Book 2 of the Analects begins by exploring the idea that political stability is best achieved by virtuous leadership rather than by means of force or a raft of government laws and regulations.
In the first chapter, Confucius compares a ruler who rules by virtue to the Pole Star. By sticking strongly to his core values, such a ruler sets a powerful example that the people will instinctively follow.
In Chapter III, Confucius amplifies this point by stating: “If you rule people by laws and regulations and keep them under control through punishments they will evade them and have no sense of shame. If you lead them by virtue and keep them in line with the rites, they will develop a sense of shame and unite behind you.”
Similar sentiments are echoed towards the end of the book. In Chapter XIX, Confucius tells Duke Ai, the titular ruler of the state of Lu, that in order to win the support of the people he should “promote the ethical and place them above the unethical.” In the following chapter, he goes on to tell Ji Kangzi, the real power behind the throne of Lu, that if he treats the people with dignity “they will be respectful” and if he promotes the good and teaches people who lack ability, “they will be eager to follow you.”
Unfortunately, his advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
In Chapter IV, Confucius gives a famous snapshot of the major stages of his journey through life. After applying his “mind to learning” at the age of fifteen, he was ready to set his “course” at the age of thirty. When he reached fifty, he “knew the will of Heaven” and at sixty his ear was fully “attuned” to the world around him. Finally, at the age of seventy, he was able to follow all his “heart’s desires without overstepping the line.”
Filial piety, another major theme of Book 2, goes back under the microscope in the next four chapters. In blunt language, Confucius states that it simply isn’t good enough for sons to “serve their elders wine and food when they need to drink and eat” in the same way that they “feed their dogs and horses”. They also need to display the right attitude by showing their parents affection and respect.
In the middle section of the book, Confucius expounds on the nature of leadership with a series of pithy sayings. In Chapter XII, he declares that “a leader is not just a vessel”, meaning that he should be a well-rounded individual rather than a narrow specialist. He follows up in the next chapter by saying that a leader should also be someone who “practices what they preach” and “looks at a question from every perspective.”
Indeed, Confucius clearly regards the ability to think clearly as a critical quality in a leader, warning in Chapter XV and Chapter XVI that “to study without thinking is pointless” and “to attack a question from the wrong starting point is harmful.”
Humility is also an extremely important attribute for a leader, too. In Chapter XVII, the sage tells Zilu that true knowledge is recognizing “what you know as what you know and what you don’t know as what you don’t know.”
Book 2 winds down in a rather random manner. In Chapter XXI, Confucius neatly ties two of its main themes, filial piety and good governance, together with this alleged quote from the Book of Documents: “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 Chapter XXII, the sage employs a memorable metaphor to show that trust is the linchpin of human relationships: “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?”
After predicting the future of ritual in a hundred generations in the penultimate chapter, Confucius criticizes a serious ritual violation in the final one. Although unrelated to the previous chapters in Book 2, this provides the perfect lead-in to even more vociferous condemnations of ritual impropriety in Book 3.