The Analects of Confucius (5th c. BCE?)

Prof’s Notes

The Analects are a list of sayings attributed to a Confucius, c. 551-479 BCE by his disciples/students. It’s unclear when the text was compiled or who the compiled the final version, but scholars suggest it was available in its present form by the Han dynasty (c. 200 BCE-200 CE).

The Analects (short sermons or lessons, of a sort) were compiled after Confucius’s death and address a wide range of concerns. Some of the themes pick up where we left off with Epictetus and Epicurus — right relationships with family and friends, conceptions of virtue, the intersection of internal thoughts and the external world, how we should think about material goods (including wealth and our bodies). Some of the themes are new to the course – the idea of defining how best to govern, for instance.

A word about the translation: I’ve chosen this one because I was impressed not only by the author’s credentials but also by his transparency about the difficulties of translation. Muller provides extensive commentary about why he’s chosen to translate passages in particular ways and, best of all, includes notes about how his understanding of some passages and ideas has changed from his first translation (1990) to the present (the most recent update was December 2018). I’ve included a few of his comments in the yellow notes. To view his entire text, check out the link below.

If you’d like to see a completely different take for comparison, UB Libraries has electronic versions of older translations (from 1895 and1910, for instance) as well as a recent (2014) poetic translation by David Hinton.

The Analects (selections).

Translated By A. Charles Muller

1.1 The Master said: “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned? Isn’t it also great when friends visit from distant places? If people do not recognize me and it doesn’t bother me, am I not a noble man?”

1.2 You Zi said: “There are few who have developed themselves filially and fraternally who enjoy offending their superiors. Those who do not enjoy offending superiors are never troublemakers. The noble man concerns himself with the fundamentals. Once the fundamentals are established, the proper way appears. Are not filial piety and obedience to elders fundamental to the actualization of fundamental human goodness?”

1.3 The Master said: “Someone who is a clever speaker and maintains a contrived smile is seldom considered to be a really good person.”

1.5 The Master said: “If you would govern a state of a thousand chariots (a small-to-middle-size state), you must pay strict attention to business, be true to your word, be economical in expenditure and love the people. You should employ them [appropriately] according to the seasons.”

1.6 The Master said: “A young man should serve his parents at home and be respectful to elders outside his home. He should be earnest and truthful, loving all, but become intimate with his innate good-heartedness. After doing this, if he has energy to spare, he can study literature and the arts.”

1.7 Zi Xia said: “If you can treat the worthy as worthy without strain, exert your utmost in serving your parents, devote your whole self in serving your prince, and be honest in speech when dealing with your friends. If you do this and someone says you are not learned (xue 學), I would say that you are definitely learned.”

1.8 The Master said: “If the noble man lacks gravitas, then he will not inspire awe in others. If he is not learned, then he will not be on firm ground. He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber. When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t hesitate to correct it.”

1.9 Ceng Zi said: “When they are careful (about their parents) to the end and continue in reverence after (their parents) are long gone, the virtue of the people will return to its natural depth.”

1.10 Zi Qin asked Zi Gong: “When our teacher (Confucius) arrives in any country, he invariably finds out everything about its government. Does he seek this information? Or is it given to him?”

Zi Gong said, “Our teacher gets it by being cordial, upright, courteous, frugal, and humble. His way of getting information is quite different from that of other men.”

1.12 You Zi said: “In the actual practice of propriety, flexibility is important. This is what the ancient kings did so well— both the greater and the lesser used flexibility. Yet there are occasions when this does not apply: If you understand flexibility and use it, but don’t structure yourself with propriety, things won’t go well.”

1.16 The Master said: “I am not bothered by the fact that I am unknown. I am bothered when I do not know others.”

2.1 The Master said: “If you govern with the power of your virtue, you will be like the North Star. It just stays in its place while all the other stars position themselves around it.”

2.3 The Master said: “If you govern the people legalistically and control them by punishment, they will avoid crime, but have no personal sense of shame. If you govern them by means of virtue and control them with propriety, they will gain their own sense of shame, and thus correct themselves.”

2.7 Zi You asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said, “Nowadays filial piety means being able to feed your parents. But everyone does this for even horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference?”

2.13 Zi Gong asked about the character of the noble man. Confucius said, “First he practices what he preaches and then he follows it.”

2.14 The Master said: “The noble man is all-embracing and not partial. The inferior man is partial and not all-embracing.”

2.17 The Master said: “You, shall I teach you about knowledge? What you know, you know, what you don’t know, you don’t know. This is knowledge.”

2.19 The Duke of Ai asked: “How can I make the people follow me?” Confucius replied: “Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, and the people will follow you. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, and the people will not follow you.”

2.20 Ji Kang Zi asked: “How can I make the people reverent and loyal, so they will work positively for me?” Confucius said, “Approach them with dignity, and they will be reverent. Be filial and compassionate and they will be loyal. Promote the able and teach the incompetent, and they will work positively for you.”

2.22 Someone asked Confucius: “Why are you not involved in government?” Confucius said, “What does the Book of History say about filial piety? ‘Just by being a good son and friendly to ones brothers and sisters you can have an effect on government.’ Since this is also ‘doing government,’ why do I need to do ‘doing government?’”

4.1 The Master said: “As for a neighborhood, it is its ren that makes it beautiful. If you choose to live in a place that lacks ren, how can you grow in wisdom?”

4.2 The Master said: “If you lack ren you can’t handle long periods of difficulty or long periods of comfort. Humane men are comfortable in ren. The wise take advantage of ren.”

4.3 The Master said: “Only the humane person is able to really like others or to really dislike them.”

4.4 The Master said: “If you are really committed to ren, you will not have resentments.”

4.5 Confucius said, “Riches and honors are what all men desire. But if they cannot be attained in accordance with the Way they should not be kept. Poverty and low status are what all men hate. But if they cannot be avoided while staying in accordance with the Way, you should not avoid them. If a noble man departs from his fundamental goodness, how can he be worthy of that name? A noble man never leaves his fundamental goodness for even the time of a single meal. In moments of haste he acts according to it. In times of difficulty or confusion he acts according to it.”

4.7 The Master said: “People err according to their own level. It is by observing a person’s mistakes that you can know his/her goodness.”

4.10 The Master said: “When the noble man deals with the world he is not prejudiced for or against anything. He does what is Right.”

4.11 The Master said: “The noble man cares about virtue; the inferior man cares about material things. The noble man seeks discipline; the inferior man seeks favors.”

4.12 The Master said: “If you do everything with a concern for your own advantage, you will be resented by many people.”

4.13 The Master said: “If you can govern the country by putting propriety first, what else will you need to do? If you can’t govern your country by putting propriety first, how could you even call it propriety?”

4.14 The Master said: “I don’t worry about not having a good position; I worry about the means I use to gain position. I don’t worry about being unknown; I seek to be known in the right way.”

4.16 The Master said: “The noble man is aware of fairness, the inferior man is aware of advantage.”

4.17 The Master said: “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.”

4.18 The Master said: “When you serve your mother and father it is okay to try to correct them once in a while. But if you see that they are not going to listen to you, keep your respect for them and don’t distance yourself from them. Work without complaining.”

4.19 The Master said: “While your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away. If you do travel, you should have a precise destination.”

4.20 The Master said: “If, for three years (after your father’s death) you don’t alter his ways of doing things, you can certainly be called ‘filial.’”

4.21 The Master said: “Your parents’ age should not be ignored. Sometimes it will be a source of joy, and sometimes it will be a source of apprehension.”

4.22 The Master said: “The ancients were hesitant to speak, fearing that their actions would not do justice to their words.”

4.23 The Master said: “If you are strict with yourself, your mistakes will be few.”

4.25 The Master said: “If you are virtuous, you will not be lonely. You will always have friends.”

4.26 Zi You said: “In serving your prince, frequent remonstrance will lead to disgrace. With friends, frequent remonstrance will lead to separation.”

6.30 Zi Gong asked: “Suppose there were a ruler who benefited the people far and wide and was capable of bringing salvation to the multitude, what would you think of him? Might he be called humane?”

The Master said, “Why only humane? He would undoubtedly be a sage. Even Yao and Shun would have had to strive to achieve this. Now the ren man, wishing himself to be established, sees that others are established, and, wishing himself to be successful, sees that others are successful. To be able to take one’s own feelings as a guide may be called the art of ren.”

7.1 The Master said: “I am a transmitter, rather than an original thinker. I trust and enjoy the teachings of the ancients. In my heart I compare myself to old Peng.”

7.2 The Master said: “Keeping silent and thinking; studying without satiety, teaching others without weariness: these things come natural to me.”

7.3 The Master said: “Having virtue and not cultivating it; studying and not sifting; hearing what is just and not following; not being able to change wrongdoing: these are the things that make me uncomfortable.”

7.4 During the Master’s leisure time he was relaxed and enjoyed himself.

7.6 The Master said: “Set your aspirations on the Way, hold to virtue, rely on your ren, and relax in the study of the arts.”

7.12 The Master said: “If the attainment of wealth was guaranteed in its seeking, even if I were to become a groom with a whip in hand to get it, I would do so. But since its attainment cannot be guaranteed, I will go with that which I love.”

7.13 The things with which the Master was cautious, were fasting, war and sickness.

7.16 The Master said: “I can live with coarse rice to eat, water for drink and my arm as a pillow and still be happy. Wealth and honors that one possesses in the midst of injustice are like floating clouds.”

7.20 The Master said: “I was not born with wisdom. I love the ancient teachings and have worked hard to attain to their level.”

7.22 The Master said: “When doing something together as a threesome, there must be one who will have something to teach me. I pick out people’s good and follow it. When I see their bad points, I correct them in myself.”

7.26 The Master said: “I have not yet been able to meet a sage, but I would be satisfied to meet a noble man. I have not yet met a man of true goodness, but would be satisfied to meet a man of constancy. Lacking, yet possessing; empty, yet full; in difficulty yet at ease. How difficult it is to have constancy!”

7.30 The Master said: “Is ren far away? If I aspire for ren it is right here!”

7.34 The Master said: “I dare not claim to be a sage or a ren man. But I strive for these without being disappointed, and I teach without becoming weary. This is what can be said of me.”

Gongxi Hua said, “It is exactly these qualities that cannot be learned by the disciples.”

7.37 The Master said: “The noble man is always at ease with himself. The inferior man is always anxious.”

11.12 Chi Lu asked about serving the spirits. Confucius said, “If you can’t yet serve men, how can you serve the spirits?”

Lu said, “May I ask about death?” Confucius said, “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?”

11:20 Zi Lu asked if it was a good idea to immediately put a teaching into practice when he first heard it.

Confucius said, “You have a father and an older brother to consult. Why do you need to be so quick to practice it?”

Zanyou asked the same question. Confucius said, “You should practice it immediately.”

Gong Xihua said, “When You asked you, you told him he should consult his father and elder brother first. When Qiu (Zanyou) asked you, you told him to practice it immediately. May I ask why?”

Confucius said, “Qiu has a tendency to give up easily, so I push him. You (Zi Lu) has a tendency to jump the gun, so I restrain him.”

12.1 Yan Yuan asked about the meaning of humaneness. The Master said, “To completely overcome selfishness and keep to propriety is humaneness. If for a full day you can overcome selfishness and keep to propriety, everyone in the world will return to humaneness. Does humaneness come from oneself, or from others?”

Yan Yuan asked: “May I ask in further detail how this is to be brought about?” Confucius said, “Do not watch what is improper; do not listen to what is improper; do not speak improperly and do not act improperly.” Yan Yuan said, “Although I am not so perspicacious, I will apply myself to this teaching.” 

12.2 Zhong Gong asked about the meaning of ren. The Master said: “When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments.” Zhong Gong said, “Although I am not so smart, I will apply myself to this teaching.”

12.3 Sima Niu asked about the meaning of ren.

Confucius said, “The ren man is hesitant to speak.”

Niu replied, “Are you saying that ren is mere hesitancy in speaking?”

Confucius said, “Actualizing it is so difficult, how can you not be hesitant to speak about it?”

12:16 The Master said: “The noble man develops people’s good points, not their bad points. The inferior man does the opposite.”

12:19 Ji Kang Zi asked Confucius about government saying: “Suppose I were to kill the unjust, in order to advance the just. Would that be all right?”

Confucius replied: “In doing government, what is the need of killing? If you desire good, the people will be good. The nature of the noble man is like the wind, the nature of the inferior man is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass, it always bends.”


  1. From Muller: “Noble man” is an English translation for the Chinese term junzi 君子, which originally meant “son of a prince”—thus, someone from the nobility. In the Analects, Confucius imbues the term with a special meaning. Though sometimes used strictly in its original sense, it also refers to a person who has made significant progress in the Way (dao) of self-cultivation, by developing a sense of justice 義, by loving treatment of parents 孝, respect for elders 弟, honesty with friends 信, etc. Though the junzi is a highly advanced human being, he is still distinguished from the category of sage (shengren 聖人), who is, in the Analects more of a “divine being,” usually a model from great antiquity.

    The character of the noble man, in contrast to the sage, is being taught as a tangible model for all in the here and now. And although many descriptions of the requirements for junzi status seem quite out of our reach, there are many passages where Confucius labels a contemporary, or one of his disciples a “noble man,” intending a complement. Thus, the categorization is not so rigid. One might want to compare the term “noble man” to the Buddhist bodhisattva, in that both are the models for the tradition, both indicate a very high stage of human development as technical terms, yet both may be used colloquially to refer to a “really good person.”

  2. From Muller: The word ren 仁 is perhaps the most fundamental concept in Confucian thought. It has been translated into English as “benevolence,” “altruism,” “goodness”, “humaneness” etc. It is a difficult concept to translate because it doesn’t really refer to any specific type of virtue or positive endowment, but refers to an inner capacity possessed by all human beings to do good, as human beings should. [Prof. Bennett’s emphasis] It is the quality that makes humans human, and not animals. In earlier iterations of this translation I have gone through various transitions: at first I attempted to use a unified English rendering throughout the text. I then pursued a strategy of leaving untranslated, as ren. Now I am presently leaning in the direction of translating the term variously, according to the context, but at present, remnants of all three strategies remain in the text. I intend to eventually sort this out.

    In the Chinese “essence-function” 體用 paradigm, ren can be understood as the innate, unmanifest source of all kinds of manifestations of virtuosity: wisdom, filial piety, reverence, courtesy, love, sincerity, etc., all of which are aspects, or functions of ren. Through one’s efforts at practicing at the function of ren, one may enhance and develop one’s ren, until one may be called a noble man, or even better, a “humane person” 仁人. In the Analects, to be called a “humane person” by the Master is an extremely high evaluation, rarely acknowledged for anyone.

  3. From Muller: “Usage of the people according to the seasons” is extremely important in an agriculture-based society, where planting, cultivating, or harvesting a certain crop during a certain few-day period can be critical. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods in China, selfish and aggressive warlords frequently pulled farmers off their land at important farming times, to use them for public works projects, or have them fight in the ruler’s personal wars.

  4. From Muller: In the Confucian tradition, learning (xue) is more than intellectual, academic study, or the accumulation of facts (although this aspect is included). It is the process of manifesting one’s ren by developing oneself in self-reflection through the various types of human relationships.

  5. From Muller: Propriety is the English rendition of the Chinese li 禮. This is a word that also has a wide range of meaning in Classical Chinese thought, and is difficult to translate in a single word. Its most basic meaning is that of “ritual” or “ceremony,” referring to all sorts of rituals that permeated early East Asian society. The most significant of course, would be wedding ceremonies and funerals. But there were also various agricultural rituals, coming-of-age rituals, coronations, etc. Confucius was an expert on the proper handling of all sorts of rituals.

    The term li however, has, in the Analects, a much broader meaning than ritual, since it can also refer to the many smaller “ritualized” behavior patterns involved in day-to-day human interactions. This would include proper speech and body language according to status, age, sex— thus, “manners.” In this sense, li means any action proper, or appropriate to the situation. For instance, in the modern context, I might go up and slap my friend on the back. But I certainly wouldn’t to that to my professor, or to a student in my class whom I don’t know very well.

    In the Analects, li, as a general category, is clearly defined in a relationship with ren, where ren is the inner, substantial goodness of the human being, and li is the functioning of ren in the manifest world. That is to say, li is reciprocity 恕, filial piety 孝, fraternal respect 弟, etc.