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What are the Analects of Confucius?

Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius is a collection of sayings attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The term analects derives from a Greek word meaning “to gather up.” The Analects of Confucius was compiled by Confucius’ contemporaries, students, and followers. The individual remarks in the Analects form the basis of Confucianism, which redefined the ancient Chinese worldview.

The exact history of the Analects of Confucius is murky. Confucius died early in the fifth century BC—and in the third century BC, the Chinese emperor ordered a widespread destruction of books. While limited copies of some works were kept, this event eliminated many texts that could have been used to trace the history of Confucian thought. The Analects is also virtually the only source of biographical information about Confucius himself. It seems there were several competing versions of the Analects in circulation until a scholar compiled the version now considered “official,” around the time of Christ.

The Analects of Confucius contains separate, brief dialogues or declarations. Each of these is meant to explain some aspect of Confucian philosophy, which is roughly focused on humanism and altruism. The book contains little reference to the spiritual world or the supernatural. The focus is on ethical conduct and the proper way to live in the present world.

It is sometimes claimed that Confucius expressed the same idea as found in the Golden Rule in the Bible. In statement 15:23, Confucius refers to “reciprocity” as an ethical ideal, then says, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.” While this is superficially similar to the command given in Scripture, it is a negative, lacking the mandate for positive action found in the Bible (Matthew 7:12). Confucius’ rule reins in our actions; Jesus’ Golden Rule requires us to act.

Since the Analects is not a single, continuous narrative, many readers rely on commentaries to explain its meaning. This creates an interesting parallel with the Qur’an as used in Islam. Both texts are compilations of oral statements and lack a rigid structure; both are understood more through commentaries than by direct study. Unlike the Qur’an, however, the Analects of Confucius is not held up as inspired, perfect, or divine by Confucianists. Nor is the text believed to be an exact transcript; rather, the statements in the Analects are considered summaries and paraphrases.

Over time, this collection of statements by Confucius gained popularity and importance. By the middle ages, the Analects was a foundational text of Chinese society. While modern worldviews, such as those related to communism, have sought to brush those texts aside, the influence of Confucianism and the Analects is still a dominant force in Chinese culture.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022