The philosophies of Confucius may seem daunting at first, and yet his words are so simple and easy to understand that it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the greatest Teachers of all time.
When viewed through the lens of morality, where one should seek self-improvement and finding your proper place in society, it becomes far easier to understand his lessons.
The Analects, a collection of his sayings and teachings, covers almost every topic under the sun: from duty to family and country to the role of mass-education in uplifting the fortunes of the people.
And within the Ji Shi (Part 16) we find a beautiful list of threes that illuminate a simple, memorable set of philosophical insights about friendship.
The Threes of Friendship
“There are three friendships which are advantageous, and three which are injurious. Friendship with the uplight; friendship with the sincere; and friendship with the man of much observation:-these are advantageous.
Friendship with the man of specious airs; friendship with the insinuatingly soft; and friendship with the glib-tongued:-these are injurious.”
Confucius identifies the two classes of friendships: the advantageous, or good to have, and the injurious, who harm you either directly or through your association with them.
The translator, James Legge, does a wonderful job attempting to capture the unique feel of concepts that lack a perfect translation — those words and ideas in Chinese that encapsulate cultural norms and behaviors somewhat foreign to English-speaking societies — much in the same way the translators of the King James Version of the Bible bridged the cultural gap of the Middle East and its desert environment for their western, island-bound adherents.
Even without understanding Chinese, though, you may be able to see the poetic pattern — the construction technique — of the words written below.
The character 三 means three, and 友 is friend. Notice the repetition of “friend” in each of the descriptive words casting the relationship as types of “friendship.”
Confucius’ points are succinct and follow a pattern: “Three types of good friends, three types of bad friends. Virtuous, true, observant — good to have. Deceptive, manipulative, shallow — bad to have.”
The modern words above don’t capture the full import of the feelings and concept of sincerity or insincerity that the original Chinese words possess in a very compact form; so let’s explore each type of friend, both good and bad.
The Good Friendships: Advantageous and Beneficial
All of the good friendships can be classed as those that involve acts of sincerity.
The Uplight Friend (友直)
The uplight friend is one who follows the straight and narrow path: a path of virtue. One might contrast this with the word “upright” or 恭 which denotes a sense of “respectfulness” instead, also found in the Analects.
The word uplight invokes a feeling of transcendence. Surrounding yourself with friends who seek personal improvement; who don’t deviate from the morals and rules that make society better for everyone.
The Sincere Friend (友諒)
The sincere friend is loyal to you and others. They don’t speak behind other peoples’ backs or yours.
They are the kind of people who are quick to forgive offenses and stand by you in difficult times.
The Observant Friend (友多聞)
The observant friend pays attention. They listen closely and look carefully.
They approach the world not with cynical skepticism but with deliberate intent. They demonstrate their respect for you, themselves, and others by giving away their time so that when others speak or act they are actively supporting them rather than supplanting them.
The Bad Friendships: Injurious and Damaging
All of the bad friendships are those based on insincerity.
The Specious Friend (友便辟)
The friend who puts on specious airs is one looks or acts genuine but their actions are opposite to what they say or present themselves to be.
These are the friends who want you to “Do as I say, not as I do.”
They are deceptive and hypocritical.
The Insinuatingly Soft Friend (友善柔)
The insinuatingly soft friend is the one who may act meek or humble but wants to manipulate you for their own gain.
They’re the ones that approach you aside from everyone else to ask you to do something you may not be comfortable with. The ones who worm their way into your affections and ply you with favors, only to later seek repayment.
The Glib-tongued Friend (友便佞)
These are the friends that hurt you merely by being friends with them — they lose the respect of others by demeaning or gossiping, and your relationship with them harms your own reputation.
There are times where association with such people can’t be helped, but if you stay silent rather than stand up for the targets of their poor manners, then you’ve demonstrated — however passively — your agreement with their views.
The Simple Virtues of Confucius
Confucius, as a teacher, was often asked about what qualities make people virtuous. But he was an incredibly common-sense person: his answers often surprised his listeners because of how obvious they were.
What seems like flowery language today was actually rooted in simple, memorable observations about everyday life.
To sum: choose your friends wisely, and good friends are sincere in everything they do.