Lun Yu 1.2 and 1.3

Dao and Ren

Lun Yu 1.2 and 1.3

Chapter 1

Saying 2


You Ruo (有若), here called Master You (有子). A major disciple and later a candidate for succession.

Words To Know:

曰: Yue - to say, to call, to mention

道: Dao - Literally, a large path, but philosophically…

孝: Xiao - Filial piety.

弟: Ti - younger brother, a good younger brother

本: Ben - Root, origin, foundation, book, this, etc

仁: Ren - goodness, good action, the good


So, your first thought is probably “Who the heck is Youzi and where is The Master?”. Well, at least it would be if I didn’t include a ‘Speakers’ section.

I don’t want to overburden this commentary with structural details, but the Lun Yu is a book with a definite Inner and Outer. The exact demarcations are controversial, so I will just structure things by my own feelings. I will call Books 3-9 the Inner Books and 12-29 the Outer Books. Books 1 & 2 form an introduction to the Lun Yu as a whole, so they will be called Introduction Books. Book 10 is a weird outlier with almost no quotes (only 10.18 and 10.22 have anything like paraphrases, that said 10.18 is a famous one). Book 11 is a long series of judgements about followers which is written distinctively differently. (Remember last post, how “junzi” is used in 11.1?) For now these will just be “Book 10” & “Book 11” respectively.

Anyway, let’s move on to the content because there are some big topics. First of all, this is another three part process deduction. The action is filial piety - xiao (孝) - and brotherliness - ti (弟). The social consequence is social harmony. And virtue? That’s promotion of the dao (道).

Ah yes, the Dao (道)… let’s not bury the basic interpretation of the way in the fourth paragraph of a saying which isn’t even from Confucius. For now, let’s just say it’s something which is good.

One interesting thing is the deductions become more secure as the scale increases. Those who are filial and fraternal who commit crime are ‘few’ (鲜). Of course, identifying the right action is difficult, as practical rules are full of exceptions. Of course a tyrannical leader or abusive parent is not to be respected. We will see later how Confucius deals with edge cases such as undue hardship - often his answers are unexpected (for instance, 3.17 & 17.21).

In the social step, those who are committed to order who also sew dissension do not exist (未之有也). Modally, this admits the possibility of a filial person who sews dissension, but not the actuality of such a person. The last line reinforces this reading, xiao & ti (孝弟) causes good action, ren (仁).

Finally, this social harmony is actually logically equivalent to the promotion of dao (道).

Looking at this innocuous saying in this way,  we found that important terms dao (道) - The Way - and ren (仁) - Good Action - have been introduced. As said, we’re going to come back to interpreting dao soon. Good action - Ren (仁)  - is the subject of the next saying, so let’s leave this for a bit.

In essence, Youzi (有子) is introducing the traditional “Confucian” theory that macroscopic virtue depends on microscopic action. The reason it is important that he says this - and pointedly not Kongzi (孔子)! - will be clear in the next saying.

Saying 3


Kongzi (孔子), i.e. Confucius

Words to know:

子: Zi - Master, in this context, Confucius.

巧言: Qiaoyan - Fine words, flattery.

仁: Ren - goodness, good action, the good.


This is one of the most famous sayings, so I will limit my comments to three: one logical, one comparative and one verbal.

First, logic. This analect is negative, not positive. We learn what good action, ren (仁), is not - it isn’t appearance - but not what it is. In fact, Confucius’s statements about ren (仁) are consistently negative. This is why the last analect had to be Youzi (有子), not Kongzi (孔子). The Master is not endorsing a positive causal theory of the good, and in particular not the “Confucian” theory that xiao (孝) is the ben (本) of ren (仁). This kind of distinction between ‘Confucianism’ and ‘The Philosophy Of Confucius’ was already a commonplace when the Lun Yu was compiled.

In terms of Chinese logic, Confucius does not give ren (仁) a “name”, a ming (名). A partial, but not exact, translation would be that he “uses” ren (仁) but never “mentions” ren (仁), and you have to mention, not use, a word to define it!

We can compare this approach to the good usefully with Confucius’s contemporary Socrates. All those Socratic aporia and elenchus have such a family resemblance to the more negative analecta that it is worth drawing parallels between the reactions they draw. There are broadly three classes of reactions:

  1. You might assume that the philosopher-sage actually has a fully worked out theory of ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα (“the form of the good”) that he could have written in the form of a straightforward essay.

    1. Plotinus : Plato :: Zhu Xi : Confucius 

  2. You might assume that the philosopher-sage really doesn’t have a fully worked out theory, and that’s why we moderns have surpassed him. Schoolkids still have to read his books though, don’t think you’re getting out of that.

    1. Hegel: Plato :: Hu Shih : Confucius 

  3. You might assume the negative character of the logic is actually a deep fact about the form of the good. Trying to spell out the good in so many words intrinsically falsifies it.

    1. Derrida : Plato :: Wang Bi : Confucius 

This is a loose game but I think it may be helpful in meeting some of the Confucii we will see on the way.

Finally, a bit of Archaic Chinese I learned from Slingerland’s translation and commentary. In the Chinese that Kongzi (孔子) spoke, eloquence - now pronounced ning (佞) - and goodness - now pronounced ren (仁) were near homophones: nieng and nien, respectively. The all-important distinctions between appearance and reality, mention and use, naming and calling was held by a single phoneme.

Closing Formality

Normally this commentary comes out on the even weeks of the month. However, for March 2022, there will be a variation: it will come out the odd numbered weeks. As a little teaser, let me say this: the commentary on 1.5 will involve everyone from Laozi to Frank Hyneman Knight!

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