Leadership in the Analects


If I were ever asked to choose one single word that sums up the main theme of the Analects, I would unhesitatingly opt for “leadership”. Through his teachings, Confucius was attempting to educate the ruling elite of his time how to create and govern a just and fair society that would ensure peace, prosperity, and harmony for all. Continue reading Leadership in the Analects

The final chapter

Confucius said: “If you don’t understand fate you cannot become a leader. If you don’t understand the rites, you cannot become a complete person. If you don’t understand the meaning of words, you cannot understand people.”

The Analects finishes with three final nuggets of advice for an aspiring leader. Learn to focus on what you can control rather than concerning yourself with the vagaries of fate. Learn how to behave appropriately in order to make a full contribution to society. And learn how to judge the true character of other people by knowing when they are speaking truthfully or lying. Continue reading The final chapter

The five virtues and four vices

Zizhang asked Confucius: “What qualities must you have in order to be fit to take part in government?” Confucius said: “If you cultivate the five virtues and cast out the four vices you are fit to govern.”

Zizhang asked: “What are the five virtues?” Confucius said: “A leader is generous without having to spend anything; he inspires people to work hard without complaining; he is ambitious without being greedy; he is confident without being arrogant; he is imposing without being frightening.”

Zizhang said: “How can you be ‘generous without having to spend anything’?” Confucius said: “If you let the people take advantage of what is beneficial for them, aren’t you being generous without having to spend anything? If you assign the people to work on tasks that are reasonable, who will complain? If your ambition is to be good and you accomplish it, how can you be greedy? If a leader treats everyone equally no matter whether they are many or few or humble or great, he is confident without being arrogant. If a leader wears his robe and cap correctly, his gaze is straight, and he carries himself with a dignified air that inspires the people’s awe, he is imposing but not frightening.”

Zizhang said: “What are the four vices?” Confucius said: “If you execute people without attempting to reform them you are being cruel; if you carry out an inspection of a public works project without giving a prior warning you are being tyrannical; if you expect the immediate completion of a project after being slow to approve it, you are acting like a thief; if you are tight-fisted in paying people what is rightfully theirs, you are being bureaucratic.”

This passage features another reprise of a common theme of Confucius’s teachings: namely, that people in power have a responsibility to treat the common people in the same way that they would expect to be treated. Continue reading The five virtues and four vices

The myth of Confucius as a superman begins

Chen Ziqin said to Zigong: “Sir, you are just being polite; how could Confucius be considered to be your superior?” Zigong said: “A leader can reveal his wisdom with a single phrase, and can betray his ignorance with a single phrase. That is why he must be careful about what he says. The Master’s achievements cannot be equaled, just as there are no steps that you can climb to reach the sky. If the Master been entrusted with running a country or a family estate, he would have lived up to the old adage: ‘If he helps them to stand they will stand up; if he leads them they will march; if he gives them peace they will flock to him; if he mobilizes them to work they will follow his call. In life, he is glorified; in death, he will be mourned.’ How can his achievements ever be equaled?”

There is little doubt that the final two chapters of Book 19 were added to the Analects at a late stage with the specific aim of creating a myth around Confucius as a superman rather than a mere mortal. Continue reading The myth of Confucius as a superman begins

A convoluted metaphor

Shusun Wushu vilified Confucius. Zigong said: “It doesn’t matter. Confucius cannot be vilified. The worthiness of other people is like a hill that you can climb over; but Confucius is like the sun or the moon, which are impossible to climb over. Even if someone wished to cut himself off from their light, how would this harm the sun and the moon? At most, it would show that he had no sense of his own value.”

Zigong certainly shows himself to be the master of the convoluted metaphor in his defense of Confucius. I suppose it’s no coincidence that his passionate paeans of praise for the sage come very close to the end of the Analects. Continue reading A convoluted metaphor

A clever analogy

Shusun Wushu said to the ministers at court: “Zigong is superior to Confucius.” Zifu Jingbo told this to Zigong. Zigong said: “Let us take the surrounding wall of a residence as a comparison. My wall is only shoulder-height; so you can simply peer over it to see the beauty of the house inside. Our Master’s wall would tower many yards higher; so unless you are allowed through the gate, you cannot imagine the magnificence of the ancestral temple and the majesty of the other buildings. But since very few people have been allowed through the gate, it’s not surprising that your colleague would make such a comment.”

Zigong was extremely devoted to Confucius, reportedly living for six years near to the sage’s tomb to mourn him after his death, so there is no doubting the sincerity of his praise for him even if does sound a little over the top. Continue reading A clever analogy

Learning from the past

Gongsun Chao of Wei asked Zigong: “From whom did Confucius learn?” Zigong said: “The Way of King Wen and King Wu has never disappeared; it has remained alive among the people. The wise have retained its most important elements; the ignorant have retained its least important details. There is not a single person who doesn’t have some elements of the Way of King Wen and King Wu. There is not a single person from whom our Master could not have learned something; and there is not a single person who could have been our Master’s only teacher.”

Zigong’s eloquent response to Gongsun Chao’s question reminds us that Confucius himself readily acknowledged in Chapter I of Book 7 that there was nothing new about the ideas and principles he espoused: “I transmit but I don’t create. I am faithful to and love the past.” (「述而不作,信而好古。」) Continue reading Learning from the past

Like a solar or lunar eclipse

Zigong said: “The errors of a leader are like an eclipse of the sun or the moon. When he makes an error, everyone notices; when he corrects his error everyone looks up to him in admiration.”

A leader doesn’t make many mistakes. But on the rare occasions he screws up, he doesn’t attempt to hide them so that everyone can see he deals with them. Continue reading Like a solar or lunar eclipse