BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The man of noble mind ...

Yeah, I had thought when I finally broke down and got Amazon's Prime service I'd not have to worry about ever nudging order totals toward a minimum number (which is one thing that Dover Thrift Editions are wonderful for), but ever since they've instituted the “add on” listings (which, unfortunately, includes our turtle's favorite food), I'm finding myself once again looking for a way to get an order up a couple of bucks without getting into a full-fledged additional book/garment/doohickey. Of course, the other thing that the D.T.E. books are great for is plugging holes in my education … and that's what's going on here with Confucius' The Analects (what, you read this in school?).

Of course, one of the challenges in trying to review ancient philosophical treatises is that they're hardly formatted with modern sensibilities in mind … not to mention that they're ancient and philosophy. Aside from those factors, this is laid out oddly … each “Chapter” (in the 20 “Books” that are organized in 10 2-Book “Volumes”) runs from 1 to 30 lines, and none taking up more than a single page, with my guess as to the average length being 6 lines (in blocks of text, not set up as “poetry” and/or bullet-points).

Confucius lived from 551 to 479 bce, which puts him well in front of the Big 2 monotheisms (although a few generations after Siddhartha Gautama and a generation or so after Lao-Tzu). There is an odd chronology up front here, which starts with the “semi-mythical first rulers”, Emperor Yao (c 2356 bce), and Emperor Shun (c 2255 bce), probably because Confucius refers to them with some frequency. Then a few historical dynasties, followed by some ancestors and immediate predecessors in Confucius' line. The main portion of this follows through his life, including the various positions he held, the periods he was in exile, and significant losses (his wife, his son, key disciples). The last two entries on the list are his own death, and the life data on Mencius, a century later.

There is also a list of 36 disciples, with some descriptive material … and in most cases at least two names. Obviously, over the centuries the details from Confucius' time have had plenty of opportunity to get hazy, re-interpreted, and subjected to linguistic shifts, so it's not terribly surprising that these names have gotten slippery, but it's confusing throughout this with the name in a particular “Book” appearing one way, and there having to be notation to “clarify” which person (both of the disciples, and various other characters – rulers, etc. – who weave in and out of this) is which … heck, even Confucius himself gets a half dozen other names that seem to be particular forms of address from assorted other speakers. Personally, I would have preferred it had all the players been relegated to “common English forms” of their Chinese names (like Confucius for K’ung-fu-tzu) rather than the “how do you pronounce that?” permutations with linguistic notation that I can't find in the Windows Character Map.

The Analects are set up thematically, with each of the 20 “Books” having a general subject under which the (what I take to be much-later-collected) assorted materials are organized. Some of these are “Concerning Fundamental Principles”, “Concerning the Sage in His Daily Life”, “Concerning Ancient Worthies”, and several that are less specific, such as “Chiefly on the Maintenance and Principles and Character”. Very little here is actually by Confucius, but is set up in blocks of “The Master said:” or bits about his activities … so it is all at second hand, at least.

I was disappointed that I only had a couple of my little bookmarks in this to point to the “good parts” to pass along here … so I'm going to be flipping through and looking for excerpts that seem like good examples of the whole. One of the most telling usages of Confucius is the idea of the Superior Man, who conducts his life appropriately, be this the ruler, or the commoner. There are several points where he is being asked about some seeming luxury (when he was serving at court), and he'd respond to the questioning disciple that there were forms to be followed, and without a robe of office, or a carriage, he'd not be doing the right thing in his activities. Confucius is quite hard on various leaders who he believes were taking rank and privilege that were unearned or not properly bestowed (especially in cases where power had been wrested – violently or otherwise – from the previously established ruler … in these cases he'd have nothing to do with the non-virtuous states).

One might ask, “what is the use of studying 2,500-year-old philosophy?”, well, as I've discovered in other books, the general tenor of the massive modern Chinese government is quite in line with Confucian thought … and the sort of expected relations between rulers and the ruled, states and their neighbors, and functionaries on all levels of bureaucracies as set out by Confucius is very much a template that can be used to gauge what is happening in and with China, as well as giving a guide as to what to expect from the Chinese (I'm certain that the C.I.A. has a number of scholars who know this stuff backwards and forwards on hand to put this sort of perspective into play).

Again, I'm having to snag most of these on the fly, so I'm not going to be telling you much of a “story arc” with broad strokes here … just trying to give you some sense of the book (oh, and the notation accompanying them here is my own extraction of the volume, book, and chapter numbering … and I'm avoiding ones with funky typography, so nearly all of the ones mentioning his disciples, etc., were skipped in the following).
V-I, B-I, C-III:
The Master said: “Artful speech and an ingratiating demeanour rarely accompany virtue.”

V-I, B-II, C-I:
The Master said: “He who governs by his moral excellence may be compared to the pole-star, which abides in its place, while all the stars bow towards it.”

The Master said: “One should not be concerned at lack of position, but should be concerned about what will fit him to occupy it. One should not be concerned at being unknown, but should seek to be worthy of being known.”

Once when the Master was standing by a stream he observed: “All is transient, like this! Unceasing day and night!”

The Master said: “If a ruler is himself upright, his people will do their duty without orders; but if he himself be not upright, although he may order they will not obey.”

Once when Fan Ch’ih asked about virtue, the Master said: “In private life be courteous, in handling public business be serious, with all men be conscientious. Even though you go among barbarians, you may not relinquish these virtues.”

The Master said: “When law and order prevail in the land, a man may be bold in speech and bold in action; but when the land lacks law and order, though he may take bold action, he should lay restraint on his speech.”

“There may perhaps be men of the higher type who fail in virtue, but there has never been one of the lower type who possessed virtue.”

The Master said: “To be poor and not complain is difficult; to be rich and not arrogant is easy.”

The Master said: “A wise man is not distressed that people do not know him; he is distressed at his own lack of ability.”

Confucius said: “Those who have innate wisdom take highest rank. Those who acquire it by study rank next. Those who learn despite natural limitations come next. But those who are of limited ability and yet will not learn – these form the lowest class of men.”

The Master said: “It is only the very wisest and the very stupidest who never change.”

1. The Master said: “He who does not know the divine law cannot become a noble man. 2. He who does not know the laws of right conduct cannot form his character. 3. He who does not know the force of words, cannot know men.”
One other thing … as is the case frequently with the Dover Thrift Editions, this is a reprint of a much older book, specifically an edition put out in Scotland in 1910. I went looking for an on-line version to pass along to you, and was surprised to see that the “Volume/Book/Chapter” organization here seems to have disappeared in more recent presentations. Needless to say, I don't have the experience with Chinese texts to be able to figure out if the “chapter” breaks here are as notably separate in the original materials, but from what I saw poking around on the Web, these seem to have gone out of favor, being replaced with simple paragraph breaks (although I think the format here does do a better job of separating individual “stories”, which might tend to blur into a somewhat less coherent – not that this is particularly coherent – narrative).

Anyway, The Analects, being the classic that it is, can no doubt be found pretty much anyplace they have philosophical books … and the Dover Thrift Edition has a whopping $3.50 cover price, so if you want something more tangible than that link above, cost shouldn't be much of a factor. To be honest, I can't say that I really enjoyed reading this, but it was quite interesting, especially as projected to current global politics. Hey, it's cheap, it's a short read (under 130 pages), and it will make you sound smarter than you were going in … what's not to like?

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Tags: book review
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