Let’s cut to the chase: In this collection of hundreds of mostly short, fairly pithy sayings, there is no doubt about the best one. It’s number 43 in book XIV: “Yuan Jang sat waiting with his legs spread wide. The Master said, ‘To be neither modest nor deferential when young, to have passed on nothing worthwhile when grown up, and to refuse to die when old, that is what I call a pest.’ So saying, the Master tapped him on the shin with his stick.”
Second place goes to number 24 in book XV: “Tzu-kung asked, ‘Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘It is perhaps the word “shu.” Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'” That is, Confucius makes the obverse statement of the Golden Rule. One translation (the Penguin Classic version by D.C. Lau) explains shu as “using oneself as a measure in gauging the wishes of others” and cites to some related numbers. C.S. Lewis includes this number as well as several others in his natural law appendix to The Abolition of Man.
And indeed there is much here consistent with the Bible and little that is inconsistent. What struck me as the principal difference is the greater emphasis given by Confucius to honoring one’s ancestors and, more broadly, on the respect that the young in particular should have for authority generally.
Now, to be sure, we have the Commandment to honor our father and mother, and our young are supposed to be instructed by their elders in how to follow God. What’s more, if you honor your father and mother, and your parents honored their parents, and so forth — well, indirectly more than just your immediate ancestors get honored.
Still, I think that I’m safe in saying that respecting authority generally and ancestors in particular is bumped to a higher level by Confucius. Jews were rebels against non-Jewish authority, and sometimes even against their own rulers (e.g., David versus Saul), to say nothing of their prophetic tradition. And Jesus was quite explicit and quite radical in calling on people to follow God rather than their parents. Compare that to Confucius urging, “Fathers cover up [theft of sheep] for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers” (number 18 in book XIII).
Let me hasten to add that there’s much to like in Confucius’s conservatism. I’m a fan of Michael Oakeshott, and found number 4 of book XIII to be quite Oakeshottian: When asked how to grow crops, Confucius said, “I am not as good as an old farmer.” And when asked how to grow vegetables, he said, “I am not as good as an old gardener.” And I do not want to leave the impression that, in counseling respect for authority, Confucius was urging passivity: To the contrary, one is struck, particularly in the earlier books, by Confucius’s emphasis on the importance of action.