Nowhere in Confucius is there an attempt to give a technical definition of anything; instead, when faced with a “What is…?” question, his reply usually amounts to “It is when…” He refuses to reify moral qualities, to treat them as objects with fixed attributes that we can have. They are manifested dynamically in actions and ways of acting, and are never found apart from them. Thus when the diligent Zhong Gong asks about ren, humane goodness, Confucius answers characteristically with examples of doing ren, but this time he is more copious than usual and gives four examples, knowing that Zhong Gong will mull over how they all relate:
Zhong Gong asked about the meaning of ren. The Master said: “When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments.” Zhong Gong said, “Although I am not so smart, I will apply myself to this teaching.” (Analects, 12.2, tr. A.C.Muller)
All of these examples could also serve as examples of li (ritual, propriety) because they are all about doing the right things in the right way, but Confucius yokes them to ren because he wants Zhong Gong to understand that goodness includes both an outer and an inner engagement. The four examples deepen progressively, but taken together they can be considered four faces of ren as a disposition.
When you are out in the world, act as if meeting an important guest. This advice becomes more powerful when taken in the context of a culture in which the guest-host relationship is almost sacred and “the guest is god.” Confucius doesn’t even specify “act towards people as if meeting an important guest”; rather, the attitude of gracious hospitality extends to everything we might meet. Guests can be easy or difficult, delightful or unpleasant: in every case, the good host entertains them, serves them, makes each one feel important and respected, and then sends them off. The key is that guests enter our lives and then leave; for the short time they are with us, they get our full attention and we neglect nothing while they are with us. This applies to the cashier at the grocery store, the car mechanic, the neighbor, the teacher, even the homeless person who asks for a dollar. It is an attitude that requires unconditional openness and generosity, but we will find that most of the time it brings out the best in the people around us.
The next sentence continues to draw out the theme of elevating and ennobling our daily interactions: Employ the people as if you were assisting at a great ceremony. This is not asking us to become ceremonious and pompously formal in the workplace or at the supermarket, but rather to conduct ourselves as we would at an important occasion such as an inauguration or a funeral, where every detail has to be right, where all those people who are mere participants have to be helped in the fulfilling of their roles, and where, above all, we have to be self-effacing in the service of something greater than ourselves. This involves an attitude of quiet leadership, and meticulous care for the whole and for all its functioning parts, such as an undertaker would have in the conducting of a funeral. On these occasions, individual egos are restrained and then orchestrated into a harmonious performance fitting for the time and place. Does this not apply potentially to every social interaction?
Confucius then gives us the negative Golden Rule, which grounds ren in a capacity for empathy: What you don’t want done to yourself, don’t do to others. This rule by itself would give sufficient guidance for most of our daily interactions. It is rooted in an elementary degree of self-knowledge, and for obvious transgressions like theft and murder it seems simple enough; but applying it in our ordinary activities requires a highly developed sensitivity to the effects of our actions on other people — for instance, would I have wanted someone to speak to me as brusquely as I just spoke, would I have wanted someone to serve me food with as little pleasure as I just felt in serving my parents? No aphorism is more practicable than this one, because we know immediately what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves — but it takes work to notice what we are doing to others. The willingness to do this work is ren.
Finally, act in such a way as to create no hostility: Live in your town without stirring up resentments, and live in your household without stirring up resentments. This attitude values harmony more than any other consequence of self-assertion, since in terms of ren, the loss of harmony affects everyone adversely. The original Chinese is ambiguous; it could also mean “be without hatred.” Thus, don’t behave in such a way that everyone detests you — and also, don’t go through life grumbling about everyone else, either at work or in town or at home. If we reflect on just how much of our normal internal monologue consists of grumbling about other people, this aphorism cuts closer to the bone. We can’t control other people’s grumbling but we can control our own. How then do we become the kind of person who bears no resentment to anybody? The sincere effort to become this person is also ren.