Ritual (禮/lǐ) is a flexible term that describes the loosely connected web of formal religious, political, and cultural ceremonies and unwritten rules of behavior that govern smooth interactions between people and ensure social stability.
Confucius saw ritual as the embodiment of a civilized society. He believed that it had reached its peak during the golden age at the beginnings of the Zhou dynasty when it flourished under the enlightened leadership of his hero the Duke of Zhou. Throughout the Analects, he regularly calls for the restoration of ritual to its former glory and issues venomous rants against quite an array of individuals for violating and even usurping it for their own nefarious purposes.
In Book 1, Confucius is relatively restrained on the subject, limiting himself to a subtle rebuke to Zigong in Chapter 15 when responding to a quotation that his wealthy follower makes from the Book of Songs:
Zigong said: “‘Poor but not subservient; wealthy but not arrogant.’ What do you think of that?” Confucius said: “Not bad, but this would be better still: ‘Poor but content; wealthy but loves ritual.’”
With this rejoinder, he is highlighting the need for Zigong to embrace the full spirit of ritual in order to avoid exhibiting any arrogance and complacency that he may feel as a result of all his money. Carried out with a positive attitude, ritual thus helps make sure that people don’t get too carried away with themselves and smooths the sharp edges of their character.
The follower Youzi weighs in on the subject in Chapter 12, pointing out that: “When practicing ritual, harmony matters most.” Like Confucius, he means that people have to embrace ritual with a positive spirit so that the principles embodied in it become an integral part of their conduct rather than a set of rules that have to be begrudgingly followed. “This is what made the way of the ancient kings so admirable,” he adds, “and inspired their every action, no matter how great or small.”
In Chapter 13, Youzi continues in the same vein when he says, “If your manners conform to ritual, you will be able to avoid shame and disgrace.” While he’s not denying the importance of showing courtesy towards other people in social interactions or at official ceremonies, his point is that only by fully embracing ritual can you move to the next level in which you can conduct yourself in the appropriate way without even having to think about what you are doing.