Analects of Confucius Book 2: overview

Richard Brown
3 min readJan 20, 2022


The Analects of Confucius Book 2 begins by exploring the idea that political stability is best achieved by virtuous leadership rather than by means of force or a raft of government laws and regulations.

In 2.1, Confucius compares a ruler who governs by the power of virtue to the Pole Star. By sticking strongly to their core ethical values, such a ruler sets a powerful example that the people will instinctively follow.

In 2.3, Confucius amplifies this point by stating: “If you govern through laws and regulations and maintain order through punishments, people will avoid them but won’t develop a sense of shame. If you govern through virtue and keep them in line with ritual, they will develop a sense of shame and unite behind you.”

Similar sentiments are echoed towards the end of the book. In 2.19, Confucius tells Duke Ai, the titular ruler of the state of Lu, that in order to win the support of the people he should “promote the upright and place them above the crooked.” In the following chapter, he goes on to tell Ji Kangzi, the real power behind the throne of Lu, that if he treats the people with dignity “they will be respectful” and if he promotes those who are capable and teaches those who are not, “they will be diligent.”

Unfortunately, his advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

In 2.4 , Confucius gives a famous snapshot of the major stages of his journey through life. After applying himself to learning at the age of fifteen, he was ready to stand on his own two feet at the age of thirty. When he reached fifty, he “understood how the world works” and at sixty his ear was fully “attuned” to the world around him. Finally, at the age of seventy, he was able to follow all his “heart’s desires without overstepping the line.”

Filial devotion, another major theme of Book 2, goes back under the microscope in the next four chapters. In blunt language, Confucius states that it simply isn’t good enough for sons to “serve their elders wine and food when they need to drink and eat” in the same way that that “dogs and horses are looked after.” They also need to display the right attitude by showing their parents affection and respect.

In the middle section of the book, Confucius expounds on the nature of leadership with a series of pithy sayings. In 2.12, he declares that “a leader is not a vessel” — meaning that he should be a well-rounded individual rather than a narrow specialist. He follows up in the next chapter by saying that a leader should place actions before words: “First accomplish what you want to say and then say it.”

Humility is also an extremely important attribute for a leader, too. In 2.17, the sage tells his loyal follower Zilu that true knowledge is “knowing what you know and what you don’t know .”

Book 2 winds down in a rather random manner. In 2.21, Confucius ties two of its main themes, filial devotion and good governance, together with this alleged quote from the Book of Documents: “By being filial to your parents and being kind to your brothers, you are contributing to the smooth running of the government.”

In 2.22, the sage employs a memorable metaphor to show that trust is the linchpin of human relationships: “I wouldn’t know what to do with someone whose word cannot be trusted. How would you drive a wagon without a yoke or a chariot without a crossbar?”

After predicting the future of ritual in a hundred generations in the penultimate chapter, Confucius criticizes a serious violation of it in the final one. Although unrelated to the previous chapters in Book 2, this provides the perfect lead-in to his even more vociferous condemnations of ritual impropriety in Book 3.



Richard Brown

I live in Taiwan and am interested in exploring what ancient Chinese philosophy can tell us about technology and the rise of modern China.