Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#6) — On Confucius and our need for ‘ren’

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Students at Sosu Seowon, a complex of 11 Confucian lecture halls and dormitories in the town of Yeongju, 100 miles, southeast of Seoul. (Credit: Jean Chung for the International Herald Tribune; source: To Combat Modern Ills, Korea Looks to the Past, The New York Times)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On Confucius and our need for ‘ren’

British historian Bettany Hughes has made a beautiful three-part television series for the BBC in which she explores the lives and minds of three great philosophers from the ancient world: Socrates, Confucius, and the Buddha.

These three giants of ancient philosophy all lived between the 6th and 5th century BC, during a period of unprecedented intellectual development. Those 100 years changed the way we see ourselves forever. Both Confucius and Socrates eschewed their societies’ focus on ritual and devotion in favour of flexible, personal codes of ethics which stressed personal responsibility, compassion, and simple human kindness above all else. At roughly the same time, the Buddha’s innovation was to take existing religious ideas of karma and democratise them. This had the immediate benefit of lifting restrictions on interactions with those of different ‘castes,’ and replaced concern with pleasing the gods with a greater emphasis on reciprocal human kindness.

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Q Confucius, by Zhang Huan, one of China’s leading contemporary artists.

In the third and final episode, Bettany sits down with Tu Weiming, the Chair Professor of Humanities and Founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University, and discusses ‘ren’ — a concept that occupies a central place in the Confucian philosophy.

[BH] “Ren is a very splendid word idea, but what does it actually mean. What quality does it imply?”

[TM] Well, many people tried to translate it differently. It has been translated as human heartedness, as good or goodness. But we prefer now to use the word humanity, because virtually all Confucian values are linked to this notion. Courage with ren, then it’s real courage rather than just simply bravery. Justice with ren, then it’s a humane justice rather than just harsh punishment. Wisdom with ren, then it’s being wise not just being smart.”

[BH] “And is this something that you achieve or is looking for ren a constant quest?”

[TM] “Every person, by definition of ‘being a person,’ embodies ren. In other words, every human being is capable of sympathetic response to the external world. But at the same time, to realise ren fully, which means human flourishing in the most comprehensive sense of the term, that requires learning. And learning of course, is not simply the acquisition of knowledge or internalisation of skills, but basically learning to build one’s character. And in that sense, it’s like the highest ideal. At the same time, it’s a minimum requirement to be human.”

[BH] “Do you think that Confucius felt that he had achieved ren?”

[TM] “No. And the interesting things is that many students or followers of Confucius also said no. Ren requires continuous process of struggling. Even to the end of your life, this is still a task incomplete. So, no matter what, the struggle to be fully human continues.”

At the end of the episode, and indeed the series, Bettany asks Tu Weiming whether he believes these 25 century old ideas still have as much relevance to our world as they did to ancient China. “If I want to exaggerate, probably even more so,” Tu Weiming replies. “They [Socrates, Buddha and Confucius] were confronted with a world in disintegration. Little rationality. Little compassion.” Today, the situation is, however, much more serious. We have in our power the destruction of all civilisations, including the planet itself. “A change has to be made,” he argues. “Not just some change of a political system or economic system — these are absolutely necessary — but a change of mind-set. And the retrieval of the wisdom of Socrates, of Buddha and Confucius is not a question of relevance. In the end, it’s a question of human survival.”

As a humanist, I have always found Confucius’ idea of ren fascinating. We have, as also professor Tu Weiming believes, in many ways ‘lost our ren.’ Almost all businesses value their shareholders more than their employees, let alone society. Innovation seems to be driven purely by technological possibilities, without questioning what these innovations would mean for humanity. Politics is about the ‘1%,’ or so it seems, while Elon Musk’s plans for terraforming Mars even don’t come near that number (that’s 0.014 per cent, which make the politicians who serve the 1% seem like communists).

I’m not saying we should abandon businesses, innovation, politics (let’s not confuse politics with politicians) or even Musk’s escapist vision. For most people, life wasn’t better in ancient Greece, China or India. What I am saying is that, just like then, we are living through turbulent and highly uncertain times. But, as always, we have a choice — to continue our human endeavours for the benefit of ‘a few,’ or to search for meaning for humanity at large.

Maybe we should ‘forget’ about Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and pick up a copy of The Analects of Confucius. After all, the 21st century needs more humanity — more ‘ren’ — and far less of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war.

[7–6] 子曰。志於道、據於德、依於仁、游於藝。

[7:6] The Master said: “Set your heart on the dao, base yourself in virtue, rely on ren, journey in the arts.” (The Analects of Confucius, Book 7)

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The Analects of Confucius.

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