The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: The Analects of Confucius

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Leatherbound Classics: The Analects of Confucius

Chi K'ang Tzu asked by what means he might cause his people to be respectful and loyal, and encourage them in the path of virtue.  The Master replied:  "Conduct yourself towards them with dignity, and you will earn their respect; be a good son and a kind prince, and you will find them loyal; promote the deserving and instruct those who fall short, and they will be encouraged to follow the path of virtue." (p. 2)
Reviewing a philosophical work simultaneously ought to be very challenging and quite simple.  Such works perhaps should be approached with a different tack than what would be employed when dealing with a fiction:  instead of focusing on what the text yields to us, perhaps in these cases the focus ought to be on what we yield to the truths embedded in the text.  Yet this can be a quite discomfiting experience, as who has the time and discernment to contemplate matters of truth and rightful living in a world that spins seemingly faster and faster with each passing day?  I suspect the real value of works such as Confucius' The Analects of Confucius lies in what they force us to do as much as in their worth as teaching aids.

Confucius is one of the oldest philosophers/sages whose sayings still have some merit today.  Born in 551 BCE a generation or so before the main stage of the Warring States period of Chinese history, Confucius was not someone who isolated himself from the world, as his near-contemporary, the Buddha Gautama did during his quest for enlightenment.  From the surviving records and legends, Confucius was a minor government official in the minor state of Lu.  Frustrated by the politics there, he spent much of his adult life as a wanderer from princely court to princely court, teaching and trying to sway the local rulers toward his views on how to live life properly and how to treat others.  By the time he died in 479 BCE, he had gained a following and it was through his followers that his precepts were later collected in the late 5th century BCE in the form we now know today as The Analects of Confucius.

The Analects take the form of collected sayings; in origin they are not systematic, although later editors have collated them into certain "themes" for easier processing.  In the Easton Press edition, the first section is devoted to that of how a wise governor ought to rule his people and the advice, often restated for particular times and occasions, generally devolves to following precepts of humility, respect, honor, and the double bind of loyalty.  These are not just empty sayings meant to be considered for their ostentatious prose, but rather they are simple, direct, and practical advice couched in terms that an emperor or fisherman could utilize to better one's own life.

Reading the The Analects of Confucius left me with more questions than answers.  How should I live my life?  Should I pause and think on the merits of passages such as this one:

Tzu Chang then asked:  "What are the four evil things?"  The Master said:  "Cruelty:  leaving the people in their native ignorance, yet punishing their wrongdoing with death.  Oppression:  requiring the immediate completion of tasks imposed without previous warning.  Ruthlessness:  giving vague orders, and then insisting on punctual fulfillment.  Peddling husbandry:  stinginess in conferring the proper rewards on deserving men." (p. 17)
If I cannot govern my own life to my satisfaction, then how can I impart wisdom on those who ought to follow my own teachings?  That is a troubling question, one that has no easy answer.  I suspect that underneath the advice given in The Analects lurks the troubling notion that there are some truths that have to be sought for through arduous struggle rather than being granted passively to the seeker of wisdom and truth.  Certainly my reading of The Analects was not a passive reception of knowledge, as I had to discern which elements are least suitable for my own time and locale and which elements are universals that are worthy of future consideration.  For the most part, The Analects of Confucius made for a rewarding read simply because along with the solutions came the begetting of questions that perhaps will be the foundation of future wisdom, if only I find a "noble path" to seek their solutions.

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