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Selections From The Analects

Passage 3: Proper Behavior

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Outline

  1. Snubbing Rú Bēi
  2. Observing Proprieties
  3. What to Esteem, What to Hate

Procursus: This passage, still from Book 17, shifts the topic back from Confucius’ unsuccessful job interviews to his concern with propriety and with behaving like the wonderful people who populated the admired, if perhaps imaginary, golden age of the remote past.

Omitted here is an admonition (chapters 9-10) to the disciples to immerse themselves in the Book of Poetry (Shī Jīng 诗经), as Confucius has been doing. (The version we have is his abridgement of it.) There they will learn to stimulate the mind, learn sociability, control feelings of resentment, and so on.

Confucius then (chapters 11-19) returns to a favorite subject, much stressed in commentaries about the priorities of Confucianism, and that is lǐ , variously glossed “ritual,” “etiquette,” and “propriety.” Confucius waxes rather peevish on the subject. Briefly, the ever venerable ancients practiced lǐ and we don’t, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.


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Snubbing Rú Bēi

Procursus: We pick up the narrative with Confucius deliberately slighting a would-be visitor named RÚ Bēi 孺悲, apparently a petty official in the state of Lǔ —some say possibly a former associate of Confucius— who did something disgraceful and now seeks an interview, possibly so that he can use his connection to Confucius to claim he is more moral than he is now seen to have been. (Historians do not know more than this about him.)

An important point here is that Confucius claims to be sick, but obviously is not. In other words he is not above the “little white lie” of routine social interaction. But he also deliberately reveals that he is lying in order to communicate a clear snub. When, exactly, is it okay, according to Confucianism, to snub people?

Dramatis Personae


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Observing Proprieties

Procursus: For Confucius, lǐ —“ritual,” “etiquette,” or “propriety”— is a matter of history, not of convenience. If following the rules of etiquette is burdensome, so be it. In this passage, his student ZǍI Yǔ 宰予 argues that a requirement of mourning for three years for a deceased parent has negative consequences in areas that Confucius cares about. The sage (angrily?) tells him to do what he pleases, but as soon as Zǎi leaves, Confucius, always ready to pass judgments on people, condemns him for his lack of virtue.

Dramatis Personae


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What to Esteem, What to Hate

Procursus: Confucius liked music and poetry (and even divination) and therefore considered them a good way for a “gentleman” or jūnzǐ 君子 to pass time. He was far less patient with anything else that was not obviously morally uplifting.

But his disciples were always trying to get him to be more precise, especially in cases where one virtue might conflict with another. As we have seen, Confucius was willing to tell a lie to maintain propriety. Does that mean propriety, which he values, is more important than sincerity, which he also values? Is righteousness even better than propriety? Does valor rank above loyalty? Does loyalty to a prince stand above loyalty to a parent? Some of these rankings never did get quite sorted out. In this section, two of his disciples are trying to pin him down on these rankings. (A listing and discussion of many of the key terms used in Confucian philosophy and ethics is available on this web site. Link)

Dramatis Personae


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