Demanding Much of Yourself


Thinking generally about Confucius’ resonant way with words and more particularly about his use of 遠 (“far, distant”), I remembered this piece of valuable advice:

子曰:躬自厚而薄責於人,則遠怨矣。

The Master said, “Demand much of yourself but ask little of others, and you will keep resentment at a distance.” (Analects, 15.15, tr.Slingerland)

The translator here is trying to keep the ambiguity of the last sentence: stay far from being resented by others as well as keep feelings of resentment far from your own heart. If you ask too much of others and too little of yourself, everyone will hate you — and because such unrealistic expectations of others are doomed to disappointment, you will begin to hate them too. The superior person stays far, aloof, from this two-directional blame-game not by adopting a posture of no resentment, but by cutting off the problem at the roots — that is, by adjusting demands and expectations. It is good medicine for restoring ourselves to sanity.

   The Annals of Lü Buwei (c.239 BC), the great Qin Dynasty encyclopedia of all things Chinese, has a passage amplifying on this:

Therefore, the [superior person’s] demands upon others are determined by the other’s abilities, whereas his demands upon himself are determined by the standard of rightness. If your demands upon others are determined by their abilities, they will be easy to satisfy, and if your demands are easy to satisfy, you will win over people. If your demands upon yourself are determned by rightness then it will be difficult for you to do wrong, and if it is difficult for you to do wrong then your conduct will be refined. In this way you can easily take responsibility for the whole world and still have energy to spare. Unworthy people are not this way: they demand rightness from others, and demand from themselves what anyone can attain. When you demand rightness from others, your demands are difficult to meet, and when your demands are difficult to meet you alienate others. When you demand from yourself what anyone can attain, it is easy to do as you wish, and when it is easy to do as you wish, conduct becomes careless. (Annals of Lü Buwei, ch.19.8, tr. Knoblock and Riegel)
   Savored cold, this advice seems like good common sense — but on the hotplate of daily living, it is easy to lose track of this and lapse into our usual cycles of grumbling, blame, and disappointment. It is always everyone else who is at fault, indeed the whole world: only our own farts never smell bad.

   The Qing Dynasty Confucian scholar Wu Tingdong pointedly asks: Learning [self-cultivation] is carried on with regard to yourelf only — if you are sincere and strict in regulating yourself, when would you have the time to make demands upon others?

[I am grateful to Edward Slingerland for pointing out both of these quotations in his note to this Analect.]

“May I Ask About Death?”


Lu said, “May I ask about death?” Confucius said, “If you don’t understand what life is, how will you understand death?” (11.12)

Confucius’ answer is exquisitely wry. Just as Lu’s question probably made him smile, this answer probably made Lu smile with a glimmer of satori. Why is it that we like to ask this kind of speculative question? — after all, the living being we ask it of has had no direct experience of death, and even if he could give an answer how could we begin to understand it? It is like someone who has never experienced love asking a person in love to explain it to him: how could he know whether or not he has understood the explanation? With one brief sentence, Confucius sweeps away the speculative fascination with death. 

   It must have come as a flash to Lu that to understand life takes at least a lifetime. All of Confucius’ teachings push us to examine our own hearts and the web of relationships that we find ourselves in: parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends, servants, superiors, teachers, students. The way to become a full human being takes us through the arduous complexities of all these relationships, which consume our attentions every day, and which change constantly. It is a characteristic of our fundamental relationships that each time we think we have mastered something, it shifts onto new ground. With so much work to do — right here, right now, with our aging parents, our anxious spouses, our adolescent children with their hearts boiling in tumult — why should we distract ourselves with theoretical questions beyond the reach of experience?

   Montaigne, who meditated on death throughout his life, realized in one of his later essays that the people he knew who died with simple dignity tended to be ordinary people who also lived with simple dignity. Because they lived well, they died well:

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly; don’t bother your head about it…We trouble our life by concern about death, and death by concern about life…Philosophy orders us to have death ever before our eyes, to foresee and consider it before the time comes, and afterward gives us the rules and precautions to provide against our being wounded by this foresight and this thought. That is what those doctors do who make us ill so that they may have sonething on which to employ their drugs and their art. If we have not known how to live, it is wrong to teach us how to die, and make the end inconsistent with the whole. If we have known how to live steadfastly and tranquilly, we shall know how to die in the same way. (Montaigne, “On Physiognomy,” tr. Frame)

A Way with Words

Just as Socrates loved Homer enough to know the Iliad and Odyssey by heart, Confucius had the Book of Odes burned into his bones and memorized in his marrow; indeed, the Analects are permeated by the Odes. When one of the disciples asks Confucius’ son if there was anything his father taught him that he didn’t teach the disciples, the son replied, “No. He was standing alone once, when I passed below the hall with hasty steps, and said to me, ‘Have you learned the Odes?’ On my replying ‘Not yet,’ he added, If you do not learn the Odes, you will not have the wherewithal to speak.’ I retired and studied the Odes.” (16.13) 

   The Odes are the foundation for humane education, not for the sake of a merely technical skill with words (as in “grammar” and “rhetoric”) but for acclimating the young to a noble elevation and dignity, and stirring them to higher planes of character and admirable utterance, which may be absent in their ordinary lives:

The Master said, “It is by the Odes that the mind is inspired.
   “It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established.
   “It is from Music that the consummation is received.”
(8.8)

The Master said, “In the Book of Poetry are three hundred pieces, but the design of them all may be embraced in one sentence, ‘Having no base thoughts.’” (2.2)

   However, studying the Odes brings something more important than moral edification; it teaches us to read words of multiple significations and teases us into developing an ability to see beyond literal denotation. In the following exchange, we see the zealous Zi Gong making a connection and discovering hidden meaning in an old poem:

Zi Gong asked: “What do you think of a poor man who doesn’t grovel or a rich man who isn’t proud?” Confucius said, “They are good, but not as good as a poor man who is satisfied and a rich man who loves propriety.” Zi Gong said, “The Book of Odes says:

Like cutting and filing,
Grinding and polishing. 

“Is this what you are talking about?” Confucius said, “Ah, now I can begin to discuss the Book of Odes with Zi Gong. I speak of various things, and he knows what is coming.” (1.15)

In what Confucius says to him, Zi Gong hears the Ode and understands that he is being advised to keep working on himself. Confucius then humorously remarks that Zi Gong is now ready to grasp the deeper senses of the Odes. The Book of Odes has also become an occasion for two people to relate to one another in discussing goodness. 

   There is a similar conversation with the refined Zixia:

Zixia asked, saying, “What is the meaning of the verse: ’The pretty dimples of her artful smile! The well-defined black and white of her eye! The plain ground for the colors?’”
   The Master said, “The business of laying on the colors follows the preparation of the plain ground.”
   “Ritual then is a secondary thing?” 
   The Master said, “It is Shang who can bring out my meaning! Now I can begin to talk about the odes with him.”
(3.8)

Here, the student brings out a profound implication that pleasantly surprises the teacher, who is surely grateful to be shown a hitherto undiscovered meaning in a long-familiar poem. 

   One of the greatest pleasures in life is to have friends who “share” with us a common body of beloved poetry; it is like owning a landscape in common, in which we can roam together freely and find beautiful things to show one another. Confucius is so happy to “know” a man’s heart through the poems he loves that he even bestows his niece on a student for loving the right poem:

Nan Rong frequently recited the verse of the “White Jade Table.” Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter to wed. (11.6, tr.A.C.Muller)

The verse in question expresses commitment to carefulness with words: “A flaw in a white jade tablet may be polished away; but nothing can be done for a flaw in one’s words.” (Odes, 256) Confucius is moved to find Nan Rong reciting this verse so often, perhaps even when he thinks he is alone. Both of them know that the steadfast care for words reveals a far deeper commitment: to truth, to troth, and to character that is built through saying what we mean, no more and no less, and through saying it well. A man with such a character would make a trustworthy husband for a beloved niece.

   An education founded on studying the Odes develops a sensibility for terse, suggestive language, and the intuitive sympathy essential for “getting” such language. The intuitive sympathy extends to keeping pace with our friends who also “get” the poems and who might see different sides to them. Thus, the Odes provide a place of congregation for an entire community, and an occasion to learn to read another human being’s words with penetration. If all moral action depends on a capacity for accurate sympathy, what better way to cultivate that than through imbibing the Odes at at early age?

   Although in most translations Confucius comes across as a tedious Polonius obsessed with correct usages, in his own language he is obviously somebody with a gift for resonant, poetic language. Throughout the entire Analects he takes conventional terms — such as junzi, ren, li — and re-animates them with new meaning. Take, for instance, the passage I presented in my previous essay:

 “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

In my first attempt at this, I read it too narrowly to refer only to slander and utterance intended to hurt. After a conversation with a friend who is more sensitive to Confucius’ language than I am, I realized that statements that shock like a flesh-wound encompasses a broad range of vicissitudes, including legal and financial catastrophes, betrayals and news of deaths, and medical upsets. The culminating adjective is literally “far” — a common word, but dense with possibilities. Disambiguating it, translators end up with something clear but flat, such as “perceptive” or “aloof.” But “far” says so much more: aloof, far away, transcendent, seeing far and wide, far-penetrating, far-reaching…Only a poet would have ended this Analect with a word so concrete and rich. 

   Unlike a language like Sanskrit, with its intricate grammatical structure that tends to over-specify the relations between the words of a sentence, Chinese tends to under-specify and leave abundant room for the intuitive intelligence that enjoys seeing all the possible connections. Confucius’ language draws on this tendency. With each sentence he gives us a corner and invites us to discover three more. But as we see, it is much more than a pedagogical ruse: Confucius’ way with words has its womb in the Odes. He keeps to this Way because all healthy social interaction depends on an ability to read freely and sympathetically between the lines, and on the cultivated tactful intelligence that can understand without needing to spell out. Without this, all social interactions descend into legalism, where every term has to be defined in order to be “used” more effectively in the justifications of argument. Lifelong immersion in the Odes may preserve us from this descent.

Strength of Mind


Occasionally Confucius says things that might also be found in the pages of Epictetus:

子張問明。子曰。浸潤之譖、膚受之愬、不行焉、可謂明也已矣。浸潤之譖、膚受之愬、不行焉、可謂遠也已矣。

Zi Zhang asked about intelligence. The Master said, “He whose actions are influenced neither by slander that gradually poisons the mind, nor by statements that shock like a flesh-wound, may be called intelligent. Indeed, he who bases actions neither on poisonous slander nor on shocking statements may even be called far-seeing/above it all.” (Analects, 12.6)

This simple, pithy assertion has at least two other “corners.”. 

   First, it is a general defense against circumambient attempts in social life to influence us against some people and for other people by spreading negative comments. Most of our social interactions is just “noise” to create allegiances by people who actually do not care to verify the truth of what is being claimed; instead, slanders are always based on what other people are expected to consider “probable.”  The wise person inoculates himself to this noise by observing the old adage, Believe 50% of what you see, and nothing of what you hear. Confucius reminds us several times in the Analects that wisdom is built on knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It is obvious why a clear grasp of what we really know might lead to more accurate decisions and more effective action, but practicing this requires disciplining our minds: we have to slow down, think carefully about what we know and don’t know, and review frequently. This is more easily said than done.

   The wise person becomes impervious to negative “noise” initially by being more cautious with regard to what is “in the air,” and later by actually being able to distinguish between knowledge and surmise. It is not by shutting down to everything dislikeable that we might hear but by staying open and cultivating shrewdness.

   Yet even this is easier to do than to maintain equanimity in the face of toxic utterances made about ourselves — utterances made by enemies, employers, colleagues, so-called friends, and even family members and loved ones. Which of us can avoid feeling hurt by such statements? Part of the pain comes from being misunderstood and misrepresented, but a large part of it is from knowledge that the people making the utterance are not primarily interested in truth but are either wishing to hurt or seeking some kind of emotional leverage. Unlike Epictetus, Confucius does not ask us to feel nothing about that — since it is natural to feel pain if one’s parents or children are actively trying to hurt us. Rather, it suffices not to act on it: we can slow down, reflect, and put a separating wall between the garbage we might hear and the good we should do. 

   This, according to Confucius, is the mark of someone who is not only intelligent but also detached, whose mind is  far above the toxic sludge. This is why the final key character 遠, yuan, has been interpreted as both far-seeing and distant, detached.

   




Dilemmas of Propriety (Li)

顏淵問仁。子曰。克己復禮、爲仁.
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.    

   

Why English Needs the Word “Dao”


English badly needs a word like “Dao.” We already have many words for “path, trail, track,” and can extend the literal sense of these words to expressions like “life’s path” or “career track” or “course of study” — to convey something that we move along stepwise, whether a progression in learning or in character development. However, “Dao” — while literally also “path” or “way” — differs from “track” or “course” in the same way that a path in a city park differs from a deer path through a forest: the former has been laid out by man for clarity and convenience, and is impossible to get lost on — while the latter winds with the devious logic of nature over inconvenient terrain, and we need to give it our full attention at all times. Many of our nost serious preoccupations can be treated  either as “courses” or as “Daos.”

   For example, in the study of Greek geometry, we could be fixated on tracing the exact sequence of Euclid’s argumentation, so that at the end of all thirteen books we could reasonably be asked to reproduce Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean theorem. This would be Euclid’s Elements as a course. To consider it a Dao, we have to penetrate the arguments given and “get” the spirit through which his insights are generated. To do this we have to master the steps he given us, but we also have to see past those steps to alternatives hidden in the depths. This is the beginning of learning how to think and imagine as geometers, not just imitate. The same distinction applies to the learning of languages. We could work through the textbook and master every rule and structure given. Since the textbook is a distillation of the conventionally correct use of the language, it is a “course” built upon the past — but can the teaching of structures and patterns lead to a “feel” for the language that is capable of generating new variations on the old? If we wanted to get the Dao of English, let’s say, we would have to immerse ourselves in the great creative masters — Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce — and absorb their ways, having understood what is inimitable about them. Our educational institutions usually limit themselves to what is teachable, but they can thereby close the doors to what is learnable.

   In the professions, we often see what has begun as a “course” of study turning into a Dao. For example, an educator is faced day after day with judgments and decisions in the classroom that his own academic preparation could not have foreseen; each week there will be new situations to expand and deepen his understanding of what it means to be an educator, and indeed of what education is. The Dao of teaching manifests only in experience and in unflagging passionate engagement with the work. The beginning teacher can have no conception what lies in store for him 30 years down the road. The same applies to all other professions — most notably those that have to navigate the full complexity of the human being, such as law and medicine. For the shallow practitioner, the careerist, there is only a collection of information and techniques for doing a job effectively and earning a decent living. But for the genuine practitioner, who enters the field with three eyes open and a raging hunger to go deeper, there is a Dao that cannot be explained to the novice. The hungry novice, however, picks it up from the master — as those of us know who have worked alongside one. 

   Looking for a word that might capture this richer, more interesting level of occupation, we might call it a “discipline” or an “art” — but those two words suggest too much agency in the practitioner. What really happens is that the Dao of learning, or law, or medicine, takes over — and we are drawn in and affected to the same degree as our engagement. The further we go, the more endless the field becomes — and this is both frightening and immensely satisfying. One of Confucius’ students, presumably contemplating the Dao of Confucius’ higher human being, expresses perfectly what it feels like to follow any true Dao:

   
顏淵喟然歎曰。仰之彌高、鑽之彌堅、瞻之在前、忽焉在後 夫子循循然善誘人:搏我以文、約我以禮。欲罷不能、旣竭吾才、如有所立、卓爾。雖欲從之、末由也已 。

Yan Yuan sighed in admiration saying: “Looking up to it, it gets higher. Boring into it, it gets harder. I see it in front, and suddenly it is behind me. My master skillfully guides his students a step at a time. He has broadened me with literature, disciplined me with propriety. I want to give up, but I can’t. I have exhausted my ability, yet it seems as if there is something rising up in front of me. I want to follow it, but there is no way.” [9.11]

A superficial student never gets this far: for such a student, pitifully, A grades are enough. 

   Besides the vocational Daos, there are primal human Daos: being a mother or father, a brother or sister, a child, a husband or wife. Each of these “paths” brings up new and unpredictable challenges every day, and we could not have predicted most of them. It takes a lifetime to learn how to be a child to one’s parents, and more than a lifetime to learn how to be a parent to one’s child. Who would have thought it would feel this way to lose a parent? Who would have thought that when our first child is born we would lose interest in most of our prior friendships and activities? Each role is a journey with distinct milestones that could not have been predicted. In giving ourselves over to these journeys, we extend ourselves by letting ourselves be shaped by the path. Of course, it is possible to be the kind of person who shuts down and does everything by dutiful rote; such a person traverses a course, but never understands anything of Dao.

   The Chinese philosophers all speak of a big, all-encompassing Dao, without necessarily agreeing on what it is. We may not have the wherewithal to assess their claims, but in each of our lives we can see that there are not only courses of study and action, but a handful of important Daos that lead us through the vast forest. We can know them only by following them, and by being fully awake and intelligent at every turn. 

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:

不學禮、無以立

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

子曰。人之過也、各於其黨。觀過、斯知仁矣。

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

On Not Treating People Like Pigs or Pets


Everyone sooner or later winds up in the position of taking care of someone, and many of us will take care of our parents. This is one essential part of being human — especially since we too at some point will be taken care of by someone. Looking after parents is difficult enough: not only do we have their physical needs to attend to, but we also have to negotiate the irritability, inflexibility, and repetitiousness that comes with getting older. This can be taxing and exhausting, but to Confucius, filiality, or xiao, requires a deeper engagement than just this fusion of helpfulness and patience.

Zi You asked about the meaning of filial piety. Confucius said, “Nowadays filial piety means being able to feed your parents. But everyone does this for even horses and dogs. Without respect, what’s the difference?” (Analects 2.7, tr. A.C.Muller)
   A hundred years after Confucius, Mencius articulates the same thought with more power:

“To feed people without loving them — that is to treat them like pigs. To love people without respecting them — that is to keep them like pets.” ( Mencius, 7.A.37)

   Thus Confucius’ vision reaches far beyond xiao to all our interactions with people. I find myself reflecting on these rich aphorisms a lot in my daily interactions with the people who depend on me — my children and other family members, as well as people who need help in my work. Often their moods and mental states make them hard to love or respect, and at such times it is easier to grind dutifully through the actions of service. It helps then to pull back and reflect: If I were in their position, I would hate to be endured, put up with, while being served. The feeling of being served without love or respect makes the service all the more demeaning, such that I would prefer to be left alone to die in dignity. So, knowing well how I would feel, I quietly readjust my attitude and find in myself the capacity to love and respect — because Mencius is right, people are neither pigs nor pets. In my own experience sensitive people always know whenever they are being treated without love and respect; it is impossible to fake it.

   This principle surely extends to most forms of li (ritual, propriety, courtesy, all social formalities). With the handshake, for example, are we merely going through a rote gesture without thought or feeling — using it, as it were, to promote other ends? I think of the Donald Trump handshake, which hijacks a ritual by using it to demonstrate power. Or do we rather reflect on those two aspects of the handshake — the clasping of hands, indicating a willingness to get close enough for physical contact and a decision to trust the other; and the dance of hand-shaking, which expresses mutual concord and respect between equals? To be fully present in something like a handshake — as opposed to hiding behind it for some extraneous motive — we need to mean the handshake, not just do it. This is Confucius’ simple point about filial actions, li, and that great Confucian aspiration, sincerity: we must strive to mean what we do