Analects of Confucius Book 4: overview

Richard Brown
2 min readMar 27, 2019

The Analects of Confucius Book 4 begins with an exploration of the meaning of goodness. Only people who practice it constantly in their daily lives without a desire for personal profit are able to enjoy true satisfaction and contentment.

Even though Confucius claims that he has never seen “anyone whose strength is insufficient” to devote themselves to goodness for a single day, he despairs that he hasn’t ever seen anyone who “truly loves goodness and truly detests evil” either. The path to goodness that he urges everyone to follow is indeed a lonely and difficult one!

Goodness is of course a key component of Confucius’s leadership toolkit. In 4.5, he says: “A leader never abandons goodness, even for as long as it takes to eat a single meal; in moments of haste and confusion they still stay true to it.” So, too, are objectivity and fairness. In 4.10, he comments: “In dealing with the world, a leader has no prejudice or bias: they go with what is right.” In Chapter 11, he adds: “A leader pursues virtue; a petty person pursues land. A leader pursues justice; a petty person pursues favors.”

Confucius also provides practical advice on how to cultivate your leadership capabilities. In 4.14, he counsels: “Don’t care about not having an official position; care about making sure you have what it takes secure one. Don’t care about not being acknowledged; focus on what can make you acknowledged.” In 4.17, he adds: “When you meet people of exceptional character, think how you can become their equal. When you meet people of poor character, look inside and examine yourself.” In other words, it is your responsibility to reflect on your character and identify the areas you need to improve upon. While others can help point the way for you by positive or negative example, only you can commit yourself to follow it.

Book 4 also features more guidance on the practice of filial devotion, starting with some useful pointers on how to deal with recalcitrant parents. “When serving your parents, you may gently remonstrate with them,” Confucius counsels in 4.18; but if they fail to listen “remain respectful and do not contradict them.” In the final analysis, maintaining family harmony is more important than being right.

He also advises that you should treasure your time with your parents by not traveling too far while they are alive and always keeping their age in your mind, concluding that this knowledge should be “both a source of joy and dread.”

Confucius dominates Book 4 of the Analects with the curious exceptions of Chapter 15 and Chapter 26 featuring the followers Zengzi and Ziyou respectively. The only conceivable explanation for these two anomalies is that they were inserted by unscrupulous or careless editors for reasons that will no doubt remain obscure forever.



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.