Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius

Course No. 4642
Professor Robert Andre LaFleur, Ph.D.
Beloit College
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Course No. 4642
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn the best ways to approach the Analects as a first-time reader or an experienced reader who would like new insight.
  • numbers Examine Confucian ideas about ritual conduct, learning, and trust.
  • numbers Meet some of Confucius's most important students-and critics.
  • numbers Discover how the Analects shaped much of China's history.
  • numbers Consider the importance of the Analects for the Western world.

Course Overview

Almost everyone is familiar with the name Confucius, but not as many are familiar with the impact his philosophy has made on the world at large—although, at heart, his teachings tackle many of the same philosophical issues as those of ancient Western philosophers such as Plato and Socrates. And like those seminal western philosophers Confucius's concepts of how life should be experienced, the dynamics between citizen and government, the structure of family, and his views on how to operate in an increasingly turbulent society remain relevant hundreds of years after his death. They formed the philosophical backbone of East Asian civilization as well as influencing the Western world in innumerable ways.

The Analectsof Confucius is a collection of ideas that manifested sometime during the 5th century BCE when devoted students of this great Chinese philosopher began compiling and writing down their master’s sage advice on how to live. Although often overlooked as required reading in Western societies, it has gone on to become one of the greatest books in human history, and much of the socio-political life we take for granted has roots found in the teachings of Confucius.

Philosophy itself has a reputation that makes it seem inaccessible to the uninitiated, but the Analects of Confucius is a collection of philosophies and ideas that come from a thinker who was first and foremost a teacher—making it anything but dry ancient philosophy. Many of the passages in the book are ambiguous, contradictory, and even maddening. It is populated with characters and conversations, reflecting a different approach to understanding life than that undertaken by great minds of the Western tradition. Getting to the heart of the Analects—and its importance—a challenging and undeniably exciting intellectual pursuit.

With Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius, you will enjoy an adventurous exploration of one of the world’s most important philosophical texts. In 24 accessible lectures crafted by Professor Robert André LaFleur of Beloit College—an award-winning instructor and expert on Chinese history and literature, who is currently working on his own complete translation of the Analects—you’ll broaden your philosophical view of the world, and of East Asian history, and you’ll discover why this book still matters to us today. Filled with rich historical context, detailed close readings of key passages, expert interpretations of larger cultural trends, and stories of Confucius and his most notable students (and critics), Professor LaFleur’s course is required learning for anyone who wants a solid understanding of Eastern philosophy and the ways a single book can cross cultures and go on to inspire entire generations across the globe.

Like many great books, its lessons are just as timely today as they were thousands of years ago. The Analects lives on in modern China, powering one of the world’s next great superpowers. It also extends its influence throughout much of the Western world, where its ideas on political life, personal development, familial obligations, social duties, and human connectedness intrigue and inspire anyone curious about what it means to be alive.

Explore Confucius’s Philosophical Legacy

“The Analects is a text that rewards patience, curiosity, contemplation, and effort,” Professor LaFleur says. “Centuries of people have reaped these rewards, and have been guided in their own work by its teachings.” And with Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius, you can reap these rewards as well.

Blending history, literature, philosophy, cultural studies, and biography, these lectures provide a comprehensive look at a great book that, it’s important to remember, Confucius didn’t actually write. Rather, the Analects was the product of a legacy of collecting—a compilation of ideas attributed to Confucius that didn’t take its present (rather perplexing) form until centuries after the thinker’s death.

How does this lack of direct authorship influence our understanding of what these lessons teach us? This is just one of the many intriguing questions you’ll consider, as well as:

  • How was the Analects meant to be read—and how should new readers approach it?
  • How did the Analects anticipate the chaos of China’s Warring States period?
  • How did Confucian thought merge with political life during the Han Dynasty?
  • How did Confucianism become so linked with China’s civil service examinations?
  • How does the Analects relate to other central texts of Confucian thought?
  • How did the teachings of the Analects eventually migrate to the West?

Investigate Powerful Confucian Ideas

Professor LaFleur takes you deep inside the historical moments and trends that informed Confucius’s teachings, which sought a simpler way of life to combat the political chaos of ancient China. After grounding your approach to the Analects with a look at what we know (and don’t know) about Confucius’ life, career, and teaching philosophy, you’ll examine some of the book’s most powerful, central themes.

  • Remonstrance: At its core, remonstrance is the duty of a child to “correct” the actions of an adult. In the Analects, this obligation is intended to provide a necessary corrective to prevent fathers from imperiling their families—or rulers from ruining the state. For Professor LaFleur, this idea is at the heart of Chinese social and political life.
  • Consummate conduct (ren): Consummate conduct is one of the most complex of Confucius’s teachings and is never explicitly defined. What’s important to remember about this idea—which reveals the true depth of Confucian philosophy and negates the claims of Confucius’s critics—is that it’s not just a lifestyle choice. It’s a matter of life or death.
  • Ritual (li): Confucius believed ritual propriety should always be carried out with lively spontaneity. In performing rituals, one must always be attentive to both grand cosmological concepts and tiny details. Ritual practice, as explored in the Analects, wasn’t just stuffy rule-following but a physical and musical outlet for true joy.
  • Effective rule: What makes an effective ruler? For Confucius, true leaders (and their officials) have to ground themselves in morality and integrity. In short, they had to be true “social characters.” Effective rule, in Confucius’s day, was already a rarity—and it would only become rarer after his death.

Follow the Millennia-long Story of the Analects

As you illuminate your understanding of key passages in the Analects, you’ll also meet the students, philosophers, and statesmen who, in their own ways, contributed to the millennia-long story of this enduring book. These are the individuals responsible for recording Confucian thought, critiquing it, building on it, pillorying it, and resurrecting it for the modern age.

You’ll learn

  • why Yan Hui was Confucius’s favorite student and the embodiment of everything the philosopher valued in a scholar;
  • how Mencius’s collected writings, the Mencius, work as both a spirited defense of the Analects and a significant expansion on its central ideas;
  • why the Legalist philosopher Han Fei believed Confucians were “fuzzy-minded dilettantes” for looking to the past for appropriate models of government; and
  • how the historian Sima Guang’s reinterpretation of Confucian ideas was enormously influential in adapting the lessons of the Analects for later centuries.

Make the Analects Work for You

The winner of multiple teaching awards, Professor LaFleur takes much of the intimidation out of this ancient—but still very relevant—text. His lectures are packed with context that allows Confucius’s wisdom to speak directly to you and your experiences, as well as those of thousands of years of Chinese history.

Perfect for both audio and video, the video lectures of Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius add another engaging level to your learning experience, including:

  • timelines and maps that help you make sense of China’s epic past;
  • artwork and artifacts from the time of Confucius (and beyond); and
  • visual translations of the Chinese text of the Analects into English.

As with all great philosophical experiences, the Analects is a work whose intellectual richness and insight remain with you long after you’ve read the final passages. So, too, will these lectures, which will help illuminate Confucian teachings—and make them work in your own life.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    The Hidden Teaching Dynamic of the Analects
    Before diving into the mysteries of the Analects, it's essential to get a broader view of Confucius and his style of teaching. Here, examine how the text's performative nature holds its diverse teachings together, and explore Confucius's mission to return China to a more harmonious era in its history. x
  • 2
    The Analects: A Bird's-Eye View
    The Analects, according to Professor LaFleur, shouldn't just be read. It should be lived. Learn how to enter the book's world by considering Confucius's imaginative ideas about living in society. Also, practice your ability to navigate through the book's tangle of questions and answers, assertions and observations, and challenges and retorts. x
  • 3
    The Man We Call Confucius
    Who was Confucius? How did he manage to become one of the most important figures in world history? Get the full backstory on what historians know about the man called Confucius, including the opinions of thinkers like Mencius and Xunzi, and several illuminating passages from Chapter 10 of the Analects. x
  • 4
    How the Analects Is Organized
    The structure of the Analects offers a helpful way in which to approach and understand the text's deeper meanings. Break down Confucius's book into its chapters" (juan), the scattered nature of its tiny nuggets of knowledge ("analects"), and the generations of historical commentary winding among these approximately 500 individual sayings." x
  • 5
    The Provenance of the Analects
    Archaeological discoveries were key to transforming scholarly understanding of early Chinese texts. In this lecture with the feel of a detective story, unearth the oldest version of the Analects (bamboo fragments found in a tomb in north-central China) and discover why there's no one single version of this world classic. x
  • 6
    The Analects in Miniature
    For those readers who've never encountered the Analects before, there's no better way to approach it than through its first five statements-which contain an entire world of philosophical knowledge. Join Professor LaFleur as he unpacks core themes in these iconic passages, including individual conduct and effective statesmanship. x
  • 7
    Learning to Read the Analects
    While there are no absolute rules for reading the Analects, there are ways to enhance your understanding of its complexities. Tips you'll learn in this helpful lecture include: focus on the early chapters (more likely to be composed soon after Confucius's death) and-paradoxically-acknowledge what the book cannot teach you. x
  • 8
    Confucius's Students: Zai Wo and Yan Hui
    Meet two of the most important and memorable students featured in the Analects. The first is Zai Wo, a devoted (but prickly) student who functions as a sort of trickster character. The second is Yan Hui, Confucius's favorite student and the model for what the thinker valued in his students. x
  • 9
    Confucius's Students: Zilu and Zigong
    In this lecture, meet two more students who accompanied Confucius on his journey of enlightenment: the difficult (and often criticized) Zilu and the mistake-prone (but fiercely loyal) Zigong. Both students, as you'll learn, are surprisingly nuanced followers, and they both experience a powerful intellectual evolution as the Analects progresses. x
  • 10
    Confucius on the Purpose of Learning
    What was the point of gaining knowledge, according to Confucius? Professor LaFleur reveals the answer in this pointed discussion on putting the teachings in the Analects into practice. In a close reading of several passages, you'll get to the heart of how Confucius's teachings relate to the wider world. x
  • 11
    Filial Devotion in the Analects
    Begin investigating several of the core concepts in the Analects that would go on to define Confucian thought in Chinese history. The first of these concepts: filial devotion" (xiao), which is a practical and symbolic way of creating an orderly society at home and in the world at large." x
  • 12
    Confucius on the Value of Remonstrance
    The idea of remonstrance (the duty of a child to "correct" the actions of an adult) lies at the heart of hierarchical Chinese society and politics. How is the concept critiqued in the Analects? How does it protect families and states from ruin? What are some of its potential dangers? x
  • 13
    The Exemplary Person in the Analects
    How does the Analects define an exemplary person? Find out by examining a series of key concepts that work together to shape a whole person" who can properly function as a social and political being. Among these are loyalty (zhong), sincerity (cheng), trust (xin), and virtue (de)." x
  • 14
    Confucius's Ideal: Consummate Conduct
    Explore the highest (and most difficult) of Confucian skills: consummate conduct (ren). Along the way, you'll learn how this concept has dominated 25 centuries of Chinese history, how it reveals the true depths of Confucius's teachings, and why it's not just a lifestyle-but a matter of life and death. x
  • 15
    Confucius on Cultivating the Social Self
    Continue unpacking the concept of consummate conduct by breaking it down into smaller social and moral skills that should always be properly cultivated. As Professor LaFleur reveals, consummate conduct is more than an individual quality; it's profoundly social to its core, tying together family, community, and even the state itself. x
  • 16
    Ritual Conduct in the Analects
    Ritual lies at the heart of the Analects, and is perhaps one of Confucius's biggest action items. Here, delve into the idea of ritual propriety (li), which requires an individual to acknowledge both cosmological concepts and minute details. Ritual, as you'll discover, is so much more than just stuffy rule-following. x
  • 17
    Confucius on Embodied Ritual and Music
    In this second lecture on Confucian ideas of ritual, learn why, in the Analects, ritual is tightly interlinked with the body-so that ritual becomes not just prescriptions but performative actions. Also, learn how Confucius links ritual with music, so that both reflect the height of human emotion and community. x
  • 18
    The Analects on Effective Rule
    In Confucian learning, the greatest challenge is the act of governing. How are we supposed to rule ourselves, our families, and our communities-all under the authority of heaven? Using pointed examples from the Analects, examine Confucian ideas about proper leadership, the importance of advisors, and the need for constant self-correction. x
  • 19
    Mencius: The Next Confucian Sage
    Who took up the mantle after the death of Confucius? Professor LaFleur introduces you to Mencius, whose collected writings are both a spirited defense and significant expansion of the Analects. Filled with long narratives that read like dramatic performances, his Mencius hammered home the idea that people are inherently good. x
  • 20
    Confucius's Daoist and Legalist Critics
    The ideas espoused in the Analects had their share of critics. Here, take a look at some of the most prominent of these, including Xunzi, who felt that humans were born flawed; Daoist critics like Zhuangzi; and the Legalist philosopher Han Fei, who considered Confucius to be a fuzzy-minded dilettante. x
  • 21
    State Confucianism and Buddhism
    In the first half of this lecture, consider how Confucianism moved into the seat of power in China during the four centuries of the Han dynasty and evolved in two very different directions. Then, explore how this new form of State Confucianism" blended with other Eastern belief systems-especially Buddhism." x
  • 22
    Sima Guang and the Confucian Revival
    View the life and works of the Chinese historian Sima Guang as a window into neo-Confucianism: the revived form of Confucianism that emerged in the 11th century. You'll learn how this historian took the lessons of the Analects and adapted them to fit new social, economic, and political complexities. x
  • 23
    Neo-Confucianism and the Political Order
    Go deeper inside the ways neo-Confucianism reshaped the foundations of Chinese education and government. Topics include Ouyang Xiu's essay, On Fundamentals", which celebrated Confucian principles; Zhu Xi's reorganization of Confucian education into the "Four Books" model; and the importance (and misery) of civil service examinations." x
  • 24
    Confucius's Comeback in a Global World
    Conclude the course with a look at Confucian thought in the modern age. How did the West influence internal Chinese affairs (already on the point of collapse before Westerners arrived)? Why were the Analects pilloried during Mao's "Cultural Revolution"? How did Confucius once again become the voice of China? x

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  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
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  • 240-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Robert Andre LaFleur

About Your Professor

Robert Andre LaFleur, Ph.D.
Beloit College
Professor Robert André LaFleur is Professor of History and Anthropology at Beloit College in Wisconsin, where he has taught since 1998. Having graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Carleton College, Professor LaFleur received his doctorate from The University of Chicago’s John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, where he combined work in three distinct fields: anthropology, history, and Chinese...
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Books That Matter: The Analects of Confucius is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 30.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now It Finally Makes Sense! (Audio Version) I've read the Analects a couple times over the years, but they always struck me as a jumbled mass of unorganized, almost randomly arranged, thoughts. This course provides much needed insight into the structure of the Analects, and also valuable exposition into the cultural, linguistic, and historical background that makes it what it is. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2020-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great instructors/very good at expanding Confucius I am glad that I brought this video. Instructor very good at explaining Confucius philosophy.
Date published: 2019-11-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wonderful invitation to thinking! This course went far beyond conveying information about the Analects. Professor La Fleur engages the listener in considering the ideas in the Analects and relating them not only to ourselves, but to our times. His emphasis on the social aspect is well thought out and convincing. Also, he is really helpful in explaining some of the almost incomprehensible sections of the work. Many of the courses in The Great Courses are wonderfully informational (I LOVE this company) but LaFleur goes far beyond that. His presentation avoids pedantry, but his information is well presented and precise. I chose this course because i knew nothing about the subject, and it has opened up a world of ideas, and also has opened up my mind. Take this course!
Date published: 2019-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Because of China's economic, military, and political growth, I took this course to prepare for the future. Previous courses regarding history and culture were equally pivotal to my understanding and each course indicated Confuciusism as instrumental to the culture. The lessons covered both the Analects and viewpoints in opposition. I wish there was an introductory course on reading or understanding the Chinese language. The question left in my mind is whether the Analects was the cause or effect of the observed Chinese culture.
Date published: 2018-12-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Books that matter: the Analects of Confucius Great course that gives a comprehensive discussion of Confucius and his thought
Date published: 2018-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course In the opening line of the Analects Confucius asks, "Isn't it a pleasure to study and then put into practice what you learn?" After watching this course, the answer is a resounding YES!. This course is an in-depth exploration - by a masterful teacher - of one of the most influential texts in history. The wisdom contained in the Analects is not only interesting from a cultural-historical perspective, but also from a modern day-to-day standpoint. I have found myself returning, again and again, to many of the lessons introduced in this course. Lessons on the value of family, education, character, humility, and leadership. Like the subject of the course, Prof. LaFleur's is a great teacher. His knowledge is thick and interdisciplinary; his energy is contagious; and his delivery is crisp. More than anything, Prof. LaFleur really cares about his work. He approaches the topic with a generous imagination and asks us, his virtual students, to so the same. I hope to see more courses from him in the future. Very happy with this purchase. Xie Xie The Great Courses.
Date published: 2018-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course was more than a curiosity From a website I ordered a BOOK entitled the “Analects of Confucius” to discover the written interpretation from Chinese (then) into modern English (now) was both vague and ambiguous….with some appearing as nonsense. So I searched the TGC master list and to my delight found this course taught by the very interesting and knowledgably professor (Dr Robert LaFleur) who not only knows how to read & write Chinese but also an in-depth professor who understands the complications of translation, not only from one-to-another, but over long TIME spans & complex culture differences very different than our own. I tip my hat to those professors that spend years ON SITE of the places they are lecturing about…instead of just reading about others’ materials. In regard to this “interpretation issue”, I thought the professor’s spending the first 5-6 chapters covering it was overkill – but as the course unfolded, it made perfect sense. Even with my years of word travel and in-depth understanding of academic & personal eye-witness accounts of the word RITUAL, I was amazed as I listened to an entire chapter devoted to that word. Without this unique perspective, the rich meaning of these Analects would have been lost or diluted. Well done! The good professor is an example of Confucius’ “exemplary person”. Such interpretation of foreign concepts & rituals are certainly relevant today; showing the Asian “hive” mentality compared to the western independent thinker. Of my 65 TGC courses, this is one of those few that gets better the further along you go. If I could summarize into one word, the course is THOROUGH. Besides the Analects, there was discussion of the COUNTER to the sage’s teaching and the counter-to-the-counter. The bottom line is what final IMPACT the teachings of Confucius had on both ancient and current societies. I learned that Confucius was profoundly sincere and adamant about NOT contributing one’s talents & abilities to a corrupt, totalitarian, and murderous government. Despots of the past have tried to eradicate (burn) his teachings to the point of killing off the teachers of Confucius. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, it became obvious it was NOT “The People’s Republic of China” but instead “The Communist Party’s Republic of China”. The journalists that covered the 2008 Olympics referred to “China’s Genocide Olympics” from the atrocities they witnessed around town that nobody saw in the broadcasts. So I wondered how the good professor was going to wrap up the course pertaining to how the people versus their brutal government regarded the teachings of Confucius. He DID answer that question well.
Date published: 2018-08-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from confucius for absolute beginners i didn’t enjoy this course nearly as much as i hoped i would. part of the problem was that i already knew a bit about confucius and had already read some of the analects, something which the guidebook curiously warns against. i still don’t understand that—why should i not read the book i’m studying while i’m studying it? nonetheless i figured that with 24 lectures there would still be enough content to satisfy those of us who weren’t coming to the subject fully green. and while there is some, there’s rather less of it than i expected. one of the reasons for this is that because this course is understandably aimed at people who have no knowledge of chinese civilization, many points are illustrated through extended examples drawn from the modern west. these examples, though helpful, often take up a surprising amount of each lecture. the professor clearly wants to make sure we get it, and so he’ll go over the same point again and again. teaching company courses rarely get me so exasperated that i want to yell at my player, but this happened on multiple occasions here. more than once i reached the end of a lecture with the feeling that the whole half hour consisted of nothing but the same two or three points repeated over and over and over. this tendency is particularly egregious in the middle of the course when he’s discussing the themes of the analects. i can probably make my point best by saying that if you need a full half hour to grasp the concept of remonstrance (lecture 12), then this course is for you. but if that sounds like an excessive amount of time to devote to a subject that’s really not that difficult, then you might well find much of this course as tedious and frustrating as i did. the professor also has a tendency to make big promises—“just follow my method and the secrets of the analects will unlock before your eyes”—of the sort that i’m more used to hearing from advertisers than from educators. i found these interjections distracting, and, since the promised benefits ultimately failed to materialize, they had a tendency to undermine my enthusiasm. in addition he chooses to present confucianism in such a way as to “sell” it to westerners—in other words, “you may have heard that confucius is tired and stodgy, but here’s how he makes sense in the modern world.” there’s obvious merit to this approach, but an unintended consequence is that he comes across as a bit evangelical, even pushy at times. for me personally, i would have preferred a more impartial study, which could still argue the case for confucius while also bringing in a range of critiques. and to be fair we do get some criticism, notably when he covers confucius’s opponents in a few of the later lectures, but we don’t get much; and it was only when i got to the final section of the course that i fully realized that the professor was adopting a deliberate rhetorical strategy of arguing in favour of confucius without necessarily agreeing with all the positions he was articulating. on the plus side, the professor is a very good speaker. his presentation is excellent and he recounts his extended metaphors well. the course is also well organized, and i particularly enjoyed his profiles of some of confucius’ prominent disciples. i found his linguistic discussions both helpful and persuasive, and he does seem to speak chinese quite well. in the end, i never doubted that he was an expert in the subject; i just wanted there to be more content and less filler.
Date published: 2018-08-15
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