Exploring Human Potential

Ren: Goodness = Good Governance

Posted on | July 3, 2013 | No Comments

Mike Magee

In this post-July 4th period, we do well to revisit The Ren.

Why?  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.

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 in this post-July 4th period.

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.


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