The master speaks to us in the Lunyu (Analects), which contains brief, disconnected sayings attributed to him, conversations he had with disciples, and additional sayings or comments by some of those disciples. The text portrays Confucius as mentor and patron to a group of younger men who sought to serve in the government of a small state called Lu between 510 and 479 B.C.E. It is from their questions and answers that the notion of Confucian "learning" derives. Confucius describes himself simply as one who loves to learn and as a transmitter of wisdom from the ancient past. That he also learns from his students demonstrates that learning, knowing, and holding to the truth were considered parts of a continuous process, which was at once intellectual, practical, and spiritual. Learning was essential to knowing, knowing was essential to doing, doing was essential to spiritual fulfillment, and spiritual fulfillment was essential to learning. This process was held up as a standard against which the corrupting influences of wealth and power could be measured. After his death, it was the learning of Confucius that his disciples sought to emulate, and the standards he set were what students in later times struggled to achieve.
The concepts the learners used were appropriated from the pre-Confucian discourse of a broad class of warriors across the North China Plain. In this discourse power and virtue ideally were one (de). The worlds of men and of spirits (gui or shen) were separate but communication between the two was possible, and so was mutual intervention. Shamans and oracles were the agents of communication, while the warriors' sacrificial rites (li) were intended to mollify the spirits and to prevent their capricious intervention in the affairs of men. Five hundred years before the time of Confucius, astrologers in the service of a particular coalition of warrior clans called Zhou had interpreted the movements of stars and planets as signs of the movement of spiritual forces in an ordered cosmos. From this they had extrapolated the overarching idea of a Mandate of Heaven (Tian Ming), which legitimated the Zhou claim to order the world under heaven (tianxia) with a clarification of the ritual duties of all the warrior clans, in accordance with their rank. At the apex of this ritual hierarchy was the head of the house of Zhou, who alone among men bore the title of king (wang), but who by the time of Confucius no longer had any real political power.
The wisdom that Confucius sought to transmit was expressed in the language of Zhou texts and embodied in the performance of the rites as codified by the original Zhou patriarchs. But in the absence of Zhou power, the wisdom of the ancients with respect to bringing peace and order to the world could only be validated by the conscience, or benevolence (ren), of especially virtuous "gentlemen" (junzi) who rejoiced in the prospect of placing duty, or righteousness (yi), above personal gain. Resisting the temptation to validate the Mandate of Heaven by appealing to revealed truth, the early Confucians held that human virtue, without reference to spiritual intervention, was both necessary and sufficient for bringing order to a world fraught with conflicts over wealth and power.