A Brief Analysis of the Analects

The Analects of Confucius translated by Simon Leys
Norton, April 2nd, 1997

Something definitely missing from my endless list of reading material is Chinese literature. This is something I’ve somewhat remedied recently by reading The Analects of Confucius but I also just received The Water Margin and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for Christmas; the former of which will be the first book I take up in the new year. My translation of the Analects is by Belgian sinologist Simon Leys who called Australia home for the second half of his life. Coincidently I was reading his essay collection, The Hall of Uselessness this time last year and quoted from his essay on Don Quixote in a post on the same work in November.

A quick note for pedants: what follows is not strictly speaking even a “brief” analysis but I like alliteration and I’m not changing the title.

What immediately jumps out considering how influential Confucius has been, is how short and often fragmented the work of his principle teachings is. Leys provides copious (and fascinating) notes as well as an introduction which are longer than the text itself. In referring to his notes, I was surprised to learn there is still disagreement about how to both translate and interpret many of them though the majority can be clearly understood. Despite its brevity, one can get a good picture of the kind of man Confucius was and certainly see how his teachings continue to live on in the culture of the Chinese even thousands of years later.

Leys gives some biographical information and also discusses some common misconceptions about Confucius that have come from many schools. For example, it was refreshing to learn that he wasn’t the bookish, withdrawn scholar it is easy to imagine him as but a very accomplished man — physically as well as mentally. As Leys mentions in his lengthy comment on 5.7:

…in Confucius’s time, the Six Arts, liu yu, which later on came merely to mean the study of the Six Classics, still comprised archery and charioteering, put on equal footing with rites, music, writing, and arithmetic

He was also very engaged politically and desired to be put his teachings to the test in a real scenario. I was aware that he died believing himself to have failed though his ideas certainly lived on and found their way beyond China and live on to this day as this little post alone attests. In his introduction Leys notes that,

Confucius lived in a period of historical transition, in an age of acute cultural crisis. In one fundamental respect, there was a certain similarity between his time and ours: he was witnessing the collapse of civilization—he saw his world sinking into violence and barbarity.

This was published in 1997 and it is all only more true as I write today.

It is often mentioned that he was silent on anything pertaining to Heaven which would lead modern minds to assume he was an atheist. While he obviously lived in pre-Christian times and in a culture where the God of Abraham was unknown; it would be wrong to consider him an atheist in the vulgar sense that is understood today. His silence was merely towards what was unknown and not to be taken as a denial of any spiritual realm. Indeed, he repeatedly speaks on the importance of formality and ritual and respect for the dead throughout. An example of Confucius’s views on the spiritual realm can be seen here:

11.12. Zilu asked how to serve the spirits and gods. The Master said: “You are not yet able to serve men, how could you serve the spirits?”

Zilu said: “May I ask you about death?” The Master said: “You do not yet know life, how could you know death?”

Confucius also saw the importance of hierarchy and filial piety which is much more in line with traditional Christianity than modern thinking:

12.11. Duke Jing of Qu asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied: Let the lord be a lord; the subject a subject; the father a father, the son a son.” The Duke said: “Excellent! If indeed the lord is not a lord, the subject is not a subject, the father not a father, the son not a son, I could be sure of nothing anymore—not even my daily food.”

It is important to add here that Confucius did not believe that virtue was a domain restricted only to certain classes but believed education should be open to all — and not education as we understand it today. He did however still strongly believe in maintaining order and thought rebellion to be highly immoral. Again, it is important to note that this did not extend to never telling a ruler he was doing wrong. His ideal was not despotic though it is often claimed his thought justified despotism.

As an aside, Leys’ commentary on 12.11 is worth quoting in part just to note how much has changed since 1997. Ask yourself if a major publisher would allow the following comment to survive an editor today:

 It is a teaching that even today, has lost nothing of its relevance: the moral chaos of our age—with its infantile adults, precociously criminal children, androgynous individuals, homosexual families, despotic leaders, asocial citizens, incestuous fathers, etc.—reflects a collective drift into uncertainty and confusion; obligations attached to specific roles, age differentiations, even sexual identity are no longer perceived clearly.

Leys notes that Confucius was skeptical about laws as they discouraged personal virtue as an example below:

12.13. The Master said: “I could adjudicate lawsuits as well as anyone. But I would prefer to make lawsuits unnecessary.”

Something else that can be related to is the importance of clear language which was also relevant in Confucius’s time and also relates to 12.11 above.

13.3. Zilu asked: “If the ruler of Wei were to entrust you with the government of the country, what would be your first initiative?” The Master said: “It would certainly be to rectify the names.” Zilu said: “Really? Isn’t this a little farfetched? What is the rectification for?” The Master said: “How boorish can you get! Whereupon a gentleman is incompetent, thereupon he should remain silent. If the names are not correct, language is without an object. When language is without an object, no affair can be effected. When no affair can be effected, rites and music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments and penalties miss their target. When punishments and penalties miss their target, the people do not know where they stand. Therefore, whatever a gentleman conceives of, he must be able to say; and whatever he says, he must be able to do. In the matter of language, a gentleman leaves nothing to chance.”

In his note on the translation Leys states that this “sums up the whole of Confucian enterprise… the correct use of language is the basis on which the sociopolitical order is built.”

One more I found very relevant today:

17.8. The Master said: “Zilu, have you heard of the six qualities and their six perversions?” — “No.” — “Sit down, I will tell you. The love of humanity without the love of learning degenerates into silliness. The love of intelligence without the love of learning degenerates into frivolity. The love of chivalry without the love of learning degenerates into banditry. The love of frankness without the love of learning degenerates into brutality. The love of valor without the love of learning degenerates into violence. The love of force without the love of learning degenerates into anarchy.”

On the first quality and its perversion Leys comments:

“…whoever doubts the permanent relevance of this observation should take a look today at the antics of all varieties of well-meaning but ignorant activism currently in fashion! Uninformed kindness can cause more havoc than deliberate mischievousness; but, by a strange logic, it is too often assumed that kindness should by itself carry a sort of automatic dispensation from intelligence—whereas these two qualities are in fact organically related.”

I have only really scratched the surface but I highly recommend this translation by Leys as his commentary is erudite and his translation is very clear. It is also still widely available. Confucian thought will also become much more relevant as China continues to rise in power and influence so it would be at least prudent to have some understanding of their cultural heritage. The great thing about the Analects is it can be read in a sitting or in portions though referring to Leys notes will extend this.  To finish, I will quote two more. One is a repeat and one will be directly relevant to me next year.

17.17 (also 1.3). The Master said: “Clever talk and affected manners are seldom signs of goodness.

17.26. The Master said: “Whoever, by the age of forty, is still disliked, will remain so till the end.”

Let us hope this is not my fate as my fortieth is less than a year away.

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