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Analects of Confucius

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The Analects is a text compiled of the remarks and conversations of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, during the later years of his life (72-75 years old). The text, with its dialogues and reflections, takes place during the Warring States Period (475-222 BC)—a period of great turmoil and geopolitical restructuring when the vassals of the then incumbent sovereign (Zhou Dynasty) defected and declared themselves independent of Zhou, thereby becoming kingdoms in their own right. It is in this context that the Analects must be read and interpreted. 

Due to the regionalism and factionalism that plagued China at that time, Confucius outlines what is required on the part of individuals, communities, and local and national governors for a reconstitution of a unified, harmonious, peaceful, and orderly society. Thus the reader will encounter, time and again, Confucius’s emphasis on the need for the respect for one’s elders and authority figures, the need for all members of society to observe and abide by traditional rituals and ceremonies, and the need for all persons, especially those who govern, to cultivate the highest moral virtue, which Confucius terms “manhood.” This single virtue, says Confucius, is enough to guide one’s actions away from evil and crime and toward justice and peace. 

Alongside manhood, Confucius adds the necessity of cultivating a sense of filiality, or filial piety, which is a love and respect for one’s elders and authority figures. A population, says Confucius, that have internalized this sense of filial piety will be a people who ultimately govern themselves and thereby allow for the best form of governance on the part of politicians: governing with the least amount of coercion and punitive force. 

Regarding the structure of the Analects itself, these values of filial piety, brotherliness, and manhood recur time and again throughout—a feature of the text due to the fact that the Analects are in fact a compilation of Confucius’s ideas and advice that were written down and ultimately compiled by his disciples after his death. What the reader gathers from these compiled fragments, which refer to one other throughout the twenty books of the Analects, is an image of the ideal society as envisioned by Confucius—a society wherein each individual cultivates their moral character in such a way that both governors and the governed act toward a single and shared aim, which is the just and harmonious construction of a civil society based on the principles of filiality, brotherliness, and manhood.