Confucius’ Gutsy Harmony

Confucians are often stereotyped as docile peddlers of “social harmony,” a state of civil and familial peace that is achieved through smooth manners, strict obedience to hierarchy, and a smidgeon of sycophancy. Disparagers of Confucius frequently describe him as a propagandist of social control. The truth, however, is very different: even in the Analects he is always at odds with tyrants, and he is usually unemployed because politicians rarely like to be held to higher standards than profit and petty victories.

  When Duke Ding, nominal ruler of the state of Lu, asks Confucius if there can be “a single phrase which could ruin a country,”  

 孔子對曰。言不可以若是其幾也 人之言曰。予無樂乎爲君、唯其言而莫予違也。』 如其善而莫之違也、不亦善乎。如不善而莫之違也、不幾乎一言而喪邦乎。
Confucius answered, “… words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.” (13.15)
He is describing the kind of tyrant, familiar in our days, who wants power not because they want to rule,  but because power for them is a corroboration of their egos that is necessarily pained by criticism and craves loud agreement. If such a tyrant gets the universal agreement he seeks, the countrymwould disappear overnight into this man’s big mouth. 

   But harmonizing (和) is far from agreement (同):


The Master said: “The noble man harmonizes but does not merely agree. The inferior man agrees, but does not harmonize.” (13.23, tr. Slingerland)

An anecdote from the Spring and Autumn Annals sheds light on Confucius’ meaning:

The Marquis of Qi had returned from a hunt, and was being attended by Master Yan at the Chuan Pavilion when Ran Qiu came galloping up to them at full speed. The Marquis remarked, “It is only Ran Qiu who harmonizes (和) with me!” Master Yan replied, “Certainly Ran Qiu agrees (同 ) with you, but how can you say that he harmonizes with you?” The Marquis asked, “Is there a difference getween agreeing and harmonizing?” Master Yan answered, “There is a difference. Harmonizing is like cooking soup. You have water, fire, vnegar, puckle, salt, and plums with which to cook fish and meat. You heat it by means of firewood, and then the cook harmonizes the ingredients, balancing the various flavors, strengthening the taste of whatever is lacking and moderating the taste of whatever is excessive. Then the gentleman eats it, and it serves to relax his heart. The relationship between lord and minister is just like this. If in what the lord declares to be acceptable there is something that is not right, the minister submits to him that it is not right, and in this way what the lord declares to be acceptable is made perfect. If in what the lord declares to be wrong there is something that is, in fact, acceptable, the minister submits to him that it is acceptable, and in this way the inappropriate aspects of what the lord declares wrong are discarded. In this way, government is perfected, with no infringement upon what is right…Now, Ran Qiu is not like this. What his lord declares acceptable, he also declares acceptable; what his lord declares wrong, he also declares wrong. This is like trying to season water with more water — who would be willing to eat it? It is like playing nothing but a single note on your zither — who would want to listen to it?” (“Duke Zhao”, year 20, Spring and Autumn Annals, tr. Legge)

Harmony is formed from differences of perspective. As long as there are individual human beings, such differences are unavoidable, and the wise person is not afraid of them. Indeed, the tension between different views gives a more complex flavor to the broth. While the smaller human being will tend to be “lost” in his own view and want to obliterate all other views, the greater-souled human being — knowing that difference in society cannot be obliterated — will derive satisfaction from working with the intractable people in front of him, and will seek to act as a corrective — a balancer, a harmonizer– of their excesses. This requires tact, courage, and stubbornness. 


Zilu asked about serving one’s lord. The Master replied, “Do not deceive him. Oppose him openly.” (14.22, tr.Slingerland)

To do otherwise — blowing him off, as it were —  is to give up and turn one’s back on him — in effect, negating the difference by avoiding it. Mencius will say that if you don’t speak truth to your sovereign, you are in fact stealing from him.

   Confucian harmony is thus not at all the polished, non-confrontational gliding of silken bodies past one another. It involves direct, sincere, eye-to-eye confrontation, with civility and firmness. It works in accordance with Li, the code of propriety and mutual respect, and also Ren, humane goodness, through which we care about other people and seek the best for them. If we were wrong, we would want someone to point it out; if we were not wholly wrong but partially right, we would want someone to state the other side. Because there is difference, there is always another side. The harmonic human being is attuned to this, delights in it, and never stops trying to find either a resolution or an illuminating tension.

Four Faces of Confucian Goodness

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:

仲弓問仁。子曰。出門如見大賓。使民如承大祭。己所不欲、勿施於人。在邦無怨、在家無怨。 仲弓曰。雍雖不敏、請事斯語矣。
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




Studying Mistakes


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

Why Is Filiality “the Root of Goodness”?

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.