Analects Book 1: on relationships

One of the most important themes of Book 1 of the Analects is that the focus of learning is on practical applications rather than dry academic theory. Its main objective was to ensure that a young man was inculcated with the right values and behaviors to ensure that he made a positive contribution to society by interacting positively with its other members.

From a very young age, a son (and daughter) was taught to show respect and obedience to his parents and older relatives, including his brothers. When he got married, he was also expected to love and respect towards his wife, who in return was required to be obedient towards her husband.

Outside the family, the son was expected to show similar levels of respect and obedience to elder people in the community and ultimately the ruler of the state. In this way, social stability would be achieved, with everyone knowing their place in the hierarchy and behaving towards each other in the appropriate way.

Some commentators have boiled this rather complex web down to the “four relationships”, between husband and wife, child and parent, minister and ruler, and friend and friend. These can be seen as the main branches of a tree, with filial piety forming its trunk. Naturally, some trees are a lot sturdier than others depending on how well the values were cultivated and applied.

Even though Confucius was a strong proponent of what these days we call family values, he was nowhere near as rigid in his interpretation of them as some commentators would like us to believe. Relationships were not a one-way street in which the junior party had to blindly obey the wishes of the senior one. Mutual respect and a positive attitude were also required.

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