Understanding the Literary Style of the Analects

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

  • The Analects, Book 1

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Joel Kupperman, Classic Asian Philosophy, ch. 5.
  • Amy Olberding, ‘It’s not them, it’s you: A case study concerning the exclusion of non-Western philosophy’, Comparative Philosophy 6.2 (2015): 14-34.

Suggested Courses

  • Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics, Introduction to Asian / Chinese Philosophy, Philosophy of Literature, Metaphilosophy

Overview

On a first reading – and a second and third - Analects does not always seem to Western readers like a philosophical work. In place of crisp definitions, arguments, and replies to criticisms, one finds anecdotes, snippets of conversations, and descriptions of what might seem trivialities – like how Confucius liked to straighten his mat! Many therefore find Analects dull, puzzling, strange, cryptic, frustrating or – worse - as a pseudo-philosophical text empty of any genuine moral insight. Such attitudes are encouraged by a history of racist and distorting stereotypes of aged sages spouting cryptic lines of ‘Oriental wisdom’.

Addressing the different and difficult literary style of Analects is a crucial first start to its philosophical study. Indeed, the style and the substance of its moral vision cannot be easily prised apart – for a choice of literary style can, as Martha Nussbaum reminds us, itself be the result of a philosophical choice. Analects is not a book written by Confucius but a set of observations, remarks, and other material collected and edited by disciplines. Moreover, the text is a product of the ancient period of a culturally and geographically distant culture – one with its own literary and philosophical styles and norms. Modern-day Western readers of the Analects therefore need to cultivate new skills and sensitivities in order to profitably read the text.

Book 1 offers many opportunities to develop these skills or virtues. Much of it consists of assertions, warnings, statements, and rhetorical questions – many without the explicit supporting chains of argument many readers will expect. Most of them involve a single character speaking, without replies or criticisms from others – in a way many might feel lacks the dialectical aspect definitive of ‘good philosophy’. Many virtues and qualities and concepts are used but not defined – like he (harmony) or xue (learning) – which might encourage worries about vagary. But each of these reactions should be reflected on carefully: they may well reflect uncritically inherited presuppositions about the literary norms appropriate to philosophy. Perhaps indirectness is a deliberate feature used for good reason, even if that reason is not clear to those trained to prize clarity and directness above all else? Perhaps leaving crucial terms undefined is a way of encouraging us to actively reflect on their meaning?

Reflecting on the literary style of Analects – its anecdotes, stories, metaphors, images, and observations – is a way of inspiring moral reflection. A moral text that describes the sayings and doings of lively characters with distinct personalities may have a reach and accessibility that more ponderous tomes lack. Certainly we ought to avoid reading Analects in a way that avoids uncritical scorn for its style – as a dull collection of “fortune cookie wisdom”, as Joel Kupperman puts it. An informed sensitivity to the philosophical significance of literary style invites us to exercise a set of virtues, not least the humility and patience needed if we are to set aside our impatient prejudices about what philosophical texts ‘should’ be like.

Discussion Questions

  • Does the literary style of Analects remind you of other ethical and spiritual writings from the Western tradition?
  • What advantages might there be to a text that relies more on characters, conversations, and anecdotes than the explicit giving of arguments and objections?
  • Do you develop a sense of what Confucius is like from Book 1 of Analects?

Activities

Ask the students to read Book 1 of the Analects in advance of the class. During class, divide them into small groups and ask them to go through Book 1 as a group. Ask them to comment on the literary style – on the format, the style, how it is written, what features it does and does not have (eg lots of questions, lots of assertions). Then ask each group to submit their observations – orally or in written form – and use this as a basis for a brief commentary of your own. For instance, if they note the ‘The Master said…’ format, you could discuss the evident fact of his disciples’ respect for him, using this to reflect on the nature of moral authority.

Author Information

Ian James Kidd (University of Nottingham)
ian.kidd@nottingham.ac.uk