Poor but content; wealthy but loves the rites.’” Zigong said: “In the Book of Songs it is said: ‘Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems.’ Is this not the same idea?” Confucius said: “Wonderful, Zigong! At last I can discuss the Book of Songs with you! I only have to tell you what came before, and you can work out what comes next!”

Chapter XVI
Confucius said: “Don’t be concerned if people fail to recognize your merits; be concerned that you may fail to recognize theirs.”

Book 2
Chapter I
Confucius said: “A ruler who governs by the power of virtue is like the Pole Star, which remains fixed in place while all the other stars orbit respectfully around it.”

Chapter II
Confucius said: “There are three hundred poems in the Book of Songs, but the meaning of them can be summed up in a single phrase: ‘Hey, do not stray from the right path.’”

Chapter III
Confucius said: “If you govern people by laws and regulations and keep them under control through punishments, they will evade them and have no sense of shame. If you govern them by the power of virtue and keep them in line with the rites, they will develop a sense of shame and unite behind you of their own accord.”

Chapter IV
Confucius said: “At fifteen, I applied my mind to learning. At thirty, I set my course. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the will of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was attuned. At seventy, I followed all my heart’s desires without overstepping the line.”

Chapter V
Meng Yizi asked Confucius about filial piety. Confucius said: “Never disobey.” While Fan Chi was driving him in his chariot, Confucius told him: “Meng Yizi asked me about filial piety and I replied: ‘Never disobey.’” Fan Chi asked: “What does that mean?” Confucius replied: “When your parents are alive, serve them according to the rites. When they die, bury them according to the rites, and make sacrifices to them according to the rites.”

Chapter VI
Meng Wubo asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “The only time a son should make his parents worried is when he is sick.”

Chapter VII
Ziyou asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “These days, men regard themselves as dutiful sons simply by feeding their parents. But they also feed their dogs and horses. Unless they show their parents due respect, what’s the difference?”

Chapter VIII
Zixia asked about filial piety. Confucius said: “It is the attitude that counts. If young people just offer their help when there is work to do, or serve their elders wine and food when they need to drink and eat, how could this ever be considered as filial piety?”

Chapter IX
Confucius said: “I can talk to Yan Hui all day without him ever arguing with me, as if he is stupid. But when I take a close look at how he behaves in private after he has retired from my presence, I can see that he has learned everything I have taught him. Indeed, Hui is not stupid at all.”

Chapter X
Confucius said: “Observe a man’s motives, examine how he pursues them, and find out what makes him feel at peace. How then can he conceal his true character? How then can he conceal his true character?”

Chapter XI
Confucius said: “A man who brings new meaning to the old in order to understand the new is worthy of being a teacher.”

Chapter XII
Confucius said: “A leader is not a vessel.”

Chapter XIII
Zigong asked what constitutes a leader. Confucius said: “Someone who practices what he preaches.”

Chapter XIV
Confucius said: “A leader looks at a question from every perspective. A small-minded man looks at a question from his own perspective.”

Chapter XV
Confucius said: “To study without thinking is pointless. To think without studying is perilous.”

Chapter XVI
Confucius said: “To attack a question from the wrong starting point is harmful.”

Chapter XVII
Confucius said: “Zilu, let me teach you what knowledge is. Recognize what you know as what you know and what you don’t know as what you don’t know. That is knowledge.”

Chapter XVIII
Zizhang was studying with the aim of securing an official position. Confucius said: “Listen for as much information as possible, but ignore anything that is suspect, and be cautious when talking about the rest; that way you will only rarely say anything out of place. Observe as much as possible, ignore anything that is dangerous, and be cautious about applying the rest to your actions; that way you will rarely have reason for regret. By making few mistakes in what you say and minimizing the number regrets for missteps, your career is set.”

Chapter XIX
Duke Ai asked: “What should I do to win the support of the people?” Confucius replied: “Promote the ethical and place them above the unethical, and the people will support you. Promote the unethical and place them above the ethical, and the people will not support you.”

Chapter XX
Ji Kangzi asked: “What should I do to make the people respectful, loyal, and eager to follow me? Confucius said: “Treat them with dignity, and they will be respectful. Show you are a good son and a loving father, and they will be loyal. Promote the good and teach those who lack ability, and they will be eager to follow you.”

Chapter XXI
Someone asked Confucius: “Sir, why don’t you take part in government?” Confucius replied: “In the Book of Documents it says: ‘Simply by acting as a good son and being kind to your brothers, you will be contributing to the smooth running of the government.’ In doing this, you are already engaging in government; why do you need to make a conscious effort to actively take part in government?”

Chapter XXII
Confucius said: “I wouldn’t know what to do with someone whose word cannot be trusted. How would you pull a wagon without a yoke-bar or a chariot without a collar-bar?”

Chapter XXIII
Zizhang asked: “Can we predict the future ten generations from now?” Confucius said: “The Yin dynasty adopted the rites of the Xia dynasty; we know what was discarded and what was added. The Zhou dynasty adopted the rites of the Yin dynasty: we know what was discarded and what was added. If the Zhou dynasty has successors, we know what they will be like, even a hundred generations from now.”

Chapter XXIV
Confucius said: “To sacrifice to spirits that don’t belong to your ancestors is presumptuous. To do nothing when rightness demands action is cowardice.”

Book 3
Chapter I
When he heard that the head of the Ji Family used eight rows of dancers to perform in the ceremonies at his ancestral temple, Confucius commented: “If he is capable of that, what isn’t he capable of?”

Chapter II
When the Three Families performed the Yong ode while the vessels were being removed at the end of their ancestral sacrifices, Confucius said: “‘The lords are in attendance, the Son of Heaven sits solemnly on his throne.’ How can such words be used in the halls of the Three Families?”

Chapter III
Confucius said: “If a man has no goodness, what can he have to do with the rites? If a man has no goodness, what can he have to do with music?”

Chapter IV
Lin Fang asked: “What is the essence of the rites?” Confucius said: “That is a big question! For festive ceremonies, simplicity is better than extravagance; for funerals, genuine grief is better than excessive formality.”

Chapter V
Confucius said: “The Yi and Di tribes with chieftains are not equal to the various states in our land that don’t have them.”

Chapter VI
The head of the Ji Family was about to set off to carry out a sacrifice on Mount Tai. Confucius said to Ran Qiu: “Can you not stop this?” Ran Qiu replied: “I cannot.” Confucius said: “Oh no! Has it ever been said that the spirit of Mount Tai has even less knowledge of the rites than Lin Fang?”

Chapter VII
Confucius said: “A leader avoids competing with others. But if he does have to compete, it should be at archery. As he bows and exchange courtesies before the contest and enjoy drinks after it, he still remains a leader even when competing.”

Chapter VIII
Zixia asked: “What do these verses mean: ‘Ah, the lovely dimples of her artful smile Ah, the black and white of her beautiful eyes! It’s on plain white silk that colors sparkle.’” Confucius said: “Painting comes after plain white silk.” Zixia said: “Are the rites also something that comes afterwards?” Confucius said: “You have opened up my eyes to the true meaning of these verses! It is only with a man like you that I can discuss the Book of Songs!”

Chapter IX
Confucius said: “How can I talk about the rites of the Xia Dynasty? The state of Qi has not preserved sufficient evidence. How can I talk about the rites of Yin Dynasty? The state of Song has not preserved sufficient evidence. There are not enough written records and learned men; if there were, I could obtain evidence from them.”

Chapter X
Confucius said: “After the opening libation has been performed at the sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor, I have no desire to watch the rest of the ceremony.”

Chapter XI
When someone asked about the meaning of the sacrifice to the great imperial ancestor, Confucius replied: “I do not know. Anyone who knows that would rule the world as easily as I can put this here.” Then he pointed his finger towards the palm of his hand.

Chapter XII
Sacrifice requires presence: you should sacrifice to the spirits as if they are there. Confucius said: “If I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it’s as if I didn’t attend the sacrifice at all.”

Chapter XIII
Wangsun Jia asked: “What does this saying mean: ‘Better pray to the kitchen god rather than the house god.’?” Confucius said: “This is nonsense. If you sin against Heaven, you have no god you can pray to.”

Chapter XIV
Confucius said: “The Zhou dynasty modeled itself upon the two previous dynasties. What a great civilization! I follow the Zhou.”

Chapter XV
When Confucius visited the Grand Ancestral Temple, he asked about everything that was happening there. Someone said: “Who said this guy was an expert on the rites? When he visited the Grand Ancestral Temple, he had to ask about everything that was happening.” Hearing this, Confucius said: “Exactly, this is the rites.”

Chapter XVI
Confucius said: “In archery, it does not matter whether you pierce the target, because archers may have different levels of strength. This was the way of the ancients.”

Chapter XVII
Zigong wished to do away with the sacrifice of a sheep for the ceremony welcoming the new moon. Confucius said: “You love the sheep; I love the rites.”

Chapter XVIII
Confucius said: “When someone serves his lord in full accordance with the rites, people regard him as a sycophant.”

Chapter XIX
Duke Ding asked: “How should a lord treat his ministers? How should ministers serve their lord?” Confucius replied: “A lord should treat his ministers in accordance with the rites; ministers should serve their lord with loyalty.”

Chapter XX
Confucius said: “The first poem in the Book of Songs is joyful without being wanton and sad without being painful.”

Chapter XXI
Duke Ai asked which wood should be used for the altar of the spirits of the earth. Zai Yu replied: “The men of Xia used pine; the men of Yin used cypress; the men of Zhou used chestnut, for they said the people should fear.” When Confucius heard of this, he said: “You do not explain away what has already been done; you do not argue about affairs that have already been concluded; you do not condemn what has already happened.”

Chapter XXII
Confucius said: “Guan Zhong was a man of truly mediocre capabilities.” Someone objected: “Wasn’t Guan Zhong frugal?” Confucius replied: “Guan Zhong had three households, each one staffed by a huge retinue. How could he be called frugal?” “But didn’t he know the rites?” “Even though only the ruler of a state can place a screen to mask the view of his gate, he also had one installed. Even though only the ruler of a state can use a special stand to place his inverted cup on when meeting with another ruler, Guan Zhong had one too. If you say Guan Zhong knew the rites, then who doesn’t know them?”

Chapter XXIII
Confucius was talking about music with the music master of Lu. He said: “We can know this much about music: It begins with everyone trying to play together; when it gets in full swing it flows harmoniously, clearly, and continuously until it reaches the end.”

Chapter XXV
Confucius described the music of the Emperor Shun as being perfectly beautiful and perfectly good and the music of King Wu as being perfectly beautiful but not perfectly good.

Chapter XXVI
Confucius said: “How can I bear to even contemplate a person who lacks tolerance when in high office, reverence when performing the rites, and grief when in mourning?”