Analects Book 1: on goodness


Confucius never provides a single unified definition of what he means by goodness (仁/rén) – the supreme value that he believed everyone should aspire to reach – in The Analects. Instead, he explores its many different facets throughout the text, either with simple statements or in response to questions from his disciples and contemporaries.

In Book 1, Confucius barely touches on the subject; you have to wait until Book 4 for the heavy guns to be rolled out. Even when he does raise it, he only touches upon the surface, declaring in Chapter III that “smooth talk and an affected manner are seldom signs of goodness” and advising young men to “only make friends with those who are good.”

Confucius’s suspicion of “smooth talk and an affected manner” reflects his concern that the politics and culture of his age were dominated by people who failed to follow up their fine words with effective action. How can you aspire to goodness if you don’t live up to the principles and values you allegedly espouse?

Judging by the number of rants he makes on this topic in the Analects, however, Confucius had no success at all in curbing what he saw as the superficiality and hypocrisy of his contemporaries. Fleeting worldly pleasures were clearly far more enticing to them than the hard grind of following the path of goodness that Confucius advocated!

Like the Jesuits, Confucius understood the importance of inculcating his values in in the young to prevent their impressionable minds from being swayed by other temptations. This is why he counsels in Chapter VI that young men should only associate with others following the same path. No doubt he was afraid that if they were subjected to other less wholesome influences, the youth would end up with same vices that his contemporaries displayed.

Youzi, one of the Confucius’s later disciples and at one time the presumed heir to his legacy, also chimes in on the subject of goodness in Book 1. In fact he gets the first word in in Chapter II, saying that, “Respect for parents and elders constitutes the essence of goodness.”

While this definition covers only one aspect of goodness, it certainly provides a useful starting point for further explorations of the subject in the rest of The Analects.

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