An Introduction to The Analects of Confucius

Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius

Imagination. That one word sums up Confucius and the influence of his teachings. Confucius’s critics dismissed him as a narrow-minded pedant, but he was anything but that.

He offers invaluable insights on how to live your life.

Don’t just earn your keep and rest on your days off – look, learn, imagine, teach. Live your work (and certainly don’t just work to live, if you can help it). Think about it, ponder it, and find elements of lasting reflection even in the simplest of daily activities.

In this lecture, Professor LaFleur helps us navigate through the book’s tangle of questions, answers, and observations by introducing us to the world of Confucius’s imaginative ideas about living in society.

An outline of the content in this lecture:

Imagination and Engagement

  • Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination is a classic of social thought. In this slender volume, Mills writes about his work not as if it were a job; for Mills, his work seemed to be an all-encompassing outlook on the world. In other words, real imagination and creativity had to be a full-time occupation. It couldn’t just be turned on and off.
  • Mills continues by underlining how essential this combining of ideas that he described really is—and how subjective (and sometimes even unacademic) it all feels. Mills says that truly, deeply imaginative social thinkers cannot, will not, and could never close it down. They are always thinking, always reflecting, and always learning new things about a changing world. Such imagination feeds on every experience that we have, and it goes so far beyond simply earning a living as to be in a different category of entrepreneurship altogether.
  • “Go all in,” Mills almost shouts at his readers. Risk having loose, sloppy, and first-draft-style ideas. Sense that “this thing” over here and “that thing” over there might be related. Then mull it over, talk about it, and dive into more analysis. Don’t sit on the sidelines, and don’t check out after a good day’s work. Live your work, and then share it with others.
  • Wright Mills was onto something, and Confucius likely would have agreed with him. People have a thirst for knowledge and for lessons they can internalize—lessons that might make them better individuals, better family members, and better members of larger communities.
  • At least in the West, we too often hear these lessons through the voice of individual character. But what we are starved for—often without fully realizing it—is a different kind of lesson: We want to know how to live with integrity with others. No amount of personal integrity alone can work if we don’t know how to carry out our lives with other people, in community, in society.
  • What we must learn is that living well in the world (and solving the large and small challenges all around us) requires a remarkable combination of ethical and social imagination.
  • From the University of Hawaii to Harvard, and from Montana to Texas—and all throughout North America, Europe, and the rest of the world—courses in Chinese philosophy have produced robust enrollment figures, even at a time when many people bemoan the sheer practicality of interests among students. Something is going on, and we would do best to listen to that hunger for understanding.

The Western Approach

  • One of the best books about philosophy is Bryan Magee’s memoir, Confessions of a Philosopher. Although Magee’s book is squarely about the Western philosophical tradition, he raises an important point for all of us early on.
  • Magee feels that the profession of philosophy has failed us and that it has done so exactly when we need it most. He describes his own experience studying philosophy at Oxford in the 1950s and being disgusted with what he regarded as the tiny little questions about how we use language favored by analytical philosophers of that era. It wasn’t until he undertook a year of study at Yale in the 1960s that, in reading Immanuel Kant’s three critiques (The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason, and The Critique of Judgment), Magee found a philosopher who asked big philosophical questions on what life in our world is all about.
  • But here’s the problem: Westerners tend to think about big questions through one of two lenses. Sometimes we contemplate the great structures of the universe or the vast sweep of human history, and other times we study the tiny structures that shape our knowledge, from DNA to subatomic particles. Both lenses embody the Western emphasis on logic, rationality, and a highly individualistic view of the world.
  • Confucius certainly doesn’t seem to be looking at the world through those lenses, nor does he seem to be asking the big questions of which Bryan Magee spoke. Immanuel Kant asked how we know what we think we know. He asked about our aesthetic standards. He argued for uncompromising ethical standards. How could Confucius ever compete with that?
  • In fact, Confucius’s Analects does deal with the big questions. Questions don’t get any bigger than how we should live our lives with and among others.

The Confucian Approach

  • In years past, the consensus among students and professors of Chinese studies was that Confucius was an impractical, rulemaking bore. The general view was that he had little to teach us in modern society and that the Analects was only of value for what it could tell us about China’s imperial past. The idea that Confucius could be the carrier of a vital message, of a way of knowing and acting in the world, struck many academics as nonsense.
  • Confucian engagement differs radically from many Western ideals of disengaged study from the outside. To comprehend the Analects, you must be all in. You must enter the conversation, the complex exchange of questions and answers, assertions and observations, challenges and retorts that make up the gentle pedagogical rhythms of the Analects.
  • The Analects welcomes the reader who is willing to engage with it. But learning to do so can admittedly be challenging. What follows is an example of this type of exchange, so that you can see how you might enter the conversation of the Analects
  • A large number of entries in Confucius’s Analects set up a special kind of social scene. It is one in which someone (sometimes dukes and territorial governors, other times his own students) ask him a question. His answers can help us to enter the growing dialogue. Be sure to listen for these social interactions.


The Master said, “Zilu! Have you heard of the six negative qualities and the six positive qualities?” “No, I haven’t,” replied Zilu. “Well, sit down then,” said the Master. “I will instruct you. Wanting to be consummate in conduct but not wanting to study—that is a first flaw, and it will lead to fatuousness. Wanting knowledge but not wanting to study—that is a second flaw, and it will lead to rootlessness.”

The Master continues:

“Wanting to be true to one’s word, but not wanting to study—that is a third flaw, and it leads to impairment. Wanting to be upright, but not wanting to study—that is a fourth flaw, and it leads to impudence. Wanting to be brave without wanting to study—that is a fifth flaw, and it leads to disorder. Finally, wanting to be solid and firm but not wanting to study—that is a sixth flaw, and it leads to foolhardiness.”

  • This kind of entry teaches the reader (or listener) how to enter the conversation. In this passage, Confucius uses a series of ordinary words and contrasts them with studying or not studying. People who confronted Confucius’s teachings during the master’s lifetime, as well as in the decades and centuries that followed, were hearing something different from the ways they used those words.
  • Confucius used concepts in new and sometimes startling ways. Interactions like the one above are an example of Confucius teaching his listeners how to think creatively—imaginatively—and to continue to do so for themselves and for others.
  • If you are still struggling to grasp how the text of the Analects works, don’t despair. There will be many more opportunities in this course to understand it. Rest assured that you’re not alone; plenty of people who earnestly wish to understand Confucius’s message have tried (often repeatedly) to do so.
  • The Analects is difficult to penetrate at the outset. But if you can master the essentials of reading it, you will find yourself greatly rewarded and your life enriched, as many persistent readers have discovered. To do so requires that you enter the world of the text in a way that is different from the one in which most of us were trained.
  • Imagine what it was like in a much earlier era, when information at the click of a button was a thing of utter fantasy. Imagine a world in which the gift of a book could change your life forever. Imagine a world in which you didn’t just read, but read, reread, read again, and lived a book. It is so far from the way that we think today that we need to remind ourselves of the power that a single book can contain.
  • Confucius’s Analects contains that kind of transformative power, and you can experience it for yourself if you approach the book in the right way. It must be read, reread, and lived.

 Questions to Consider

  1. The Western philosophical tradition places a heavy focus upon “rationality” in decision-making. Confucius maintains that one must be “all in.” What are the implications of being personally invested in how and what one learns?
  1. Is it possible to be “Confucian” outside of China?


Image of Professor Robert Andre LaFleur

From the lecture series Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius
Taught by Professor Robert Andre LaFleur, Ph.D.