According to the best estimates, Confucius lived from 551 to 479 BCE. The Analects is the name given to the short book of his wisdom, consisting of proverbs, maxims, memorable advice, short parables and keen observations about how best to live. The text is the result of an editing and compilation process involving two generations of Chinese disciples, and completed around 400 BCE, possibly in the same year that Socrates met his end in Athens. Analects, meaning ‘literary gleanings’ or ‘miscellaneous pieces and passages’, was chosen as the title for this collection of Confucius’ sayings by a 19th-century British translator, James Legge. The title is obscure, but it has stuck. Chichung Huang, in his literal translation, makes a strong case that the original title, Lun Yu, is best translated as Ethical Dialogues. Thinking of it in this way, as a book of ethics, presented mostly in the form of sayings that begin ‘The Master says’ or with questions followed by answers from the Master or one of his disciples, on matters of virtue and vice, moral education, the way of life of the good person, seems just right.
Confucius’ style of presentation is close to that of the Book of Proverbs, albeit more pithy and less poetic than that of Solomon and it shares with The Baltimore Catechism an inordinate amount of dogmatic pronouncement and argument from authority.
As revealed in these dialogues, Confucius had little taste for metaphysics or religion. Although ‘heaven’ is often invoked, the word appears to refer to the world, to all of creation, to everything that there is, and not to God’s home or to the place that good souls go to after death. You will not find a theology, or any talk of miracles or an afterlife in these sayings. Not only should we avoid thinking and speaking of evil, since bad thoughts lead to bad character and bad action, but, anticipating Wittgenstein, when human understanding reaches its limits, silence is called for. We can speak the truth only when we use language correctly, when we have our words meaning what they should mean, and referring to the things to which they truly refer. Simon Leys writes that Confucius’ ‘silence was an affirmation: there is a realm about which one can say nothing.’
Confucius is asked what his first initiative would be, were he to be entrusted with the government of a country; he replies: ‘It would certainly be to rectify the names.’ His disciple, Zilu, is puzzled and asks, ‘what is this rectification for?’ Confucius rarely expresses annoyance or impatience but this question arouses both: ‘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 ... rites and music wither, punishment and penalties miss their target [and when they miss their target] 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.’
I would not want to defend the view of language implicit in the project of ‘rectifying the names’ to a group of analytic philosophers of language, since it sounds suspiciously like the widely rejected view that words comprise an ontologically basic system for referring to a ready-made-world of facts and values, whereas, according to the currently dominant view, language comprises a system of artifacts, created as required for communicating about a world that has been carved-up according to local needs, customs, habits and history.
Nonetheless, if we interpret Confucius charitably, as providing a theory of how language works in a community in which people flourish, his guiding insight is plausible and important. A well-functioning moral and political community is one in which leaders and citizens share a common language, where the Way (Dao) to virtue is clearly and truly articulated, where the manner of participation in the ceremonial and musical rituals that create social harmony is stated clearly, where justice is meted out consistently, and where people say what they mean and act accordingly. The true gentleman ‘preaches only what he practises’.
The alternative is a world of doublespeak, and other forms of dishonest or insincere speech, where leaders pretend to operate in accordance with principles, to lead with integrity, but in reality ‘lead by political manoeuvres’. When the leaders lack virtue but pretend to be virtuous, the citizenry will imitate them, becoming themselves ‘cunning and shameless’. But if led by the virtuous, the citizens will follow suit, developing a sense of virtue, and a sense of appropriate shame. ‘Virtue is not solitary; it always has neighbours.’ Virtue is radiant, transformative, and attracts followers: ‘Promote the upright and the crooked will follow.’
In the Apology, Plato’s record of Socrates’ defence against the charges of corrupting youth and praising false gods, Socrates tells his accusers that ignorant men such as themselves corrupt the young by teaching them by their words and deeds to think and act without reflection and without virtue. Socrates berates his accusers for feeling no shame when pronouncing on matters to which they have given no thought and which in certain cases exceed human – or at least their own – comprehension. Confucius makes the same points against the speech of the powerful ignoramus as opposed to the man of humble wisdom, but makes them more politely – which may explain why, despite dying at approximately the same age as Socrates, he died of natural causes and not the overpowering soporific effects of a hemlock cocktail mixed at state expense.
It is interesting that we know of the thought of three of the world’s most influential ethical thinkers, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus, only from the written records of disciples. From a purely literary point of view, Plato, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were more talented and conscientious than the scribes who compiled Confucius’ wisdom. Even if more people have read the Analects than Plato’s Dialogues or the Gospels, and even if its message has influenced more people than they have, it is inferior to them in two ways. First, as a philosophical or ethical treatise, the Analects lacks what both the Dialogues and the Gospels, in different ways, provide – reasons, arguments, context and motivation for the recommended moral agenda. Second, and relatedly, the Analects is aesthetically deficient. The sayings of the Master are not embedded in a narrative that might give them life.
The Master’s pronouncements are short, but not always easy to interpret. The longest of the 501 numbered passages does not exceed 15 lines, and many of the best are only one or two lines long. Reading them, I was reminded of a colleague who, on being asked by a student why the pre-Socratics wrote in fragments, replied ‘because they lived in ruins’. Confucius did live in a time when civil society as he knew it was collapsing, but that hardly provides an explanation of, or an argument for, the cryptic, didactic, fragmented way in which he chose to speak. Leys approvingly quotes Elias Canetti’s remark that the Analects ‘strikes one as a modern book’. I find this puzzling unless Canetti was thinking – as I doubt whether he was – of the best-selling genre of self-help, personal growth books. I don’t mean to suggest that the Analects is guided by the aim of advising others on how to achieve therapeutic, romantic or financial success; but stylistically there is a strong similarity.
That said, these chunks do add up to something like an ethical system, one whose overall agenda I take to be as follows. The breakdown of the feudal order, controlled by a hereditary aristocracy, has called for reconceiving the bases of moral and political life. Under the new ethical order, countries will still require leadership. The new leaders are to come from the class of gentlemen, a class open to all, or at least all males. Gentlemen are virtuous, for they are the beneficiaries of the universal education that Confucius espoused. Because the most important education is moral, rather than mathematical, scientific or technological, and because human beings do not differ significantly in their moral capacities, becoming a gentleman is a possibility for every man, even a barbarian.
One might imagine setting one’s sights as a moralist on a world of perfectly virtuous citizens, but Confucius is a psychological realist We must be content to aim for a world of gentlemen. We cannot hope actually to find a perfect man or a saint. In Huang’s translation, sights are set lower still; the Master said: ‘A sage man – I shall never see, if I get a gentleman, I shall be contented ... A benevolent man – I shall never see. If I get a man of constancy, I shall be contented.’
What virtues does the gentleman possess, and what attractive vices does he resist? As in Plato, Aristode and Jesus, the virtues interact and form some sort of unity for Confucius. There is the virtue of humanity or love. Although it is natural and good to love one’s family and friends the most, one should ‘love all people’. What does this love amount to? It amounts to something like the golden rule: ‘What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.’ There are also the virtues of respect, loyalty, piety between father and son, between brothers, and between husband and wife. Other major, probably mandatory, virtues are justice, fairness, modesty, sincerity, trustworthiness and truthfulness. Diligence, industry and generosity also make the list at various points, but are less often praised. Gentleness, lack of competitiveness and in-group pacifism are also virtues. If people must compete let it be at archery, after which the competitors should drink together.
Among the vices, the Master was especially repelled by inhumanity, injustice, filial impiety, insincerity and dishonesty. In addition, he ‘absolutely eschewed four things: capriciousness, dogmatism, wilfulness and self-importance’.
Like Socrates, Plato and Aristole, Confucius emphasises that an excellent reputation and fame are goods if they result from one’s moral qualities. The important thing is to deserve public respect and possibly even fame for one’s good character, not actually to receive these things. Whereas ‘the vulgar man always tries to cover up his mistakes’, the gentleman, when he does what is wrong, admits his mistakes and amends his ways. Confucius may not have expected to meet with anyone perfect, but he raises the worry that there may not even be, at least in China in the 5th century BCE, any gentlemen – that every actual person is vulgar. ‘Alas, I have never seen a man capable of seeing his own faults and exposing them in the tribunal of his heart’ (Leys); ‘Oh it is all over! I have never seen anyone who can, on seeing his own fault, inwardly reprove himself.’ (Huang). The reader is left wondering whether the personal honesty, critical self-scrutiny and skills of self-adjustment and self-transformation displayed by the virtuous are, after all, some sort of impossible ideal.
A related but different problem in achieving the kingdom of virtue is this: ‘The Master says: “I have never seen anyone who loved virtue as much as sex.” ’ Assuming he means what he says here, this is bad news for his ethical programme, since sexual passion can overrule honesty, destroy respectful relations between husband and wife, as well as produce jealousy and aggressiveness. Perhaps the few brief remarks about the gentleman learning to tame himself, especially when set in the context of the many remarks about the importance of ritual and music in inculcating virtue and co-operation, imply that Confucius was hoping he might effect the transformation of some small group of people who would love virtue as much as, or possibly more than, sex. If such a group evolved, this would get things moving in the right direction since, on his view, the vulgar will follow the virtuous.
The issue of sex raises the woman question. Huang translates Leys’s ‘I have never seen anyone who loved virtue as much as sex’ by replacing ‘sex’ with ‘beautiful women’, so that the saying reads: ‘no one loves virtue as much as he loves beautiful women.’ The fact that this translation is credible can be used to emphasise a point that may well already be obvious. The Analects is a book of moral advice for men; a community of gentlemen is the aim. Women are seldom mentioned, and when they are, it is in linkage to vulgar men, or in the context of rules prohibiting men from initiating sex or conversation with their concubines during periods of fasting or state-sanctioned rituals. That said, I see no reason in principle why the model of the virtuous gentleman could not serve as a model for a virtuous person, period, and thus no reason why the moral vision of Confucius could not encompass all of humanity, despite the fact that neither Confucius nor the disciples who compiled the Analects may ever have entertained the idea that women are fully human.
Simon Leys calls his text a ‘writer’s translation’, whereas Chichung Huang offers us a ‘literal translation’. Both are pleasant to read and accessible, and the explanatory notes are rich and helpful. Comparing the translations was useful when a particular saying puzzled me. I did think all was lost, however, when I compared 10.10 in Leys, ‘There should be no conversation during meals, and no talk in bed [during certain ritualistic periods]’ with 10.10 in Huang, ‘When presented with medicine, the Master prostrated himself in accepting it.’ Happily, the explanation here as elsewhere, was that scholars disagree about the numbering system for the Analects: thus 10.10 in Leys corresponds to 10.6 in Huang.
In 1988, an international conference of Nobel Prize-winners was held in Paris on the topic ‘Facing the 21st Century’. The Nobel laureates issued 16 conclusions, one of which read: ‘If mankind is to survive, it must go back 25 centuries in time to tap the wisdom of Confucius.’ This resolution confirms my impression that Nobel Prize-winners take the award as license to speak about matters on which they would do best to maintain silence. But since they chose to say what they did, I shall reply that the Analects are of great historical importance in terms of the various moral, political and religious traditions they have influenced and given rise to. One version of Confucianism – one that valorised the virtue of filial piety and transformed it into a corrupt ethic of submissiveness – became state ideology in imperial China 350 years after Confucius’ death. It was this version that 20th-century Chinese Communism had to reject, even if it was itself a deeply authoritarian political theory. Many other versions of Confucianism remain alive today, and understanding our world requires an understanding of these versions and traditions. Furthermore, the ethical teachings contained in the Analects are worth taking seriously. What is utterly implausible, foolish at the limit, is to suppose that the wisdom of Confucius is required for the survival of mankind.