Prior historical knowledge requiredThe Analects is a collection of aphorisms, anecdotes, and other snippets of instruction compiled by followers of Confucius around 2,000 years ago. There are no doubt many different versions and editions of The Analects in English translation. The one I am reviewing is the ebook edition from Open Road Media, which is likely based on the public domain file of the James Legge translation from Project Gutenberg. There is no denying the importance of Confucius in Chinese history and Eastern philosophy, but how does The Analects hold up as a reading experience for the 21st century reader? To a Westerner, like myself, even if you habitually read philosophy, it is difficult to just pick up a copy of The Analects and extract the wisdom contained within it.
In form and structure, the Western text that most closely resembles The Analects would likely be the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The Analects is divided into 20 books, which are then divided into numerous chapters, most of which are only a sentence or a paragraph long. Some chapters consist of a few brief numbered passages. Like the Meditations, there is no discernible order to these chapters; for the most part they just fall where they may. While each individual chapter can be studied for its own merits, you’d really have to develop an intimate knowledge of the book as a whole in order to understand all the connections between the various chapters and form a complete picture of Confucian thought.
Though the teachings of Confucius form the basis for the Chinese religion of Confucianism, the philosophy of Confucius is really a secular philosophy that concentrates on ethics and politics rather than any metaphysical worldview. Confucius’s teachings were intended as training for scholars wishing to enter public service and work their way up the bureaucratic ladder of government. He also, however, looks into broader issues of ethics, interpersonal relations, right living, and personal happiness that may be relevant to anyone’s daily life. Some of the advice on governing may be applicable to the political and business worlds of today, but Confucius’s emphasis on knowing one’s place in the social strata is unlikely to be embraced by ambitious Western individualists. There are some similarities between The Analects and the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius in their advocation of resigning one’s self to the reality of one’s place in life. While the Stoic attitude might be simplistically summed up as, “You may be born a slave, but no one can enslave your mind,” the Confucian view in a nutshell might be something more like, “If you’re born a servant, be the best servant you can be.”
Just as the first book of the Meditations refers to a number of ancient Roman personages that the average modern reader is unlikely to be familiar with, The Analects is peppered with references to historical figures of China’s ancient past. Such references are pervasive throughout The Analects, to the point where you’d really need a master’s degree in Chinese history to figure out much of what’s being alluded to. There are plenty of passages that clearly state a code of conduct for right living, or list the admirable qualities of a superior man, but these are interspersed between anecdotes of dukes, government functionaries, and students of the Master, some of which seem to require prior knowledge of the characters mentioned. What’s a Westerner to make of such passages without detailed explanatory annotations? There is relevant wisdom in The Analects if you’re willing to dig for it, but rather than reading the original text most readers would probably be better off consulting a textbook that explains the teachings of Confucius in an orderly and accessible manner.