The name 'Confucianism' is a misnomer (please click here to see my explanation). From this point on, I will write 'Ruism' to replace 'Confucianism,' 'Ruist' to replace 'Confucian,' and 'Ru' to replace either 'Confucian' or 'Confucianist.' Even so, in order to show respect to these conventional usages in the Anglophone tradition, and especially to my readers, I will occasionally include these replaced words within brackets as necessary.
In explaining why I consider Confucianism to be a misnomer, I argued that a Ru (a Confucian) is a human being who tries, by virtue of his or her moral self-cultivation, to focus on learning and practicing 'civilized symbols' (li, 禮, conventionally translated as 'ritual') in order to create a condition of dynamic harmony (he, 和) within continually evolving life situations. Concerning this, I also explained that a sage (shengren, 聖人), according to Ruism, is a human exemplar of the Heavenly creation. A sage is able to respond spontaneously to various life situations such that a condition of dynamic harmony is continually being produced everywhere and whenever required. However, in my view, 'sagehood,' as the ideal of Ruist moral self-cultivation, can only be realized momentarily and partially. Thus, no human being on earth throughout the entirety of human history has ever or will fully become a sage.
Since this is so, the following questions remain to be answered: as a Ru, in what sense could we still accept 'sagehood' as the goal of our spiritual life? In what sense could we still honor and venerate Confucius as a sage, in the way that the tradition frequently tells us to do? In addition, if we do accept 'sagehood' as the ideal of moral self-cultivation, what 'stages,' if any, of a spiritual journey will we experience? By commenting on two of the major resources among the Ruist classics, I will try to provide some answers.
In Analects 6:13, Confucius admonishes Zi Xia (子夏, one of Confucius' students) as follows: "You should be a noble person sort of Ru (君子儒), rather than a petty person sort of Ru (小人儒)."
The puzzle here is that, since Ru (儒) is such an honorary title and was taken by the followers of Confucius as a way of distinguishing themselves from other schools of thought, why did Confucius think a Ru might be a petty person? In order to answer this question, we must first understand what Confucius means by 'noble person' (junzi, 君子) and by 'petty person' (xiaoren, 小人). Before Confucius, these titles referred mainly to social ranks. A noble person inherited a royal pedigree from his or her family, and usually took a position in the government. In contrast, a petty person was just an ordinary person among the general populace who were being governed by those noble persons. But Confucius was such an ethical egalitarian in his time that he no longer thought that inheriting a royal pedigree or occupying an official position could be the criterion for distinguishing a noble person from a petty one. Instead, Confucius thought that as long as a person behaved morally, he or she should be worthy of a noble title, but if he behaved immorally, even if he occupied a high governmental position, such a person would still be petty. More importantly, 'morality' in the Ruist tradition is defined as the feature of one's thoughts and deeds which can bring about a condition of dynamic harmony in concrete life situations. In this way, a petty Ru is one who masters certain skills in relation to the performance of civilized symbols (li, 禮) but is still unwilling or unable to correctly employ these skills to bring dynamic harmony to human society.
For example, perhaps we have all had the experience of meeting up with a pedantic and wacky teacher. Parasitic upon the social structure which consists of teacher and students, these teachers tend to use their knowledge and teaching skills, not for the sake of educating their students, but for the purpose of showing off, controlling, and ultimately, of feeding their own egos. In this way, these teachers can be called petty 'Ru' in accordance with the first connotation of the character Ru (儒), which means that they have mastered to a certain level those skills needed to live in human civilization and they know how to 'play' these civilized symbols. However, they cannot be thought of as 'Ru' in its second sense since they are incapable of 'moistening' (濡) their students' lives in the following sense: they are unable to create the conditions for dynamic harmony in their classroom such that everyone is able to nourish and support one another. In this sense, the teacher is a petty type of Ru, but not a noble type of Ru.
Understood in this way, what Confucius said to Zi Xia was a way of reminding him of the genuine goal of learning as a Ru: learning and practicing civilized symbols (li, 禮) ought to be oriented towards creating the conditions for dynamic harmony among all concerned participants in concrete life situations. Therefore, only when a Ru has committed himself to learning for this purpose, rather than merely for feeding his or her selfish ego, can he or she become a genuine Ru, a noble Ru, rather than a petty sort of Ru. The next question then is, what stages might we experience as we study and practice as a noble Ru?
In his Book of Penetration (通書), Zhou Dunyi (周敦頤, 1017-1072), a pioneering Neo-Confucian philosopher of the Song Dynasty, had a wonderful saying which provides a key clue to answering this question. He says,
"A learner aspires to become a worthy, a worthy aspires to become a sage, and a sage aspires to become Heaven-like" (士希賢, 賢希聖, 聖希天).
Accordingly, I will argue that 'Learner,' 'Worthy' and 'Sage' are the three stages that a noble sort of Ru experiences during his or her spiritual journey. Let's parse these out one by one.
A learner (shi, 士) is someone who has 'established his or her will' (立志) and thus is committed to learning to become a sage, as Confucius did when he was only fifteen (Analects, 2:4). Given the progress of human civilization and the massive accumulation of human knowledge since then, the task of a skillful mastery of all relevant resources in order to create the conditions for dynamic harmony in various life situations may seem daunting to a Ruist learner. However, the nobleness of a Ruist learner doesn't consist in how much he or she has mastered, but whether he or she can continue to learn so as to realize dynamic harmony throughout his or her entire life. With this sentence, Confucius teaches us that "a noble person ought not to be like a utensil" (君子不器, Analects 2:12). This means we can't merely gather up knowledge and skills for any particular set of purposes. We will need to broaden our knowledge and skills, making them as malleable as possible so that they can serve multiple purposes in human life and thereby create dynamic harmony within every life situation with which one is faced. But unless this means to be continuously learning and practicing, I am unable to figure out how a Ru could ever actually realize this ideal.
The spiritual status of a worthy (xian, 賢) has three facets. First, through an arduous and continuous process of learning and practicing, a learner can frequently succeed in creating a condition of dynamic harmony in a particular area of expertise. For example, for someone who is skilled in meditation, this may entail that he or she is able to discipline the body and mind so well that he or she is very much at ease in entering a highly meditative spiritual status. Such a person may also be skilled at teaching other people to master the same skill. In this way, this learner has achieved the status of a kind of 'sagehood' at some particular moment and in some particular area of his or her life. Second, this Ruist learner is able to connect his or her experience of 'dynamic harmony' to his or her particular dimension of human life in accordance with what is taught in the Confucian classics, and thus to understand his or her experience from a holistic, theoretical perspective, containing both the Dao of Heaven (a Ruist cosmology) and the Dao of Human Beings (a Ruist anthropology). Third, a Ruist learner must continue to learn and discipline him or herself, both in order to maintain mastery in his initial area of expertise and also in order to broaden his or her knowledge and skills so as to create conditions of dynamic harmony in other areas of life. Since the ideal of 'sagehood' can never be fully realized by any person on the earth, the process of learning to be a sage never ends (Analects, 8:7).
But when will a worthy be entitled to be called a 'sage'? During a worthy's life, he or she can never be treated as such, since no one can become fully a sage. But, as a Ru, I still cherish the title of 'sagehood' which the tradition has attached to Confucius. I believe, when the name of 'Confucius' (孔夫子) is invoked, many Rus experience devotional feelings similar to mine which makes us want to retain the title of 'sagehood,' the highest honor which our tradition can bestow, for our common teacher, Confucius. Therefore, I would agree that if a worthy has dedicated his or her whole life to learning to be a sage, and especially if he or she has never given up the Ruist ideal no matter what difficult situation he or she has lived through, and also, if he or she indeed has taught, nourished, and benefited many people in the world, then after his or her death, we ought to honor him or her with the title of sage. Quite obviously, honoring a sage cannot be made as a one-night decision by some cohort of Ruist worthies. It must be attested to throughout some long period of human history and by all those human beings who have been, as I have expressed it earlier, 'moistened' by him or her. In other words, bestowing the title of 'sage' on any person can only be the natural result of human history, which I think ultimately depends upon the mandate of 'Heaven' as manifested by the continual flourishing of human society under the guidance of a sage's person and teachings.
In a nutshell, to be a 'Ru' is to be a 'noble sort of Ru,' someone who brings dynamic harmony to human society through his or her moral self-cultivation by focusing on learning and practicing civilized symbols. The goal of learning to be a noble sort of Ru is to become a 'sage,' a human exemplar of the Heavenly creation. During this process, a noble Ru must first be committed to being a 'Learner' throughout his or her entire life. Secondly, if he or she has fulfilled these three requirements: experiencing dynamic harmony in particular situations, understanding dynamic harmony in general, and then being dedicated to the creation of additional harmony, he or she may be eligible to be honored as a 'Worthy,' as determined by other Ruist worthies. Finally, if a worthy does well enough in terms of the Ruist ideal of 'sagehood' throughout his or her entire life, then after death, human history will determine whether he or she ought to be venerated as a true Sage.
Bin Song is also the founder of Boston University Confucian Association (www.bostonconfucianism.org) and is active in the Facebook group "Friends from afar: a Confucianism Group": https://www.facebook.com/groups/confucian.friends/