The Complete Human Being

Last Mother’s Day I read a young man’s tribute to his mother, who gave birth to him at 17 and then spent every joule of her waking energy making sure that he got every opportunity in life. The tribute expressed love, gratitude, respect, and above all, clear-eyed understanding of everything she had done for him. I was so moved by the goodness both of the young man’s words and of the mother he described that for a few minutes I did not notice what I was eating and instead found myself savoring the thought of goodness. Similarly, I think we all have known people of such goodness that we would prefer to live in poverty with them, or even in jail, than in abundant prosperity with anybody else. There are one or two people I would be happy to eat stale bread and drink water with at any time, and many other people from whom I would turn down an invitation, no matter how good the meal promised to be. 

   Xunzi, who claims to have a grimly realistic appraisal of the innate rottenness of human nature, nevertheless has faith that we are capable of learning to love goodness so intensely that all lesser desires have no hold on us. A Junzi, or superior human being, 

…trains his eyes so that they desire only to hear what is right, his ears so that they desire to hear only what is right, his mind so that it desires only to think what is right. When he has truly learned to love what is right, his eyes will take greater pleasure in it than in the five colors; his ears will take greater pleasure than in the five sounds; his mouth will take greater pleasure than in the five flavors; and his mind will find keener delight than in the possession of the world. When he has reached this stage, he cannot be subverted by power of the love of profit; he cannot be swayed by the masses; he cannot be moved by the world. He follows this one thing in life; he follows it in death. This is what is called constancy of virtue. He who has such constancy of virtue can order himself, and, having ordered himself, he can respond to others. He who can order himself and respond to others — this is what is called the complete man.  (Hsün Tzu, tr. Watson, pp.22-23)

A follower of Mencius would argue that we cannot be innately bad if we have the capability to become such complete human beings, but Xunzi would reply that the tendency to follow our meaner impulses is much stronger than the capacity for virtue (just look at the news!) and that our moral development is undertaken against the grain, as it were — even though it results in greater joy. The seed of virtue in us might be smaller and less abundant than all the other seeds, but with careful nurturing it an outgrow them all. For Xunzi the nurturing of this seed occurs through the training of  Li, propriety, which will be discussed in another post. This training will have to be a combination of habitual action, self-reflection, and contemplation of good and bad, because to be a good person it is not enough to do good things, but we must also love goodness whenever we come across it. How is it possible to learn to love goodness?

   The greatest insight of this passage is the remark that only when the self has been ordered in accordance with love of virtue is it possible to respond to others. The disordered soul — the one that is tugged about by sensuous delights and mental stimulations — lives at the whim of its own dissatisfactions, anxieties, and cravings — and all the projections that are caused by those. It is not capable of seeing another person calmly and impartially but instead absorbs the other person into its own passionate miasma. The person who sincerely loves goodness and who is moved by it in all its forms is the one who can respond, and without this capacity to respond to another human being, there is no genuine relationship or social life. Without a capacity for relationship, we cannot become complete human beings. In this we find the fundamental difference between a Daoist and Confucian view of life. For a Confucian, the fullness and wholeness of an individual human life is inconceivable without good relationships, but good relationships are only possible through careful training in propriety and goodness; without that, we might as well be alone.

Becoming an Adult

What is the relation between manners and morality? In a recent interview Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, modestly downplays the importance of manners: “Manners restrain impulses that annoy others; they seldom govern the great passions. It would take perfect morals, not just manners, to nullify the greater ills of the world. “(Washington Post, March 26, 2017) She seems on the one hand to be drawing a fine line between the two, but on the other to be claiming that the difference is simply one of magnitude. If “manners” refers only to an intricate code of conduct that can be followed by rote while disorderly emotions boil and bubble beneath the surface, like lava inside a volcano, then manners are merely forms of restraint, and do not express positive character traits except the power of self-restraint — which cannot be a meaningful end in itself.  

   If, for example, “manners” included only the knowledge of which pieces of silverware to use at any given phase of dinner, and the trained dexterity to eat without spilling a drop while conducting polite conversation with one’s neighbor, then the command of manners is perfectly compatible with wicked thoughts and high crimes. But if by “manners” we mean more than that, encompassing a refinement of sensibility that finds its focus in creating peace of mind and relaxed comfort in our neighbors, partly by rendering the physical and technical demands of the occasion smooth and unobtrusive, and partly through warm and memorable conversation — then “manners” can be understood to border on care for other people and for social groups. We may begin the acquisition of good table manners by imitation and rote, but the consummation of good table manners is in understanding how they serve people. The same applies to the learning of good hygiene habits, which may take years: clean body, fresh breath, nice smell, hair in order, clean clothes, frequent hand-washing. At first learning all this is a dreary imposition necessitating struggle, but after a while we learn to like being clean and fragrant, and after that, we realize that one big reason for all this is consideration for the health and comfort of other people. 

   In Confucius, the word li (translated ritual, ceremony, propriety) expresses the area of overlap between manners and morals. It is possible for manners to be a rote performance, and it is possible for a sense of justice and kindness to exist apart from manners, but all truly good manners are pervaded by intention and consideration. Often we learn the latter through many years of going through the motions, as with hygiene. Li covers the formalities, often unstated, of human interaction: how children relate to parents, parents to children, sibling to sibling, student to teacher, and so on, are all forms of  li, and we might spend many years figuring out how to do each one of these. A good analogy for the modern world is professional ethics. There is a stated as well as an unstated code of conduct between doctor and patient: both behave to each other in certain ways, not overstepping certain boundaries and maintaining an elegant economy in the relationship. For instance, the tv shows they each prefer to watch are not relevant to this interaction. Both of them enter the interaction with respect for the formal integrity of the doctor-patient relationship, in which each has a distinct role to play. This respect is li as a disposition, and when Confucians speak of “having li” what they mean is “having the feeling for li.” This feeling for li is rooted in an understanding of the human heart and in respect both for other people and for the social web in which we encounter them. The man who lacks li will think only about himself and make everything center on himself.

   Li takes us out of ourselves, and we start learning to do this from the time we start interacting with people. Through li, we learn how to submit to the needs of other people and of the community. If 90% of all ethical and spiritual training consists of whittling the ego down to more manageable size, then this is usually accomplished through li in all its complex forms. Without li, we would never grow up. Confucius puts it like this:


If you do not study li, you will lack the means to stand. (16.13)

By that curious verb stand what he means is “stand on your own two feet as an adult among adults.” I remember as a young man marveling at the confidence of older men, who knew how to carve the turkey and preside over a feast, who knew how to treat women well and to handle surly teenagers with gentle authority, and who could navigate finances and legalities with clarity. Such men could flag down taxis with ease and get instant attention from waiters. What I didn’t realize as a youngster is that these are trained men, hammered and forged in the smithy of li like a blade of 360 folds of steel. The best of them are not just passive products of the system, but know clearly why they do what they do and why they do it the way they do it. Their li is infused and animated with care for others, and thus inseparable from their moral goodness.

   Great passions and transgressions do not spring from nothing. Usually they are seeded in ordinary habits of speech or action, and nurtured there day by day. For a good person, manners and morality form a continuum, but perhaps for most of us there will always be some kind of tension between li and our “great passions.”


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

Home Truths

“How fortunate I am! If I should make a mistake, others are sure to inform me.” (Analects, 7.31, tr.Slingerland)

Whenever I am having one of those “bad days” when everyone around me seems determined to unload painful home-truths in my face, I deliberately bring to mind this sentence of Confucius as balm for my cuts. As deliciously ironic as it is, such that I have wanted it embossed on my office door as daily warning and therapy, it also reminds me that deep in my heart I actually want to be surrounded by eagle-eyed critics who will point out if I am performing beneath my own standards.

   The core of the Confucian way is daily self-reflection: clear resolutions, assiduously put into practice, and then reviewed. The extremely earnest student Zeng puts it like this:

“Every day I examine myself on three counts: in my dealings with others, have I in any way failed to be dutiful? In my interactions with friends and associates, have I in any way failed to be trustworthy? Finally, have I in any way failed to repeatedly put into practice what I teach?” (1.4)

Carefully following each of these three criteria will result in the cultivation of an impressive human being — one that you would want as a colleague, boss, subordinate, governor, and even family member. While Zeng himself often seems to lack the warmth of heart necessary to balance and animate these principles of behavior, what he is giving us here are three standards according to which we can pragmatically evaluate our performance and articulate what we need to do next. Becoming a better human being involves practice, not just aspiration.

   But it is very hard to evaluate ourselves. Can we really see our own faults? It is remarkable how even good human beings can be unaware of serious problems in their behavior towards others — flaws of ego that can grate on their loved ones, and make their colleagues hate them. Even Confucius occasionally despairs of the possibility of self-reflection:

The Master said, “I should just give up! I have yet to meet someone who is able to perceive his own faults and then take himself to task inwardly.” (5.31)
   This is why it is a wonderful thing that we have an abundance of people who can see all our errors and faults, and who will inevitably point them out to us. It is just as wonderful as the fact that “nothing in the universe is hidden,” that our virtues and vices are all manifest, and that sooner or later people pick up everything about us. Confucius remarks elsewhere, Where can we hide, where can we hide? Life may leave us feeling raw and vulnerable, but in the end we should be grateful for all those critics and enemies — because they reveal to us what we cannot see for ourselves.

On Loving Virtue More Than Sex


The Master said, “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as he loves sex.” (Analects, 9.18)

The character 色, translated “sex” here, is literally “color” and therefore can also be extended to mean “good looks” and “appearance.” Thus, the sentence has been translated: “I have yet to meet a man who loves virtue as much as feminine beauty” — hence “sexual attractiveness,” and then “sex.”  It can also be translated: “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as the appearance of virtue” — which sounds like La Rochefoucauld. The alternative translations strike me as less punchy and incisive than simply “sex,” which holds a straightforward, down-to-earth insight into the relation of our ideals to our all-too-human desires. While I am fairly certain that Confucius is exaggerating a little, is his observation not generally true? It reveals a grimly realistic side to a sage who has often been faulted for his idealism. He is well aware of the power of the erotic to destabilize even a good person.

   That irrational, quasi-physical responses of attraction and aversion can usually override rational valuations and idealistic attachments is a fact we are all well acquainted with. Nietzsche’s version of this has to do with smell: What separates two people most profoundly is a different sense and degree of cleanliness. What avails all decency and mutual usefulness and good will toward each other — in the end the fact remains: “They can’t stand each other’s smell!” (Beyond Good and Evil, 271) 

   However, Confucius is not only commenting on the relative powers of these two tendencies in ourselves; he is also wondering why it is that in most people the commitment to virtue is not as natural or spontaneous as sexual attraction. The 11th century Confucian thinker Xie Liangzuo suggests that this Analect is in fact an exhortation to cultivate sincerity: Loving a beautiful woman or hating a foul smell — these are examples of sincerity. If one could only love Virtue the way one loves female beauty, this would mean sincerely loving Virtue. Unfortunately, few among the people are able to do this. (Slingerland, p.93)