Confucius is (Almost) Always Talking to Someone

New readers of The Analects sometimes complain that Confucius seems to contradict himself. This is a serious complaint. After all, if Confucius isn’t consistent, how can we hope to make sense of The Analects as a whole? It just so happens that Gongxi Hua, one of Confucius’ students, struggled with this as well.

Zilu asked if it was a good idea to put a teaching into practice immediately after he first heard it.

Confucius replied, “While your father and older brother are still alive, how can you put teaching into practice immediately?”

When Ran You asked the same question, however, Confucius replied, “Oh yes, put it into practice right away.”

Gongxi Hua asked, “When Zilu asked you, you told him he shouldn’t be in such a hurry because his father and older brother are still alive. But when Ran You asked you the same thing, you told him to practice immediately. Can I ask why?”

Confucius said, “Ran You tends to hold back, so I push him forward. Zilu has the energy of two people, so I hold him back.” – Analects, 11.22

This passage is the key to resolving some of the seeming contradictions in The Analects. In fact, it’s a crucial passage for understanding the whole text.

As you read, keep in mind that Confucius is almost always talking to someone in particular. Although he holds to key principles consistently, he tailors his teaching for the needs of the specific student he’s speaking to at the moment. Because of this, it’s helpful to know a little bit about the strengths, weaknesses, and personality of each student.

You can learn a lot about these students by reading the appendices, notes, and commentaries included in most translations of The Analects, but you can also get a sense of each student by reading every analect in which they appear, using the person index on this site.