Exploring Human Potential

All We Need Is “Ren”.

Posted on | February 7, 2013 | 4 Comments

Mike Magee

As a Boomer who hit 65 last month, there is something in the air these days that is reminiscent of the 1960’s. Back then, there was a very public and sharp divide over Civil Rights and the Vietnam war that brought our country to a boiling point and provided the high powered octane to fuel the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. Growing up then, there were days when I stood alone and just shook my head in disbelief. The inhumanity, the cruelty, the waste of human life was nearly unbearable. It was a time that was fundamentally and deeply unsettling.

Though many in my generation would argue that nothing can quite compare to those days, there is a part of me that is unsettled today as well. We have a deep divide of opinion in our country that is visible and at times vitriolic. We have issues that should be manageable in a civil manner, like health coverage, or gun control, or financial regulation, that generate destructive fuel and drive extremist engines in our society. And we have the assassinations of little children in schools followed by Wayne LaPierre’s on-camera performance that not only lacked contrition but seemed to champion the inhumanity of it all.

I have no doubt that sanity will prevail. But to do so, we will need all the Ren we can harness. Ren is one of the 5 essential virtues described by Confucius (551-479 BC) , which include:

Rén (仁, Humaneness)
Lǐ (禮, Rituals, Customs, Rites)
Zhì (智, Knowledge)
Xìn (信, Integrity).
Yì (義, Righteousness or Justice)

Humanism is at the core an ethical philosophy meant to be practiced by all the members of a society. Confucius considered humans to be fundamentally good.  But preservation and growth in humanism meant practice, and that required strength, courage, knowledge and integrity. It is within us, but requires actualization.  “Rén is not far off; he who seeks it has already found it.”, he said.

The ideogram Rén is a composite of 人 (Man, a man, a person ) and 二 (two), felt by some to mean “how two people should treat one another”. Scholars generally translate it to mean “benevolence” or “humaneness”. To them, humaneness is inate and the essence of being human. Confucius grounded the concept in familial behaviors by describing it in the emotionally charged context of a completely dependent infant and caring parent.  “To love a thing means wanting it to live…”., was his view.

Rén is tied as well to the concepts of li and yi. Li is often translated as “ritual” or “customs”, and focuses on the everyday secular functions of life, including education, music, and etiquette that contribute to creating healthy and content human beings. Yi is the principle of justice and righteousness which allows one to take the right action at the right time. Yi and li are often, but not always aligned.

Zhi, knowledge, and Xin, integrity, were viewed strategically. Confucius believed nearly 2500 years ago that the pace of change in the world was rapid. His hedge or main strategy to manage change was to think and acquire knowledge constantly in order to ensure long term integrity. To Confuscius being uninformed and ignorant was risky, especially in a leader.

Confuscius believed goodness in individuals directly led to good governance. He promoted the ideal of “gentleman”. This was embodied in the the term jūnzǐ (Chinese: 君子; literally “lord’s child”). Confucianism exhorts all people to strive for the ideal of a “gentleman” or “perfect man”. A gentleman “combines the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman.” These leaders possessed a healthy dose of Ren. As such Ren had a powerful political dimension. On the other hand, the absence of Ren in a leader had serious negative implications for the future of the society and its members. Confuscius understood the difference between positive and negative leaders long ago.

My father was a doctor and a gentleman, not a perfect man, but one open to perfecting himself.  He understood these 5 virtues:
Yì (義, Righteousness or Justice)
Lǐ (禮, Rituals, Customs, Rites)
Zhì (智, Knowledge)
Xìn (信, Integrity)
and was still working on them, though with diminished capacity, when he died of Alzheimer’s Disease.

His core humaneness prevailed because he had Ren – as do we all. And when all else was gone, what was left was his esssense. As a nation trying to right itself in a manner that is progressive, informed, comfortable with change, and anchored by enduring relationships, we need to support women and men who wish to join the ranks of  “saints, scholars and gentlemen”, and then we need to try to be like them.

Confucius promoted two Golden Rules that still have standing: 1) “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others;” 2) “Since you yourself desire standing then help others achieve it, since you yourself desire success then help others attain it.”

Good advice for all members of this modern society.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee

Additional Resources:

1. Biography of Confuscius. Confuscius Publishing Company Limited.
2. Confuscius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
3. Juergensmeyer M. The Oxford Handbook On Global Religions. 2011.
4. In Our Time. Confuscius. BBC Radio.
5. Legge, J. Translation of Confucian Analects.


4 Responses to “All We Need Is “Ren”.”

  1. All we need is Ren « Profncampbell's Blog
    February 7th, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    […] All we need is Ren February 7, 2013 All We Need Is “Ren”. […]

  2. Sheila Strand
    February 7th, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

    Beautifully said. Would it be that we all could strive to achieve these hallmarks of humane behavior, especially our “hired” politicians in DC who can’t seem to get out of their own way. Thank you for this chewy post, Mike.

  3. Dana
    February 8th, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    Thank you so much for this rich, thoughtful post. I appreciate your leadership!

  4. Mike Magee
    February 8th, 2013 @ 9:45 am

    The Ren dialogue continues this morning with David Brooks editorial in the New York Times.( He describes some of the basic teachings of Machiavelli around governance which counterbalances Confucian teachings. And then he reminds us (re: drone strikings and Presidential direction, that Constitutional insistence on balance of power was intended to protect against any single individual over-reaching or over-reacting. A good point, I thought.

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