Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Confucius, the Meaning of Ren and Yi

"If what you don't want for yourself, you shouldn't to do others, then you would like others to do for you what you would indeed like for yourself." --Confucius (also K'ung Fuzi), ancient Chinese philosopher

While "the gentleman understands Yi, the small/mean man understands Li," wrote Confucius, Analects IV:16.
Here in the United States many of us grow up with the occasional, "Confucius said..." and sometimes responding with laughter. But what did Confucius really say? Why does it matter at all?
In his book, The Ways of Confucianism by David S. Nivens, Philosopher and Sinologist, writes that Confucius remains important now as then, forming a sort of moral compass with principles to guide one in positive and fruitful pathways.
The practice of Confucianism is heavily invested in what is virtue, being Ren and doing Yi. In other words, one is mostly to be concerned with Xiao, honor, along with Ren love, charity and Yi, right conduct.

Nivens takes these base ideas and draws them out over the milenia of Chinese practice. He investigates virtue in the form of  De, the power or charisma of a king or ruler who practices without force or violence. Insisting this is key to understanding the philosophy of Confucius he compares the practice of De with an example, "Humans typically feel gratitude for gifts. However in some societies, this feeling becomes magnified so that my gratitude to you comes to seem like force... De was originally this "force" kings acquired through their willingness to make sacrifices to the ancestors and to the spirits..."
However, here it 's important to be cognizant of the difference between gifts given freely and those given to obtain a measure of force. True De is in contact with humility, generosity and virtue, generally.

To do good in Confucius' view, one must be in possession of this virtue, free of simple, unrestrained self-interest. In contrast, Chinese philosopher, Mozi in an attitude of "consequentialism," takes the tack of an extreme voluntarist, or one who willingly 'scratches your back, so you will scratch my own.' Mozi then is the quintessential anti-Confucianist.
Confucius argues that virtue is every one's business and everyone is to strive within this virtue. Thus Confucius also falls into the business of enforcing the bolstering of, what the West calls, the 'weakness of the will.' "So the problem of weakness of the will enters into Chinese moral philosophy in general," writes Nivens.

 Nivens, a scholar in his own right, posits some interpretations of the ancient Chinese texts rather than mere erudition of them.  Within his book, he examines Neo-Confucianism through the study of Wang Yang Ming, another influential, early Chinese Buddhist-influenced  philosopher. "For Wang, self-cultivation is a matter of escaping the obscuration [enigma] of selfish desires, and attending  instead to the voice of one's true self.
Because one's true self is in identification with the universe... self cultivation results in the unity of all things [harmony]." So in Wang's Neo-Confucianist view, harmony with the universe, openness in mind and heart to the nature of things, the persistence of spontaneity and joy, even while in mourning, is expressive of the action of one's true, authentic self.

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