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Confucius' Analects

Confucius, since he lived in a war-torn society, was largely concerned with

improving government and society. He was convinced that the problem with
government and society was a lack of virtue. There were not enough
government workers of the ideal kind that Confucius's pupil Zizhang

A public servant who on confronting danger is prepared to lay down his life,
who on confronting gain concentrates on what is right, who when sacrificing
concentrates on reverence, who when mourning concentrates on grief
should definitely be all right. (19:1, Analects)

Since it was the case that government workers and officials would be chosen
from the people themselves, Confucius worked hard at training his students
(most of whom would likely go on to service in government) to make them
virtuous. His belief was that if he could train virtuous persons who then went
on to government, those students (or whoever) would serve as examples for
the common people, who would then in turn become virtuous themselves.
This is due to Confucius’s belief that people tend to gravitate towards and
copy virtuous behavior. Think of Jesus, or Abe Lincoln. People gravitate
towards emulating their behaviors because – Confucius would say – they are
good exemplars with ethical characters. They are “polestars”. He says:

The Master said, “The rule of virtue can be compared to the Pole Star which
commands the homage of the multitude of stars without leaving its place”.
[II, 1]

In his ethical philosophy, we see that Confucius is concerned most with

character. At the start of the Analects he says:

The gentleman devotes his efforts to the roots, for once the roots are
established, the Way will grow there from. Being good as a son and obedient
as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man’s character.

In order to help others, then, it is best that one focus one’s efforts on one’s
own character. If one succeeds in developing a better and better ethical
character, then one will succeed inevitably with respect to becoming a
‘polestar’. People will look up to you, and emulate your behavior. So if you
have a good character, they wil try to acquire the traits (or virtues) that you

Having the right character requires that the man possess virtue. What is
virtue, however? Partly, it is a kind of “disposition” (we will see this again in
Aristotle). A man has character X at least partly because he is disposed to do
things associated with X (a man of character trait ‘courage’ is likely to do
courageous things). So being virtuous requires having the right habits.

Confucius says:

Tzu-hsia asked: ‘Her entrancing smile dimpling, Her beautiful eyes glancing,
Patterns of color upon plain silk’. What is the meaning of these lines? The
master said: “The colors are put on after the white”. “ Tzu-hsia replied “Does
the practice of the rites likewise come afterwards?”. The Master said: “It is
you, Shang, who have thrown light on the text for me. Only a man like you
can discuss the Odes”. [III, 8]

Here we find Tzu-hsia suggesting that one must first have the right habits
(the white) before one turns to refining one’s character (the colors).
However, as Confucius often points out, having the right habits is not enough
for virtue. Note where it is written:

The Master said: “Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments,
and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of
shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will,
besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves”. [II, 3]

The Master said: “The common people can be made to follow a path but not
to understand it”. [VIII, 9]

From the first quote we are led to believe that people who do the right
things, but not from having a ‘sense of shame’ (which goes beyond having
the right habits) are not virtuous. Moreover, we see from the second quote
that most people are not virtuous. Obviously, then, ‘being virtuous’ or ‘being
a good person’ means more to Confucius than simply “doing the right acts”.
People who are habituated not to steal don’t steal. But yet he is unwilling to
call such people virtuous if the habit is the only reason they don’t steal. So
Confucius is an agent ethicist (which seems evident). Acts are “right” when
they proceed from people with the right characters, which means that what
is going on inside the agent is what has primary importance (does the agent
have the right character, the right intentions, and so on). Note this aphorism,
which clearly indicates Confucius’s leanings:

Meng Wu Po asked whether Tzu-lu was benevolent. The Master said “I

cannot say”. Meng Wu Po repeated the question. The master said “Yu can be
given the responsibility of managing the military levies in a state of a
thousand chariots, but whether he is benevolent or not I cannot say”. What,
then, about Ch’iu? The Master said “Ch’iu can be given the responsibility as
a steward in a town with a thousand households or in a noble family with a
hundred chariots, but whether he is benevolent of not I cannot say”. What
about Ch’ih? The Master said: “When Ch’ih, putting on his sash, takes his
place at court, he can be given the responsibility of conversing with the
guests, but whether he is benevolent or not I cannot say”. [V, 8]

Note here that Confucius’s point is this: one can know about what one has
direct observable evidence. He can tell whether one his disciples can
converse with the guests, or manage the levies. Evidence of these skills
comes from observing those people’s acts. But with benevolence, acts are
not entirely revealing. One can do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or
do the right thing but still have a bad character. So Confucius is pointing out
here that since benevolence has to do with a person’s character, one cannot
know for sure whether another man is benevolent since one cannot see their

Returning to our question, however, what does Confucius think is missing

when he says that people who have only good habits are not virtuous? What
is missing, it seems, is understanding. Confucius (like Aristotle) thinks that
the virtuous person is not only habituated to do the right thing, but does it
for the right reason, which requires that the person understand why that
habit is a good one to have. This implies that virtue requires understanding,
or wisdom. Without understanding or wisdom, virtue cannot exist. He says:

The Master said: “It is these things that cause me concern: failure to
cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability,
when I am told what is right, to move to where it is, and inability to reform
myself when I have defects.” [VII, 3]

Note here that Confucius links understanding what one has learned (perhaps
by habit or lesson) on a deeper level with virtue. The man of morality thus is
continually trying to achieve greater understanding, to move from a robotic
automaton (of habit) to an actual individual using reason. One can see this at
work all the time in the Analects – Confucius says that what is required of a
man is that he is motivated to learn.

Also notice that Confucius also appears to link not only understanding with
virtue, but courage. A man can never acquire the right habits without
courage. Moreover, to maintain the character means that the person is
disposed to continue doing the right sorts of acts, and this requires
continuing courage. Here Confucius explicitly links the need for courage with
(1) doing right things when they are called for and (2) reforming oneself
when one is in moral error.

What are the virtues, then? A quick read of the Confucian text reveals that
the central or cardinal virtue is benevolence or “love of mankind”. It is from
this virtue that all others are derived. How one becomes benevolent is, of
course, a matter of great textual discussion in the Analects. One thing is for
sure, though – Confucius thinks that a large part of what it means to be
benevolent is to be motivated to be benevolent, or to desire to have that
kind of character. He says:

The Master said: “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it
than it is here”. [VII, 30]

Obviously, however, this is but the first step. Central to a benevolent

character are two edicts. First, that one ought to “Do one’s best” and second
that one ought to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. So
a benevolent man does his best at applying the “golden rule” to his
behavior. A quick mistake, however, would be to assume that any character
is okay, such that I could have a submissive personality and thus treat others
badly in a feeble attempt to apply the golden rule as best I can. Other than
courage and wisdom, there are some central virtues that are derived from
benevolence, or loving mankind. There are:


The Master said: “Supreme indeed is the Mean as a moral virtue. It has been
rare among the common people for quite some time”.

Justice, Generosity, Respect, and Reverence

The Master said of Tzu-ch’an that he had the way of the gentleman on four
counts: he was respectful in the manner he conducted himself; he was
reverent in the service of his lord; in caring for the common people, he was
generous and, in employing their services, he was just. On becoming his
steward, Yuan Ssu was given nine hundred measures of grain which he
declined. The Master said “Can you not find a use for it in helping the people
in your neighborhood?”

A gentleman gives to help the needy and not to maintain the rich in style.
[VI, 4]


The Master told Ch’i-tiao K’ai to take office. Ch’t-taio K’ai said “I cannot trust
myself to do so yet”. The Master was pleased.


Yu Tzu said “To be trustworthy in word is close to being moral in that it

enables one’s words to be repeated”. [I, 13]
The Master said “Cunning words, an ingratiating face, and utter servility,
these things Tso-ch’iu found shameful. I too, find them shameful. To be
friendly towards someone which concealing one’s hostility, this Tso-ch’iu
found shameful. I too find this shameful”. [V, 25]


The Master said “Observe what a man has in mind to do when his father is
living, and then observe that he does when his father is dead. If, for three
years, he makes no changes to his father’s ways, he can be said to be a
good son”. [I, 11]

In serving your father and mother you ought to dissuade them from doing
wrong in the gentlest way. If you see your advice being ignored, you should
not become disobedient but remain reverent. You should not complain even
if in so doing you wear yourself out.” [IV,18]

All of this discussion, however, does not tell us what specific acts are
consistent with the virtues Confucius lays out. This leads us to his important
emphasis on the rites. Part of what it means to be a moral person is to
understand the rites and traditions of one’s land. What, though, can the rites
have to do with morality? As far as Confucius sees it, rites are like a
language. Without a language, ne cannot express oneself. Without rites, one
cannot express one’s character. One has to know what generosity would be
in a particular place before one’s generous character could shine through.
We see Confucius’s emphasis on learning the rites in Chapter IX. But an
important aphorism occurs in Book III, where he says:

When the Master went inside the Grand Temple, he asked questions about
everything. Someone remarked “Who said that the son of a man from Tsou
understood the rites? When he went inside the Grand Temple, he asked
questions about everything. The Master, on hearing of this, said “The asking
of questions is in itself the correct rite”. [III, 15]

Confucius’s point here is evident: when he is in a new land or a new place,

he must know how to express himself if he is to remain a person of high
character. Ending up, it should be noticed that Confucius thinks that the man
of morality has no real worries at all. Why is this? His belief is derived from
his thought that a man’s character is totally within his control. Since a man
of morality is only concerned with his character, he is only concerned with
what is in his control. Like Aristotle after him, Confucius does not see any
reason to worry about something that is totally within one’s control. The man
who lacks morality, however, has much to worry about. The reason is
evident: such a man is concerned with profit, and whether one profits or not
is not entirely within one’s control.
The Master said “The man of wisdom is never in two minds; the man of
benevolence never worries, the man of courage is never afraid’. [IX, 29]

The benevolent man (or ‘gentleman’), then, is continually trying to better his
character. He looks within himself, finds places which require moral
improvement, and is motivated to improve. Since ‘improvement’ is always
within one’s own control, it is not something to worry about, although living
the ‘road of benevolence’ is not easy. He says:

The Master said “In his heart for three months at a time Hui does not lapse
from benevolence. The others attain benevolence merely be fits and starts”.
[VI, 7]

One of the reasons benevolence is so hard to achieve is that it (benevolence,

morality) is necessarily opposed to self-interest. He says:

The Master said “The gentleman understands what is moral. The small man
understands what is profitable”.

The life of virtue is not for the sake of getting material rewards. One should
not be extravagant or self serving. Self cultivation is done for the betterment
of the rest of society. Confucius said that "In serving one's ruler one deals
reverently with the tasks involved and makes the livelihood involved a
secondary consideration" (15:38, Analects), and "A public servant who is
intent on the Way, but is as of bad clothes and bad food, is not at all fit to be
consulted" (4:9, Analects).
Thanks to Magaera Lorenz, from whom I took the template for this handout (I basically
added to what she herself had).