Finally I have finished reading the Analects of Confucius, or Master Kong as he is actually named. This work of Chinese philosophy (or religion, depending on how you define Confucianism) is quite different from the works of the Western thinkers I’ve read. It requires a lot of effort to understand. Even after reading the introduction and the explanatory notes, many questions remain.
It was difficult and at times frustrating and tiresome to read, so I took a long break from reading when I finished reading the introduction and the first few books. Only many months later, when I arrived in Nepal, I finished the rest of the book. In fact the book isn’t long at all, I read the English translation published in the Oxford University Press World Classics series which is only 82 pages and the introduction is 27 pages. Yet reading still takes a lot of time because it’s not easy to understand. I’m very glad to have read this work of literature because it offered me more insight into Eastern philosophy.
The Prince by Machiavelli, the previous book I read, is far more accessible by contrast. Of course my understanding of the work is not aided by the fact that I’m a Westerner and probably do not have as much understanding of the ancient Chinese culture as the average well educated Chinese person. I’m quite sure though that a Chinese reader would have less difficulty understanding The Prince than I have to understand The Analects.
The reason for this is that Machiavelli was a master of rethoric, and that The Analects is a loose collection of sayings by Master Kong and a description of his life written by his disciples. They did not manage to produce a coherent, consistent work. This can be noticed in the explanatory notes of my edition, in which the translator comments in more than just a few instances that a passage doesn’t make sense, doesn’t have a connection to the rest of the chapter or that there is no consensus about the meaning of certain passages. It would have been a much better work if Master Kong had decided to write it by himself instead of his disciples doing the work.
The humanism as propagated by Master Kong can be noticed in book 12, chapter 2 and later in 15.24, which celebrate the ethic of reciprocity. However, these are contradicted by the importance ascribed to family relations by Master Kong which can apparently overrule his ethic of reciprocity. See 13.18 for example, where Master Kong judges a son who bore witness against his father who had stolen a sheep to be not upright. He says that fathers and sons who are upright cover up for each other. Another example of contradiction is the mysogynism in 17.23. Of course you shouldn’t expect a person who lived in China during the 6th and 5th century BCE to have a positive attitude about the rights of women, but if you are so enlightened and wise as Master Kong I expect differently. For example, John Stuart Mill, the famous 19th century British philosopher, propagated equal rights for women at a time when unequal rights for women in English society were not questioned. While I’m critical of some of Master Kong’s ideas, I definitely admire his propagation of humanism and meritocracy.
While the Maoist revolution in China broke with Confucian values, I wonder to which degree Confucian principles are still adhered to by the current Chinese government and Chinese society at large. Master Kong preferred leadership of an autocrat over a unified Chinese state over other forms of government and condemned in specific the upheaval created by the wars between the various Chinese states at the time. Autocratic leadership is good according to him as long as the ruler shows humaneness (ren) and lets the Way (dao) prevail in his state. I think his ideas can be reconciled with the rule of the current government which works to enhance the standard of life of it’s citizens through more economic growth and such. Yet in the process it also falls short because of it’s disregard for human rights.