The Master said, “People’s mistakes run true to type. By studying [their] mistakes, we can know [their] ren/Goodness.” (Analects, 4.17)
This Analect has a simple, compact power that tends to be softened and dulled in the conventional interpretations, which go something like: “People err according to their own level. It is by observing a person’s mistakes that you can know his/her goodness.” (A.C.Muller) Or: “The faults of men are characteristic of the class to which they belong. By observing a man’s faults, it may be known that he is virtuous.” (Legge) This kind of interpretation rightly enphasizes the value of noticing and understanding a person’s mistakes — not the grand crimes and depravities, but their everyday slips and oversights. This is why books like Plutarch’s Lives are wondrous caves full of treasure for those of us who love to study people; in Plutarch we can gaze upon the achievements, disasters, and day-to-day foibles and errors of ancient statesmen, and we wonder at how little personal misdirections inform the twists and turns of history. Strangely, however, the conventional interpretation takes this Analect to be about assessing other people‘s level of ren, or humane goodness. This seems superficial to me, and a lessening of the aphorism.
The original Chinese, in its terseness, has no pronouns or articles. It could just as well mean, “By studying our own mistakes, we can know our own level of ren.” This is more in alignment with the Confucian program of self-reflection and also cuts closer to the bone personally. In general, reviewing our words and actions at the end of the day, it is possible for us to notice where we goofed. The practice of self-reflection requires us to being our attention steadily and calmly to these mistakes, and to understand them. It does not necessarily involve lamentation and convulsions of remorse, although those might come naturally with understanding. In examining even our small mistakes, we can understand better who we are and, more particularly, where we are in our cultivation of ren. The original words of this Analect go even further: By studying mistakes, we can know Ren. This raw, succinct translation carries a profound truth: how often, in realizing that we have inadvertently hurt someone, do we not then find that we have understood a little better what it might mean to be a good person? The realization of error brings with it a reminder of the right thing that could have been said or done. Of course, the heedless, shameless person doesn’t care and will plough on — but such a person tends not to reflect anyway. For the person who cares enough to reflect and to right the wrongs they have done, the book of mistakes is wonderfully large and painfully fascinating to read — and it contains, to those who want to find it, the book of ren.