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.

Book 1 of The Analects introduces many of the core themes of Confucius’s teachings by examining the role of the individual in society and exploring how he can make a positive contribution to it by developing the qualities of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ).

Variously translated as “gentleman”, “man of virtue”, and “superior man”, this term refers to a man who has become a pillar of the community as a result of his superior moral character rather than his family lineage or social connections. He acts as a role model by setting the right example to others.

Developing the qualities of a leader is an iterative process of self-cultivation that is perfectly encapsulated in the line that Confucius’s disciple Zigong quotes from the Book of Songs in Chapter 15: “Like carving and polishing a stone, like cutting and grinding a gem.” The goal is not so much to reach the supreme virtue of goodness (仁/rén), which the disciple Youzi introduces in Chapter II, but to constantly strive to improve yourself as you make your way towards it.

As Confucius hints in Chapter I, learning is based on the practical application of core principles rather than merely studying them in books. Indeed, in Chapter VI, he goes as far as to say that a young man should only study literature and the arts “if he still has time and energy to spare” after ensuring he has learned to conduct himself properly in interactions with his parents, elders, and other people of the right standing in society.

The disciple Zixia goes on to argue in Chapter VII that he would consider a man with the right moral character to be learned without taking into account his intellectual abilities even if others don’t think so.

Confucius saw the practice of filial piety (孝/xiào) is at the very core of learning how to be a leader. In Chapter XI, Confucius spells out the stringent requirements that need to be met: “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions. When the father is dead, watch his son’s conduct. If after three years he has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a dutiful son.”

These obligations extend beyond the living. In Chapter IX, the disciple Zengzi calls on the ruling class to show “proper reverence” to the dead and “the memory of distant ancestors”. Only by living up to these obligations will the ruler ensure that “the people’s virtue is at its highest.”

In addition to his parents and ancestors, an aspiring leader must also learn to show due respect to his elders both inside and outside his family, and his ruler. Although Confucius encourages him to “love everyone” in Chapter VI, he immediately adds that he should only “associate with those who are good.”

Book 1 also briefly touches upon some of the core values that the aspiring leader should live up to. Goodness (仁/rén) comes in right at the top. This is followed by ritual (禮/), a combination of elaborate ceremonies and unwritten rules of behavior that govern smooth interactions between people and ensure a stable society, and rightness (義/), which is sometimes translated as propriety, and trustworthiness (信/xìn). In Chapter XIII, Youzi provides a short explanation of how this hierarchy of values works.

Confucius isn’t afraid to mix blunt language in with his moral guidance. In Chapter VIV, he says: “A leader eats without stuffing his belly” and “chooses a home without demanding comfort”. He is also keen to provide practical advice to leaders, recommending in Chapter V that “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.”

Book 1 concludes on the same note as it starts, with Confucius emphasizing the point that the leader should follow the right path without worrying about what others might think of him. If you focus on that, all the other leadership qualities that are mentioned will fall naturally into place.

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