Dr. Bin Song on the Meaning of Ren 仁 for Ruism (Confucianism)

1, Translations of Ren:

Multiple current translations: benevolence, charity, goodness, humanity, humaneness, etc.

Reason for ‘Humaneness’:

The basic meaning of Ren is “universal love,” and it is thought of by major Ru texts as representing the essence of human beings, or ‘human nature’:

The text of “Centrality and Ordinariness” (中庸): “ (The virtue of) Humaneness is what human beings are all about. “ or ‘Humane is humanity.’ or ‘Humanity ought to be humane.’ (仁者,人也)

The English word ‘Humaneness’ can transmit these two meanings very well: universal love and the essence of human species.

2, The Basic Meaning of Ren: “Universal Love”

How universal could this love be?

Mencius once taught humans would spontaneously have the feeling of alarm and commiseration when we see a baby about to fall into a well. Based upon this classical teaching, Wang Yang-ming discusses further:

“The great person regards heaven and earth and the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family and the country as one person. ….Therefore when he sees a child about to fall into a well, he cannot help a feeling of alarm and commiseration. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with the child. …Again, when he observes the pitiful cries and frightened appearance of birds and animals about to be slaughtered, he cannot bear their suffering. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with birds and animals. …But when he sees plants broken and destroyed, he cannot help a feeling of pity. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with plants. ... Yet even when he sees tiles and stones shattered and crushed, he cannot help a feeling of regret. This shows that his humaneness forms one body with tiles and stones. “ ( “Inquiry of Great Learning”)

For Wang Yang-ming, the virtue of humaneness makes humans love their human fellows, love sentient beings, love living beings, and ultimately, anything and everything in the universe.

3, The peculiarity of Ruism’s teaching on ‘universal human love’

(1) There is a system of Ruist ‘virtue ethics’ to parse out the rich implications of humaneness in a universalist way. For example, the virtues of ‘Ren’ and ‘Li’ (ritual-propriety) comprise two central facets of the cardinal virtue ‘Ren.’ Also, the Three Penetrative Virtues of ‘Wisdom’, ‘Humaneness’ and ‘Courage’ speak to another systems of virtue ethics pivoting upon ‘Humaneness’. Again, Four Virtues of Mencius, which extend to ‘Five Constant Virtues’ in Han Dynasty: Ren (Humaneness), Yi (Righteousness), Li (Ritual-Propriety), Zhi (Wisdom), Xin (Trustworthiness). These ‘five constant virtues’ become the most influential universalist system of virtue ethics in Ruism.

(2) There is a system of Ruist ‘virtue ethics’ to specify how to implement the universal virtues within particular human relationship and particular social situations. So, there are ‘Five Cardinal Human Relationships’ (husband and wife, parents and children, lords and subjects, older and younger siblings, friends), ‘Three Bonds’ (father and son, lord and subject, husband and wife). In order to make the universal virtue of humaneness and other backing-up virtues implemented in these particular human relationships, Ruism teaches a system of virtue ethics called ‘Ten Righteousness’.

(3) Therefore, the peculiarity of Ruism’s teaching on ‘universal love’ is its seamless combination of universalist and particularist approaches of virtue ethics.

4, Misunderstanding of ‘Humaneness’ in Ruism, One: “The Virtue of Humaneness is relational and collectivist. It is not a solitary virtue, which means that Ru ethics always urges individuals to submit themselves to social conventions and collective interests. Ruism doesn’t want strong individuals. “

This misunderstanding is often presented together with the Chinese character ‘Ren’, 仁. Since it comprises ‘two persons’, it is not a solitary virtue.

This is a terrible misunderstanding!

The truth is Ruism wants and cultivates strong individuals. We must differentiate two kinds of relationship between individuals and social groups that they belong to: submissive and managerial.

If one obeys the interest of social group without any independence, the relationship between individual and social group is submissive. However, if one positions oneself in the network of a social group, and thus tries to cultivate oneself to the strongest term in order to harmonize various interests of other individuals in the same social group and to realize the greatest interest of that group, this relationship between individual and social groups is managerial. Different from the submissive one, the managerial relationship requires individuals to confront and rectify wrong behaviors of human fellows regardless of their social status if these behaviors are thought of as bringing harm to that social group. Clearly, Ruism urges a ‘managerial’, rather than a ‘submissive’ relationship between human individuals and social groups. In order to be a good manager of human relationship, one must be an individual as strong as possible.

Confucius said, “Ancient scholars learn for themselves, while today’s scholars learns for others.” (Analects 14.24)

Confucius said, “The three armies can have their general taken from them by force, but even a commoner cannot be deprived of his will in this fashion.” (Analects 9.26)

Confucius said, “wealth and social eminence are things that all people desire, and yet unless they are acquired in the proper way, I will not abide them. Poverty and disgrace are things that all people hate, and yet unless they are avoided in the proper way I will not despise them. If the noble person abandons Humaneness, how can he merit the name? The noble person does not go against Humaneness even for the amount of time required to finish a meal. Even in times of urgency or distress, he necessarily accords with it.” (Analects, 4.5)

The managerial relationship requires strong individuals. This fact implies that the virtue of Humaneness is also a solitary virtue, which means a person needs to treat oneself well and discipline oneself well even when he or she is alone. In Ruism, this is called the virtue of ‘vigilant solitude’ 慎獨 .

5. Misunderstanding Two: “The Virtue of Humaneness is totally and utterly human. There is no spiritual dimension of it.”

This is also another gravely wrong misunderstanding of Ru ethics.

From the quote above of Wang Yang-ming, we know that Ruists understand the virtue of humaneness is endowed by the changing and transforming natural powers of the universe. In a Ruist understanding, since the universe is constantly creating in an all-encompassing way, human species essentially and intrinsically love all. What is cosmic and what is human maintains a great continuity in Ruism ethics, and in this sense, Ruist ethics is deeply spiritual.

Please let me use one classical metaphor of Song and Ming Ruism to illustrate this spiritual dimension of the cardinal human virtue of Ren. In Chinese, Ren can mean a kernel of a nut, representing the essential vital-energy of a living being. Therefore, in Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi’s thought, ‘Ren’, the virtue of universal human love, can also be metaphorically thought of as being the kernel, the essence of human species. All living beings strive for life and growth in the cosmic domain, and therefore, human species strive for life and growth together in human society. This unimpeded intrinsic vital-energy for human species to co-thrive in a human society continuous with nature is the essence of human beings, Ren. Therefore, if we open book after book of Ruism, we find its teachings are actually very spiritual. To find the cosmic foundation of human ethics is actually one consistent theme running through Ruism in all its historical periods, which makes the Ru tradition not only ethical and political, but deeply spiritual. This also means that though not a religion proper, Ruism can be taken as a personal faith to organize virtually all facets of human life, and in this sense, Ruism can also be comparatively studied with any other world cultural, spiritual or religious traditions at an equal footing.

A Chinese version of this video could be seen here.

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