Confucius may well be one of the least pretentious people in history. He’s a good, interesting match with Socrates, in many ways. He’s also a very observant person. The West has largely overlooked Confucius. In the early days of Western contact, the Chinese habit of literary and colloquial references was totally misunderstood and even taken literally. The result was that Confucius, a very literary person, was classed among the “inscrutable” sayings.
I’ve long thought that referring to China as “inscrutable” simply meant that nobody was looking very hard. Reading Confucius as translated by DC Lau, that impression is confirmed. (I prefer to read native speaker translations of Chinese. The old Chinese idioms are tricky, and often misinterpreted by non-Chinese translators, simply because contexts are very dynamic in Chinese.)
The Analects of Confucius
Confucius apparently had a rather turbulent, sometimes quite difficult, life. An avid student of everything, he was as absorbed in every facet of ideas as Socrates. Anyone with a brain will recognize the likely problems with being that intelligent in any society.
In old China, a land of quite incredible culture and incredible violence, Confucius stood out. He was famous for his mind in a country where famine, war, and corruption were ways of life. He was a “spiritual humanist” (based within the culture’s highest attainments to that time.
(“Spiritual humanist”. What an expression! Wish I could say I thought of it without the obvious inputs from a totally different perspective on life, but I didn’t. Read and learn, indeed.)
Earning respect in ancient China wasn’t easy for anyone, despite a great cultural respect for literacy and intelligence. To stand out in this environment was no minor achievement. A native of Lu, a minor Chinese state, his reputation spread within his lifetime, adding a burden of fame to frustration and what appears to be a constantly evolving knowledge and logic base.
The Analects are a series of notations about Confucius. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, but the man’s wit and compassion are more than obvious. His status, ironically, has rather obscured his genuine insights and talent for observation. That status has also rather overstated the reverence and focused less on the highly intelligent person.
The Analects are arranged in 20 books in the DC Lau translation.
Central parts of the Analects:
- The rites: Traditional practices, rituals, and values.
- The gentleman: The ideal man.
- Filial piety: Respect for one’s ancestors. (Confucius didn’t invent this. He made it a core value in his system of thinking to develop “society as a family’, perhaps one of the most genuinely civilized ideas of all time.)
- The Way: Not quite the cosmic Way of the Tao, but the humanized version, with some relationships.
- Character: The core issue of human conduct and values.
- Ethics and correct behaviour are fundamental Confucian values.
- Aphorisms: In the Analects, these statements become aphorisms as isolated statements. Other text indicates that they originally had more qualifiers and that Confucius routinely explained his thoughts, but they’re extremely interesting even on their own.
- Anecdotes: Interesting, and clearly intended to give some insights into Confucius’ real personality. (Pity more major historical figures weren’t given real personalities.)
Mysticism isn’t Confucius’ style. He works on practical principles, and tries to develop them. That 2600 year old bit of good practice makes the Analects very readable and the meanings a lot clearer.
(For the record, Chinese “mysticism” is usually based on idioms and thick-headed Western literal translations. The Chinese sages didn’t go out of their way to be obscure. Add to this the fact that the spiritual side is a core element in Chinese philosophy, and you’re basically reading an alien culture. Western philosophy gave up on metaphysics a long time ago, and has been much poorer as a result.)
Confucius for modern readers
For modern readers, Confucius will come as a revelation or perhaps even a shock, if they fully understand some passages in the Analects. Confucius tries, hard, to take ideas out of the banal and show them as working things. His apparently endless efforts to make sense out of ideas are as interesting as Socratic debates, with a laconic style which is admirable.
“In his errors, a man is true to type. Observe the errors and you will know the man.”
Think about that for a second. It’s an appeal to the individual, a principle, and a good expression of a practical option for those trying to deal with “errors” in all their myriad forms. Whole books and much turgid pondering of the obvious have been written on the same subject. He does it in 18 words, with a bit of advice.
In one passage, he’s asked how he compares with a man called Hui. Hui is a man “living on rice and a ladle of water” without complaint. Confucius asks how he could dare compare himself with Hui, whom he clearly admires.
Comparing himself to another man, he says that when this man learns one thing, he understands ten things, whereas Confucius claims only to understand two himself.
This very honest character shows up continually in the Analects. The voice is usually very consistent. Any variation of character would actually be suspect. Like Socrates, a real person is clearly visible.
Confucius is old China at its best and most thoughtful. Read this in company with the Tao Teh Ching, and you’ll encounter two key facets of a world of thought you may never have believed possible.
Suggestion: Read when you have no distractions and are in a frame of mind able to absorb this text. It will be worth it.