Analects of Confucius and The Authentic Confucius

Annaping Chin

Our libraries give us only snippets of Confucius. One must dig deep to unearth his wisdom. I re-read The Analects of Confucius (Analects) and read Annaping Chin’s The Authentic Confucius side-by-side. Due to their common subject, I address both in these book notes. Chin (a Yale history professor) attempts to trace Confucius’ life in as much detail as possible, and intersperses her biography with quotations. While I commend her good intentions and patent scholarship, her book added little to the Analects themselves.

Confucius (c. 571-479) is likely among the five most influential and most studied humans who ever lived; yet, we have only fragments of what he said. He was the son of a commoner and inherited no privileges. He spent his working life in mid-level government jobs, including being a judge, but he was endlessly asked to counsel local rulers; he traveled extensively, usually with a handful of disciples.  Similar to Lao Tsu, Buddha, Socrates, and Christ, he neither sought nor accumulated wealth. He reflected the ultimate in humility, deflecting tributes and often saying, “I transmit; I do not create.” Confucius, who chose not to discuss gods or death, remains among the most venerated humans to ever trod our globe. His philosophy extolled morality and adherence to laws, as he saw both as essential to civilization and peace. His thoughts have been collectively referred to as “Confucianism”, although he did not found any group or encourage others to follow his ways.

Like Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and countless others, Confucius did not write, and, although his words were recorded years later, as best they could be remembered (as was the case with Jesus et al as well), they were endlessly revised by later scholars, and destroyed intentionally, when Confucius fell out of favor (for example, in 1300 or so when the Muslims controlled much of the civilized world or when the Communists took control of China in 1949), enough of Confucius’ thoughts (or thoughts attributed to him) survive to fill a small book. By 2000, the Chinese government had outgrown their fear of his kindness and wisdom and re-instated Confucius as “First Teacher”; his statues have been rebuilt and his words are, once again, back in Chinese schools. In any event, suffice it to say, we labor over fragments that survive this historical giant. Further, there are thousands of times as many words written about Confucius as he could have articulated in his lifetime.

There are many translations or versions of the Analects of Confucius. Most comprise about 150 pages of medium size font in a 5 x 7 inch book. So many of our proverbs can be found, in various forms, in Confucius, far too many to exhaust.

When we retreat to the snippets of words that remain attributed to Confucius, his words can sound very simple and even trite, but he was the first known source for many of these now ancient principles and sayings. Since all quotes of Confucius are likely approximations of his words at best, quotation marks may be misleading. They imply that these words are as close as can get to the authentic Confucius. A few, representative alleged remarks of Confucius follow:

[Taking Credit] “I transmit, but I do not create…

[Golden Rule]: Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself…

[Choosing Friends] Have no friends not equal to yourself… Love all but stay closest to those who are truly humane…

[Knowledge and Logic] One who simply learns but does not think will be bewildered; one who thinks but does not seek knowledge will be dangerous…

[Government] When people cannot or will not distinguish between what is right or wrong, their government must reward and punish to maintain order…

[Certainty] Nothing can be beyond doubt… Glib men are dangerous…Ask questions about everything…Nothing is immutable

[Caution] The cautious seldom err …

[Parents] Respecting one’s parents is among one’s most important duties…

[Teaching] Teach by example…Teachers cannot make the student learn; teachers should show the first corner of a square and let the student find the other three corners on his own… Rotten wood is beyond carving

[Food] Eat what is in season; eat only at mealtimes; don’t overeat or drink until you are addled…

[Speaking] Don’t say more than is necessary; don’t speak in a loud voice and speak slowly, and do not point or gesticulate…

[Death] Everything passes on like a river; day and night, it never ceases [but he never discussed death, per se]…

[Joy] Joy is to be found in eating course rice, drinking water and using one’s arm for a pillow…I am so full of joy that I do not notice the onset of old age

[paradoxically, he felt the heaviness of what he saw as his own failure]…

[Equality] By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they grow wide apart…

[Virtue] Virtue is the single most important quality…”

There are hundreds more than the foregoing, for which the reader must turn to the Analects.

No one has spoken with more brevity, humility or profundity and no one has made his views easier to grasp than did Confucius. It is sad, indeed, that we have so little text by which we can remember him. No one’s education can be complete without reviewing the Analects of Confucius.