Yan Yuan asked about Humane Goodness (Ren). The Master said, “To subdue the ego and keep to propriety (Li) is Humane Goodness. (Analects, 12.1)
As long as our lives are filled and surrounded by living, bristling, grudge-encrusted, confused, stinky, ordinary people — as opposed to angelic robots who unerringly do the right thing — each day will come with dilemmas of propriety, or Li. We just have to remind ourselves every now and then that we actually want people and not robots, even though the occasional smooth-functioning robot can be comforting. For a Confucian, dilemmas of li are essential to becoming more fully human, and practice involves understanding them and learning how to navigate them; indeed, the entire book of Mencius is built upon discussions of propriety, and can be read as a “course” in virtue through studying well chosen instances. But why go to Mencius? Just look at one thing that happened yesterday.
We have a very good family friend who is a reliable confidant, always ready to help and loved by the kids — but…whenever he visits, he always overstays. Because of him the kids stay up too long and the house stays noisy till quite late, and then he will fall asleep on the couch. He doesn’t seem to grasp that we as hosts cannot go to bed if a guest is still in the living room. A situation like this may be a small thing, but Confucius would want us to consider it — because after all small things can geow into big things. Our friend somehow doesn’t notice the hosts getting restless and tidyng up in the kitchen, and also doesn’t recognize that these might be signals that it is time to leave. The failure in propriety here involves both ignorance of etiquette as well as obliviousness to what is going on. Propriety is both knowing the appropriate thing to do and doing it at the appropriate moment, which requires keeping your wits about you. Now, it could be that in the case of our friend, the confusion stems from an ambiguity in Li: is he a family friend, or close enough to be practically a family member? It would fall on us to enlighten him on the matter, but ingrained courtesy prevents us — because it would hurt his feelings and make him feel ashamed over what is in fact a little mistake. We are still wondering about the appropriate way to inform him, and whether it would be more appropriate to let it be and overlook it. However, overlooking it will have negative consequences, because his obliviousness makes us reluctant to have him around.
Part of the problem is cultural — that there is no explicit guidance in our social circles as to when to arrive and when to leave; and part of the problem is personal — that he doesn’t seem to ask himself if there is such a thing as a right time to leave. Since it is not an issue for him, he can’t imagine that it’s an issue for us. In itself our friend’s foible should not be a major problem, but if it is symptomatic of a more pervasive heedlessness it will unnecessarily taint all his future relationships; he will be a casualty of his own casualness. Obliviousness to these little proprieties will habituate him to a general insensitivity to other people, which is bound in turn to influence his moral choices. This is why a Confucian upbringing will insist on strict attention to proprieties from an early age; courtesy and morality are tightly wrapped around each other, because both are planted in knowledge of the human heart. Nineteenth century novelists like Austen, Balzac, and James are astoundingly perceptive about the intricate web of Li, which weaves every individual person and action into a whole: In these circles where trifles are of such importance, a gesture or a word at the outset is enough to ruin a newcomer. It is the principal merit of fine manners and the highest breeding that they produce the effect of a harmonious whole, in which every element is so blended that nothing is startling or obtrusive. Even those who break the laws of this science, either through ignorance or carried away by some impulse, must comprehend that it is with social intercourse as with music, a single discordant note is a complete negation of the art itself, for the harmony exists only when all its conditions are observed down to the least particular. (Balzac, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, 1.2).
It would be exhausting to think through the proprieties of every single interaction in this way. One of the beauties of Li is that if we are fairly well trained, we will behave appropriately most of the time without thinking about it. Propriety should be mostly automatic, like the autonomous processes that regulate a healthy body. In carefully observing what is “done” or “not done” from childhood on, we learn first to submit our egos to an impersonal, impartial substratum in social interactions: it’s not about us, but about the neutral space in which we exist with other people. A person who is good at Li actually derives satisfaction from participating in this neutral space, which can elevate us above petty, personal concerns. The attunement to propriety may actually be a necessary foundation for any kind of spiritual practice, because it is the first step in the control of ego. Li also allows us to move on to the next interaction, and not get stuck in paroxysms of remorse for our mistakes, which would be just as much ego as never admitting a mistake. It is like playing any kind of game: we follow the rules without emotional investment, taking them as immutable in the world of the game — and when we make an error, we fail, learn, and continue. In video games, we calmly die, and then resume the next game a little wiser.