君子務本、本立而道生。孝弟也者、其爲仁之本與 The superior person concerns himself with the roots. Once the roots are established, the Way appears. Are not xiao and obedience to elders the root of humane goodness?” (Analects, 1.2)
Words for “good” are always unsatisfactory and impossible to define. Even in Plato we do not find a completely acceptable definition of “virtue” or “justice.” In Confucius the word ren, 仁, a character made up of the glyphs for “person” and “two,” encapsulates the highest human goodness. We will be looking at this idea again in future posts, but here a crude summary will suffice: ren is what you see in a person who looks you in the eyes with clarity and sincerity, who is fully present in every situation and task, who stands by his word and is wholly trustworthy, who cares and empathizes, and who — knowing what he knows and doesn’t know — will strive unflaggingly to understand with imagination and intelligence. A human being with developed ren is a “superior person” or junzi, one whom you would like as colleague, friend, sibling, employee, boss, or comrade; a statesman with ren will base judgments and decisions on the right notivations, and will be loved and defended by the people. Why does Confucius (and also Mencius) keep saying that the root of this attribute of a wonderful human being has to be xiao, “filiality”?
We do not choose our parents, and they have no idea what they are in for when we arrive. Yet we must live together for our most important years, and for a while they have authority over us. We watch them carefully and know all their weaknesses, hypocrisies, and errors, and they have to deal every day with our willfulness and irrationality. Over time, we learn how to push each other’s secret buttons and how to bite our tongues when we sense our parents trying to provoke us. By the time we are teenagers we become very sensitive to our parents’ manipulations. Ancient Chinese parents were not angels and were just as difficult to love and respect as our own parents, yet xiao commands us to love and respect them. The parent-child relationship is the first situation in which the child can learn how to love actual people.
Now, children have an advantage in this study, because they come with a tendency to trust and love — but over a few years they also learn that their parents have some unlovable traits. To love and respect in spite of such traits takes work, self-restraint, and self-reflection — as well as a growing capacity for understanding what is behind the disagreeableness of the parent. In the practice of xiao, we learn to love human beings as they are given to us in all their warty glory, and, since we usually don’t expect our parents to change, we learn in xiao to have relationships based on the acceptance of reality and not on hope of change. If we cannot love and respect our parents, how can we love and respect anyone else? With our non-familial relationships, we like to think that we choose people, but in fact what we choose is the tip of the iceberg; it is after the ship unites with the iceberg that the vast submerged bulk makes its terrible presence felt. Romance might look like two people choosing each other, but even here, after the sheen of initial attraction has been rubbed off, we are faced with the hard work of living with a real person and not just our projection. Every close relationship succeeds or fails according to our ability to do this work, and xiao is where we learn to do it. If we never practice it, and think instead that we are free to reject our parents and choose better parents, we will never learn to dwell with what people really are, and will only experience love and respect as fragile shells.
Ren, humane goodness, is rooted in the xiao, which is a lifelong and difficult practice, because our relationship with our parents doesn’t stop changing, even after they die. Like the roots of flowers and trees, xiao is muddy and unglamorous; and just as the tree that we see towering above us is anchored by an equally huge tree of roots, so each one of us can have only as much ren as we have xiao.