The teachings contained in the Analects were informed by Confucius’s long career as a politician and public servant in his home state and then in neighboring states. The system of ethics illustrated in the collection is based on three essential values: filial piety, ritual, and humaneness.
Confucius believed that for political stability, social harmony, and heavenly favor to be attained and preserved, a ruler must cultivate himself according to certain moral precepts. Only such a noble gentleman who embodied the correct virtue had true leadership and political authority.
According to Confucius, filial piety—or devotion to one’s parents or superiors—is the primary human virtue, because it develops from the parent-child bond, represents the first of the five Confucian relationships (the other four being ruler–governed, husband–wife, older brother–younger brother, friend–friend), and is the root from which all other virtues are cultivated. Confucius considered the complex bonds of mutual obligation that define these traditional relationships and stressed their vital role in developing correct personal virtue and maintaining higher order.
Reciprocity is the name given to this idea of the exchange of duties and expectations that bind and delineate interpersonal relationships, or social roles. Confucius believed that people are very much social beings, and so it was essential for all levels of society to understand their proper roles.
Since the rules of reciprocity dictated certain formal behaviors, or rituals, learned and reinforced through social and familial practice, Confucius believed that respect for these rituals provided the basis for correct human action in its most proper sense.