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
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
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
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
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
Confucius said: “Virtue never stands alone; it always has neighbors.”

Book 6
Chapter XXIX
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
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
Confucius said: “Set your heart on the Way; rely on virtue; follow goodness; enjoy the arts.”

Chapter XXII
Confucius said: “Heaven has bestowed me with virtue. What do I have to fear from Huan Tui?”

Book 8
Chapter I
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
Confucius said: “I’ve never seen anyone who loves virtue as much as sensual pleasure.”

Book 11
Chapter III
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
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
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
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
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
Confucius said: “Firmness, determination, simplicity, modesty: these bring us close to virtue.”

Book 14
Chapter IV
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
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
Confucius said: “A fine horse is admired not for its strength but its heart.”

Chapter XXXIV
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
Confucius said: “Zilu, there only a very few people who understand virtue.”

Chapter XIII
Confucius said: “I give up! I’ve never seen anyone who loves virtue as much as sensual pleasure.”

Chapter XXVII
Confucius said: “Smooth talk confounds virtue. Impatience in small matters confounds great plans.”

Book 16
Chapter I
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
Confucius said: “Village worthies are the thieves of virtue.”

Chapter XIV
Confucius said: “To peddle gossip is to throw virtue away.”

Book 18
Chapter V
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
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
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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