The Analects by Confucius (Kongzi)

Author: Nicholas Hudson (University of Hawaii) 

A foundational text of Confucianism, The Analects is a collection of dialogues, sayings, and observations involving Confucius (Kongzi) and his disciples. It is generally believed that Confucius’ disciples started to compose it shortly after his death in 479 B.C.E. and over the next two hundred or so years the text was added to and revised, perhaps becoming the received text around 150 B.C.E. Written during the Warring States Period, a time of great upheaval, much of the book can be seen as a response to violent social and political disorder. It opposes the use of force, advocating instead a government based on ritual and moral authority. Although Confucius describes himself as transmitter and not an innovator (Analects VII.1) and emphasizes the dao (way) of former kings, The Analects does not promote a simple return to the past. Rather, much of the text is concerned with reinterpretation; for example, the word jun, formerly referring to a martial nobleman, comes to mean a cultured noble man.

A wide-range of topics are considered, from self-cultivation to governing a nation. The focus is primarily ethical and political, though no clear distinction is made between the two. If anything, the book argues there is no such distinction. To properly govern, one must cultivate oneself and in cultivating oneself, one is contributing to the country’s governance.  Self-cultivation is practiced in a variety of ways but most importantly through li (rituals or manners) and music, two closely connected activities.  The Analects argues that societies should be ruled by moral individuals rather than by laws or force. This is in part due to the power it suggests that moral exemplars like Confucius himself have. Their lives exhibit de (virtue) that is both moral and powerfully charismatic.

The text presents a largely agnostic, non-supernatural ethic, focused on the here and now (Analects XI.12). It often stresses aspects of our daily life, such as li or family relations, that Western philosophy overlooks. One can read The Analects through the lens of different moral theories. It can be read as a virtue ethic because of its discussion of ren (benevolence/humanity), yi (righteousness/appropriateness), and other virtues; it can also be seen as a role ethic because it argues that one’s responsibilities stem from one’s role and relations to others; or it can be considered an ethics centering around role models. But in the end it speaks in a voice uniquely its own.

As perhaps the earliest work of Chinese philosophy, The Analects sets the stage for the philosophers to come, whether they build upon it or are opposed to it. Sometimes they do both: for instance, wuwei—non-action—becomes central to the Daoist critique of Confucianism but the term first appears in Analects XV.5. Mengzi and Xunzi carry on the tradition The Analects started. Mengzi, for instance, develops a Confucian account of human nature (xing) and Xunzi expands upon the importance of li. Rival schools such as the Mohists partially define themselves by attacking music and The Analects‘ agnosticism while the Legalist Hanfeizi insists laws, not individuals, should govern.”


Secondary Sources – Available Online
Secondary Sources – Scholarly Books and Articles
Compare/Contrast with


Numerous translations exist. Among the best are:

Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., trans. The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. Ballantine Books, 1999. As the subtitle says, this is a philosophical translation, one heavily influenced by their interpretation of The Analects. There is an introduction with an invaluable lexicon of important Chinese terms and it includes the Chinese text.

D.C. Lau, trans. The Analects. Penguin Classics, 1998. A straightforward translation with minimal notes by one of the best modern scholars. Three appendixes tell the life of Confucius, his disciples, and the textual history of The Analects. This may be the best translation for use with beginners because Lau makes it easier for them to read and provide their own interpretations.

James Legge, trans. Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean. Dover, 1971. Legge’s translation is from the 19th century, but while dated is still excellent and influential. It also has the Chinese text, copious notes, and two other important Confucian texts (The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean).

Edward Slingerland, trans. Analects: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries. Hackett Publishing, 2003. Traditionally The Analects would be read along with various commentaries. Slingerland intersperses his translation with selections from some of the most important commentaries.

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Secondary Sources – Available Online

Jeff Richy “Confucius.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Jeffrey Riegel. “Confucius.” Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy.

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Secondary Sources – Scholarly Books and Articles

Herbert Fingarette. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Waveland Press, 1998. A short, influential reading of The Analects. One of the first by a contemporary Western philosopher (the original was published in 1972) to take Confucius seriously and still one of the best.

David Hall and Roger Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. SUNY Press, 1987. The first of a series of collaborations, Hall and Ames read The Analects through a Whiteheadian/pragmatic lens.

P.J. Ivanhoe. Confucian Reflections: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Life. Routledge, 2013. In this brief book written for a general audience, Ivanhoe looks at specific topics of The Analects, e.g. music, examines them, and relates them to contemporary concerns.

David Jones, ed. Confucius Now: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects. Open Court, 2008. An excellent and wide-ranging collection of essays by some of the best current scholars which provides a good overview of current interpretations and interpreters.

Henry Rosemont, Jr. A Reader’s Companion to the Confucian Analects. University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2015. This brief introduction to The Analects focuses on how to read it, with many concrete and helpful suggestions.

Bryan W. Van Norden, ed. Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. Oxford University Press, 2008. Another excellent and wide-ranging collection of essays by some of the best current scholars. There is some overlap in authors with Jones’ volume (above), but the books complement each other well.

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Compare/Contrast with

Aristotle, particularly the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics; Mengzi; Xunzi

See Also: Xunzi on Morality and Human Nature, Mencius on Morality and Human Nature

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2 thoughts on “The Analects by Confucius (Kongzi)

  1. Pingback: Mencius (Mengzi) on morality and human nature – Global Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Xunzi on Morality and Human Nature – Global Philosophy

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