The Analects of Confucius
by Confucius and his students
Published in 479 BC
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
Recently, I have spent a lot of time studying non-Western history. My main focus has been the Middle East, however I am now shifting east to study ancient China. I’ve watched a dozen documentaries, mostly about the three mythical dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou) and also about the Spring and Autumn Period. I recently listened to the entire History of China Podcast until the Song Dynasty, a show which I strongly recommend: https://thehistoryofchina.wordpress.com/
The Analects are a collection of Socratic dialogs between Confucius and his students. It reminded me a lot of “The Republic” and “The Death of Socrates,” and made me wonder if the two were somehow connected, perhaps through a more ancient tradition or through trade.
Unlike the Tao Te Ching, which is very vague and self-contradictory, the Analects are simple and straightforward. They eschew the questions of metaphysics, and instead focus on a range of down-to-earth issues such as friendship, what it means to be upright, morality at work, and matters of state.
There is no overarching narrative, although there are many reoccurring themes. If I had to pick three central themes / lessons from the Analects they would be:
1: Work hard to improve yourself in every way possible, and try to be elevate those around you without being narcissistic
2: Choose your friends carefully because foolish friends will cause you to act foolishly, and wise friends will help you be wise
3: Respect and honor your family, history, and origins
Some people have claimed that the teachings of Confucius constitute a religion, however that worldview perplexes me. Confucius never mentions anything mystical or supernatural, and always remains focused on questions of morality and good behavior. I think he is much more comparable to one of the Ancient Greek philosophers.
The Analects have many hidden gems and small universally applicable sayings. Some of my favorite are:
Confucius said, There are three types of friends who improve you, and three types of
friends who diminish you. Friends who are straightforward, sincere, and have learned much improve you. Friends who are fawning, insincere, and crafty in speech diminish you.
The Master said, The righteous man blames himself for lacking ability; he does not blame others for not recognizing him.
Take loyalty and trustworthiness as the pivot and have no friends who are not like yourself in this
Overall, I recommend the Analects both as a historical document (which is how I choose to read it) and as a self-help book. It is easy to understand, although knowing about the historical context greatly helps.
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