Analects of Confucius: on virtue

Virtue (德/) is a key ethical term with a range of meanings that shift with context. It is sometimes also translated as “moral power” in the sense that it creates its own environment, radiates influence, and attracts followers. A true leader leads simply by being virtuous rather than trying to persuade or compel their people to follow their ways. A large number of references to virtue can be found in the Analects.

Book 1, Chapter IX
Book 2, Chapter I
Book 2, Chapter III
Book 4, Chapter XI
Book 4, Chapter XXV
Book 6, Chapter XXIX
Book 7, Chapter III
Book 7, Chapter VI
Book 7, Chapter XXII
Book 8, Chapter I
Book 9, Chapter XVIII
Book 11, Chapter III
Book 12, Chapter X
Book 12, Chapter XIX
Book 12, Chapter XXI
Book 13, Chapter XXII
Book 13, Chapter XXVII
Book 14, Chapter IV
Book 14, Chapter V
Book 14, Chapter XXXIII
Book 14, Chapter XXXIV
Book 15, Chapter IV
Book 15, Chapter XIII
Book 15, Chapter XXVII
Book 16, Chapter I
Book 17, Chapter XIII
Book 17, Chapter XIV
Book 18, Chapter V
Book 19, Chapter II
Book 19, Chapter XI

Book 1
Chapter IX
曾子曰:「慎終追遠,民德歸厚矣。」
Zengzi said: “When the dead are shown proper reverence and the memory of distant ancestors is kept alive, the people’s virtue is at its highest.”

Book 2
Chapter I
子曰:「為政以德,譬如北辰,居其所而眾星共之。」
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 III
子曰:「道之以政,齊之以刑,民免而無恥;道之以德,齊之以禮,有恥且格。」
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.”

Book 4
Chapter XI
子曰:「君子懷德,小人懷土;君子懷刑,小人懷惠。」
Confucius said: “A leader cherishes virtue; a small-minded man cherishes land. A leader cherishes respect for the law; a small-minded man cherishes exemptions from it.”

Chapter XXV
子曰:「德不孤,必有鄰。」
Confucius said: “Virtue never stands alone; it always has neighbors.”

Book 6
Chapter XXIX
子曰:「中庸之為德也,其至矣乎!民鮮久矣。」
Confucius said: “Virtue acquired by the application of the Doctrine of the Mean is supreme. Yet it has been rare among people for a long time.”

Book 7
Chapter III
子曰:「德之不修,學之不講,聞義不能徒,不善不能改,是吾憂也。」
Confucius said: “Failure to nurture my virtue, failure to discuss what I have learned, failure to follow what I know to be right, and failure to correct my faults: these are the worries that plague me.”

Chapter VI
子曰:「志於道,據於德,依於仁,游於藝。」
Confucius said: “Set your heart on the Way; rely on virtue; follow goodness; enjoy the arts.”

Chapter XXII
子曰:「天生德於予,桓魋其如予何?」
Confucius said: “Heaven has bestowed me with virtue. What do I have to fear from Huan Tui?”

Book 8
Chapter I
子曰:「泰伯其可謂至德也已矣。三以天下讓,民無得而稱焉。」
Confucius said: “It can truly be said of Tai Bo that he was a man of supreme virtue. Three times he gave up sovereignty over his kingdom to another without giving the people the opportunity to praise him.”

Book 9
Chapter XVIII
子曰:「吾未見好德如好色者也。」
Confucius said: “I’ve never seen anyone who loves virtue as much as sensual pleasure.”

Book 11
Chapter III
德行:顏淵、閔子騫、冉伯牛、仲弓;言語:宰我、子貢;政事:冉有、季路;文學:子游、子夏。
Virtuous conduct: Yan Hui, Min Ziqian, Ran Boniu, Ran Yong. Eloquent speech: Zai Yu, Zigong. Government and administration: Ran Qiu, Zilu. Cultural accomplishments: Ziyou, Zixia.

Book 12
Chapter X
子張問「崇德,辨惑。」子曰:「主忠信,徒義崇德也。愛之欲其生,惡之欲其死;既欲其生,又欲其死,是惑也!」誠不以富,亦祗以異。
Zizhang asked about the phrase “accumulate virtue, resolve confusion”. Confucius said: “Place loyalty and trust above everything and follow the path of righteousness to accumulate virtue. When you love someone, you want them to live; when you hate someone, you want them to die. But if you want someone to live and to die at the same time, that is confusion.” It may not be just because she is wealthy. It may also be out of a need for variety.

Chapter XIX
季康子問政於孔子曰:「如殺無道,以就有道,何如?」孔子對曰:「子為政,焉用殺?子欲善,而民善矣!君子之德風,小人之德草,草上之風必偃。」
Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about governance, saying: “What would you think if I were to execute people who don’t follow the Way in order to help the people who do follow the Way?” Confucius replied: “You are here to govern; what need is there to execute people? If you desire goodness, the people will be good. An exemplary person’s virtue is like the wind; the virtue of the common man is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass it will surely bend.”

Chapter XXI
樊遲從遊於舞雩之下。曰:「敢問崇德、修慝、辨惑?」子曰:「善哉問!先事後得,非崇德與?攻其惡,無攻人之惡,非修慝與?一朝之忿,忘其身以及其親,非惑與?」
Fan Chi was strolling with Confucius around the rain dance altar. He said: “May I ask how you can accumulate virtue, correct evil thoughts, and recognize confusion?” Confucius said: “An excellent question! To always put service before reward: isn’t this the way to accumulate virtue? To attack the evil in yourself rather than the evil in other people: isn’t this the way to correct evil thoughts? To forget yourself in a moment of anger and bring ruin upon yourself and your family: isn’t this is a case of confusion?”

Book 13
Chapter XXII
子曰:「南人有言曰:『人而無恒,不可以作巫醫。』善夫!『不恒其德,或承之羞。』」子曰:「不占而已矣。」
Confucius said: “Southerners have a saying: ‘A man who isn’t steadfast isn’t fit to be a shaman.’ This is so true! The Book of Changes says, ‘if you’re not steadfast in virtue, you will suffer disgrace.’” Confucius added: “Not even a divination will be of any use for a person like that.”

Chapter XXVII
子曰:「剛毅木訥,近仁。」
Confucius said: “Firmness, determination, simplicity, modesty: these bring us close to virtue.”

Book 14
Chapter IV
子曰:「有德者必有言,有言者不必有德。仁者必有勇,勇者不必有仁。」
Confucius said: “The virtuous have a lot to teach others; but people who have a lot to teach others are not necessarily virtuous. The good are always brave; but the brave are not necessarily good.”

Chapter V
南宮适問於孔子曰:「羿善射,奡盪舟,俱不得其死然。禹稷躬稼而有天下。」夫子不答。南宮适出,子曰:「君子哉若人!尚德哉若人!」
Nangong Kuo asked Confucius, saying: “Yi was a great archer, and Ao a great sailor, but neither died a natural death. Yu and Ji toiled on the land, but they came to own the world.” Confucius made no reply. Nangong Kuo left. Confucius said: “He is a true leader! This man truly prizes virtue!”

Chapter XXXIII
子曰:「驥不稱其力,稱其德也。」
Confucius said: “A fine horse is admired not for its strength but its heart.”

Chapter XXXIV
或曰:「以德報怨,何如?」子曰:「何以報德?以直報怨,以德報德。」
Someone said: “What do you think of repaying evil with virtue?” Confucius said: “In that case how will you repay kindness? Better repay evil with justice, and kindness with kindness.”

Book 15
Chapter IV
子曰:「由,知德者鮮矣!」
Confucius said: “Zilu, there only a very few people who understand virtue.”

Chapter XIII
子曰:「已矣乎!吾未見好德如好色者也!」
Confucius said: “I give up! I’ve never seen anyone who loves virtue as much as sensual pleasure.”

Chapter XXVII
子曰:「巧言亂德,小不忍則亂大謀。」
Confucius said: “Smooth talk confounds virtue. Impatience in small matters confounds great plans.”

Book 16
Chapter I
季氏將伐顓臾。冉有季路見於孔子曰:「季氏將有事於顓臾。」孔子曰:「求,無乃爾是過與?夫顓臾,昔者先王以為東蒙主,且在邦域之中矣,是社稷之臣也,何以伐為?」冉有曰:「夫子欲之;吾二臣者,皆不欲也。」孔子曰:「求,周任有言曰:『陳力就列,不能者止。』危而不持,顛而不扶,則將焉用彼相矣?且爾言過矣。虎兕出於柙,龜玉毀於櫝中,是誰之過與?」冉有曰:「今夫顓臾,固而近於費,今不取,後世必為子孫憂。」孔子曰:「求,君子疾夫舍曰『欲之』,而必為之辭。丘也聞,有國有家者,不患寡而患不均,不患貧而患不安。蓋均無貧,和無寡,安無傾。夫如是,故遠人不服,則修文德以來之。既來之,則安之。今由與求也,相夫子,遠人不服而不能來也,邦分崩離析,而不能守也,而謀動干戈於邦內,吾恐季孫之憂,不在顓臾,而在蕭牆之內也!」
The head of the Ji family was preparing to attack Zhuanyu. Ran Qiu and Zilu went to see Confucius and said: “Ji Kangzi is going to intervene in Zhuanyu.”

Confucius said: “Qiu, this is your fault, isn’t it? In the past, our ancient kings gave Zhuanyu the responsibility of offering sacrifices to Mount Dongmeng; moreover it lies in the heart of our borders and is paying tribute to us. Why attack it?”

Ran Qiu said: “It is the wish of our master; it is not the wish of either of us.”

Confucius said: “Qiu! Zhou Ren had a saying, ‘he who has strength stands firm; he who lacks strength withdraws.’ What sort of assistant is one who cannot steady his master when he stumbles or stops him when he falls? In any case, what you said is mistaken. If a tiger or rhinoceros escapes from its cage or if a tortoise shell or a jade amulet is broken in its casket who should be responsible?”

Ran Qiu said: “But Zhuanyu has strong defenses and is close to our master’s stronghold at Bi. If he does not take it today, in the future it is sure to become a threat to his children and grandchildren.”

Confucius said: “Qiu! A leader detests those who invent excuses for their actions instead of simply saying: ‘I want this.’ I have heard it said that a head of a state or the chief of a clan worries not about having a small population but inequality, and not about poverty but instability. For if there is equality there will be no poverty, if there is harmony there will be no lack of population, and if there is stability there will be no unrest. It is for this reason that if people from afar still resist joining you, you must cultivate your virtue to attract them; and then, once they have come, you must ensure they are content with it. But, with you two as his ministers, people from afar are unwilling to join your master and won’t come; his state is racked with divisions and unrest, and he cannot hold it together any longer; but he still plots to wage war within the borders of the state itself! I’m afraid that for Ji Kangzi, the real threat does not come from Zhuanyu, but lies within the walls of his own palace!”

Book 17
Chapter XIII
子曰:「鄉原,德之賊也。」
Confucius said: “Village worthies are the thieves of virtue.”

Chapter XIV
子曰:「道聽而塗說,德之棄也。」
Confucius said: “To peddle gossip is to throw virtue away.”

Book 18
Chapter V
楚狂接輿,歌而過孔子曰:「鳳兮!鳳兮!何德之衰?往者不可諫,來者猶可追。已而!已而!今之從政者殆而!」孔子下,欲與之言。趨而辟之,不得與之言。
Jieyu, the Madman of Chu, walked past Confucius singing: “Phoenix, oh Phoenix! How your virtue has withered. The past is beyond repair, but the future is still worth pursuing. Give up! Give up! Those who serve in court are in peril.” Confucius stepped down from his chariot and wanted to speak with him, but he hurried away and disappeared. Confucius did not succeed in speaking with him.

Book 19
Chapter II
子張曰:「執德不弘,信道不篤,焉能為有?焉能為亡?」
Zizhang said: “If you fail to embrace virtue with all your spirit and fail to follow the Way with all your heart, does it really matter whether you exist or not?”

Chapter XI
子夏曰:「大德不踰閑,小德出入可也。」
Zixia said: “As long as you don’t overstep the bounds when it comes to major virtues, it doesn’t matter if you take the occasional liberty with minor ones.”

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