Analects Book 2: Confucius on the meaning of filial devotion

FilialPiety

What is the meaning of filial devotion? From Chapter 5 to Chapter 8 of Book 2 of The Analects, Confucius gives five different answers to the very same question to five different people.

In his response to Meng Yizi, the head of one of the Three Families that were the real power in the state of Lu, Confucius keeps his answer as blunt as possible, simply telling him that it is to “never disobey”.

When his disciple Fan Chi asks him what he meant by that reply, Confucius says that a filial son should serve his parents according to the rites while they are alive and bury and honor them according to the rites when they are dead. Some commentators interpret this comment as confirming Confucius’s belief that adhering to the conventions of the rites was even more important than upholding the values of filial devotion. Others suggest that that he was making a subtle dig at Meng for regularly breaking the conventions of the rites by holding ostentatious ceremonies that should only been reserved exclusively for members of the ruling family.

When Meng Wubo, the son of Meng Yizi, asks Confucius about the same question, the sage takes a different tack, replying: “The only time a son should make his parents worried is when he is sick.” Presumably, his point is that while a son can’t prevent himself from becoming ill, he can make sure that he doesn’t engage in any behavior that would be a cause of concern for his parents.

In Chapter 7, Confucius unleashes a hugely entertaining rant at his disciple Ziyou, remarking that “these days filial devotion simply means keeping your parents fed” just like “dogs and horses are looked after.” “It’s the attitude that counts,” he tells his disciple Zixia in Chapter 8: “If young people just offer their help when there is a job to do or serve their elders wine and food when they need to drink and eat, how could this ever be considered as filial devotion?”

Towards the end of Book 2, Confucius links filial devotion with good governance and social stability. In Chapter 20, he tells Ji Kangzi, the de facto ruler of the state of Lu, that he would gain the loyalty of the people by showing them that he was filial. 

In the following chapter, he goes on to argue that all men can contribute to the smooth running of the government “by being filial to your parents and being kind to your brothers.

Although Confucius never gave a single definition of the meaning of filial devotion, he was very clear that he saw it as the duty of both the ruler and his people and the foundation of social stability and cohesiveness. Failure to practice filial devotion not just according to the proper conventions but also in the right spirit would lead not just to the breakdown of families but also society.

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