The Teachings of Confucius: “Ren”

Ren is translatable as “humanity,” “humaneness,” “goodness,” “benevolence,” or “love”. It is considered a foundational pillar in Confucianism and is intended to promote the flourishing of a community.

Ren is viewed in the context of the Confucian perspective of human nature being social. The person is embedded within a community from which he derives his identity. As such, the influential Chinese philosopher Confucius (c. sixth century BCE) placed his focus extensively on community and social harmony. The concept of ren is one such major manifestation of this interest of his.

The Analects, a text attributed to Confucius containing dialogues between him and his disciples, presents several lists of the virtues of ren. For example, in chapter 12 verse 3, ren is defined as having a constraint on speech: “Sima Niu asked about ren. The Master said, “The person who is ren speaks with reluctance.” In 17.6, in response to a question from his disciple Zizhang, Confucius responds in some detail,

The Master said, “He who can enact five things in the world is ren.” When asked for details, he went on, “Reverence, tolerance, trustworthiness, quickness, and generosity. He is reverent, hence he receives no insults; he is tolerant, hence he gains the multitudes; he is trustworthy, hence others entrust him with responsibilities; he is quick, hence he has accomplishments; he is generous, hence he is capable of being placed in charge of others.

A love for ren means that nothing is to be put above it (4.6) and it must be accompanied by a love for learning (17.8). It is incorruptibility, steadfastness, simplicity, and reticence (13.27), respect for one’s elder (1.2), having no hatred in the heart (4.3), cherishing people (12.22), and being valorous (14.4). Ren is used by the wise and without it one may lack joy (4.2), and experience chaos when put under stress (8.10). What ren is not is ingratiating speech (17.7), ignorance (17.8), and chaos (8.10).

In one passage, Confucius is said to speak rarely of ren (9.1). But clearly the Analects contains many sayings in which Confucius speaks about the idea. This passage probably indicates that Confucius seldom spoke of events or actions in these terms. In 4.3 one finds a contradiction between love and hate attributed to the concept: “The Master said, Only the ren person can love others and hate others”. This has led scholars to view this as evidence of a complex editorial process behind the Analects

Confucius placed within the concept of ren many virtues. But he did not seem to “view those virtues as equally important, nor did he see them as disconnected. Some virtues figured in his teachings more prominently than others…” (1). Despite this, all the virtues are connected to the overarching goal of social harmony.

Arguably to feature most importantly in his teaching on ren is jing (translated as “respect” or “reverence”) or gong (“courtesy” or “respectfulness”). Despite the minor variances between jing and gong, they can largely be treated as referring to the same virtue: respect.

Confucius considered respect particularly essential in one’s interaction with his parents. Out of respect, one must not give parents cause for worry other than when one is ill (2.6). One must care for his parents (2.7) and, should he travel a long distance from home, reassure them where he is going so they can have peace of mind (4:19). When his parents are thinking of doing something wrong, he must remain respectful in his attempt to dissuade them from wrongdoing (4.18). He must nonetheless remain obedient and bear no complaint. 

Ren is linked to the ideal of the junzi: “If one takes ren away from a junzi, wherein is he worthy of the name?” (4.5). Junzi, which is an ideal moral actor (the term is sometimes rendered as “gentleman”), is also a detailed concept in the teaching of Confucius, which deserves its own separate treatment.

References

1. Shirong, Luo. 2012. “Setting the Record Straight: Confucius’ Notion of Ren”. Dao 11:39-52. p. 40.

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