The Four Books

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ConfuciusFor many centuries, the core of Chinese education was focused on four classical works from the Confucian school: The Analects, The Great Learning, The Mencius, and Maintaining Perfect Balance. This didn’t really change until the arrival of the West and the industrial era was forced onto China in the 19th century.

These were sacred books and intimate knowledge of them was considered the mark of a literate, civilized person the same way knowledge of the Bible reflected the literate and cultured Christian in medieval times, as Daniel Gardner mentions in his introduction to his translation of The Four Books (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 2007). He also describes how Chinese literati shifted their attention from the earlier canon of The Five Classics to the new canon of The Four Books over many years.

Early this week I stumbled across a small treasure trove of books about Confucianism in a local bookstore, including translations and studies of these four books. One of these was the translation of the Analects by Arthur Waley; a book that had once been in my possession, now long departed. Plus I found a translation that includes selections from all four titles. This was timely: I have been meaning to study Confucianism and read its texts for the past year or two, but was always sidetracked by some other interest or hobby.

Like many Westerners, I grew up with a Charlie Chan-inspired image of Confucius as a caricature: a wise-cracking master of the one-liner, a Chinese Will Rogers, whose humourous words often concealed real wisdom, if you dug deeply enough. That impression was erased in the late 1960s and early 70s when I studied Eastern philosophy and religion more seriously. And with such knowledge, grew respect, if not necessarily wisdom.

Over the intervening years, my attention focused more specifically on Buddhism and I let my understanding and appreciation of other schools of thought lapse. Now, semi-retired, I have the time to rekindle my interest and restore my studies.

Confucianism, Wikipedia says, is an “…ethical and philosophical system, on occasion described as a religion…” and goes on in a scholarly way about it that I suspect will confuse many readers. Far clearer is the description from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

…a worldview, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. Sometimes viewed as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion, Confucianism may be understood as an all-encompassing way of thinking and living that entails ancestor reverence and a profound human-centred religiousness.

Confucius – properly Kongzi or Kong Qui – was a teacher and philosopher who lived in what has been called the ‘Axial Age‘ – the period of religious, social, political and philosophic discovery between roughly 800 and 200 BCE (before the Roman Empire; a period I am much drawn to). Karl Jaspers, who coined the phrase, describes the wealth of ideas that emerged in that time in his book, The Origin and Goal of History:

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.

Karen Armstrong wrote in depth about the period in her book, The Great Transformation, in which she noted:

The prophets, mystics, philosophers and poets of the Axial Age were so advanced and their vision was so radical, that later generations tended to dilute it. In the process, they often produced exactly the kind of religiosity that the Axial reformers wanted to get rid of. That, I believe, is what has happened in the modern world.

Bio.com tells us Confucius has been credited as writing and editing many works:

…These include a rearrangement of the Book of Odes as well as a revision of the historical Book of Documents. He also compiled a historical account of the 12 dukes of Lu, called the Spring and Autumn Annals. Lunyu, which sets forth Confucius’ philosophical and political beliefs, is thought to be compiled by his disciples. It is one of the “Four Books” of Confucianism that Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi, a self-proclaimed Neo-Confucian, published as Sishu in 1190. Far-reaching in its influence, Lunyu was later translated into English under the title The Analects of Confucius


The Biography site also includes an interesting series of videos that go through the life and works of Confucius; more may be found on YouTube and other sites

The Analects — sayings of Confucius, with later commentaries sometimes included, a bit like the Talmud – open with a declaration that learning is a pleasure.

The Master said: To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure?

I have always believed that, and strive daily to learn new things. But learning alone isn’t sufficient: one needs a moral and ethical base from which to develop: respect, loyalty, good filial behaviour, caring for others,  empathy, humility… attributes we associate with good and wise people, all of which are exposited in The Four Books.

There are many differences between Waley’s and Gardner’s translations. Waley’s version, translated in 1938, and owing a debt to to 19th century translation by James Legge, almost seems Victorian in its stiffness. Gardner’s is more flexible and modern and easier to read. The organization is different, too: Waley contains the entire text, arranged by books (I-XX) and then sayings start from one in each book  for a total of 499 items. Gardner uses a simple numbering without books, from one to 111, or  less than a quarter of the original total. Pity.

Fortunately, there are some other translations online that look equally good.

While one cannot simply assume another culture’s mores, practices or values into one’s own, there is a lot in these four books that translates well into modern, Western, practice and behaviour. That’s especially true of politics. Ethics, respect, humility, empathy, compassion, honesty – these have no cultural boundaries. What was true 1,500 years ago remains true today. it’s all about junzi, as Dr. Delagar explains:

Junzi is how a noble man behaves. It is what a noble man does, or should do. It is sometimes translated as “gentleman,” but that is to my mind a dicey translation, since gentleman in English has a concept of being highborn – as does “noble man,” frankly. The core concept of Confucius’ Junzi was that birth had nothing to do with it. Anyone, from a plowboy to the Emperor’s son, could be Junzi. It was in how you behaved, not in who you were born to. The Emperor’s son, if he failed to behave well, was not Junzi; if he behaved well, though, he was. Same for the plowboy.
Junzi means “being excellent.” It’s very like the Greek term arête, both in that it is difficult to translate, and that it is central to the philosopher’s thought (here, Confucius’s thought; there, Plato’s).

Junzi is certainly something all politicians should have, from local to federal. Sadly, that’s not the case. Being excellent would mean having to leave behind personal agendas, lobbyist influence, ideologies and the cloying, clinging support of sycophant bloggers, in order to work for the greater good.

Confucius also wrote about meritocracy, and about the almost untranslatable concepts of Li and Ren, as Dr. Delager further notes:

Li: the Way of Behaving. It includes ritual, manners, and morals. In Confucianism, all three of these are very closely linked. Practicing correct ritual behavior will make us moral men. This is not religious ritual, mind you: it is social ritual, like the proper way to enter a room, and how to greet someone; how to dress, how write a letter, how to speak to an ambassador, who opens a door for whom.
These rituals have to do how our world ought to be arranged. Confucianism teaching tells us that if the Li is practiced correctly, our souls and hearts will take care of themselves. (Be what you would seem; become the change you would see in the world; act and you will become.)
Ren: Being human. This is the Confucian concept of the golden rule – that we ought not to do to anyone else what we would not want done to ourselves.

Not wanting to run this out much longer, I will not reprint quotes from the Analects or the other books here – I’ll save that for another post.

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