Before you read a single word of the Analects, it is important to understand that the work comprises a collection of conversations and aphorisms rather than a treatise or manifesto. Each of its twenty books features multiple exchanges between multiple characters discussing multiple topics — much like a modern-day social media feed. There are no linear arguments based on carefully marshaled facts that build up to a resounding conclusion. It is left to you, the reader, to pick through the various threads of the text and connect them to the others to build up your overall understanding of the teachings contained in it.
The Analects of Confucius Book 1 introduces many of the core themes of Confucius’s teachings by examining the role of the individual in society and exploring how they can make a positive contribution to it by developing the qualities of a leader (君子/jūnzǐ).
Variously translated as “gentleman”, “man of virtue”, “superior man”, and “exemplary person”, this term refers to someone who has become a pillar of the community as a result of their superior moral character rather than their family lineage or social connections. They act as a role model by setting the right example to others.
Developing the qualities of a leader is an iterative process of self-cultivation that is perfectly encapsulated in the line that Confucius’s disciple Zigong quotes from the Book of Songs in 1.15: “Like carving and polishing stones, like cutting and grinding gems.” The goal is not so much to reach the supreme virtue of goodness (仁/rén), which the disciple Youzi introduces in Chapter 1.12, but to constantly strive to improve yourself as you make your way towards it.
As Confucius hints in 1.1, learning is based on the practical application of core principles rather than merely studying them in books. Indeed, in 1.6 he goes as far as to say that a young man should only study the classics “if he still has energy to spare” after ensuring that he has learned to conduct himself properly in interactions with his parents, elders, and other people of the right standing in society.
The disciple Zixia goes on to argue in 1.7 that he would consider a man with the right moral character to be learned without taking into account his intellectual abilities even if others don’t think so.
Confucius saw the practice of filial devotion (孝/xiào) is at the very core of learning how to be a leader. In 1.11, Confucius spells out the stringent requirements that need to be met: “When the father is alive, observe his son’s intentions. When the father is dead, watch his son’s actions. If after three years he has not deviated from his father’s path, then he may be called a filial son.”
These obligations extend beyond the living. In 1.9, the disciple Zengzi calls on the ruling class to show “proper reverence” to the dead and “the memory of distant ancestors”. Only by living up to these obligations will the ruler ensure that “the people’s virtue is at its highest.”
In addition to his parents and ancestors, an aspiring leader must also learn to show due respect to his elders both inside and outside his family, and his ruler. Although Confucius encourages him to “love everyone” in 1.6, he immediately adds that he should only “develop close relationships with good people.”
Book 1 also briefly touches upon some of the core values that an aspiring leader should live up to. Goodness (仁/rén) comes in right at the top. This is followed by ritual (禮/lǐ), a combination of elaborate ceremonies and unwritten rules of behavior that govern smooth interactions between people and ensure a stable society, and rightness (義/yì), which is sometimes translated as propriety, and trustworthiness (信/xìn). In 1.13, Youzi provides a short explanation of how this hierarchy of values works.
Confucius isn’t afraid to mix blunt language in with his moral guidance. In 1.14, he says: “A leader eats without filling their stomach” and “chooses a home without demanding comfort”. He is also keen to provide practical advice to leaders, recommending in 1.5: “The way to rule a thousand-chariot state is to devote yourself to its affairs and fulfill your commitments; be economical in expenditure and love your people; and mobilize the common people for labor at the right times of the year.”
Book 1 concludes on the same note as it starts, with Confucius emphasizing the point that a leader should follow the right path without worrying about what others might think of them. If they focus on that, all the other leadership qualities that are mentioned will fall naturally into place.