Ren and Li according to Analects 15.33

Here is a passage from the Analects that seems to me to defy many of the interpretations of the relationship between ren (humanity…?) and li (ritual). 15.33 reads:

The master said: ‘If one who reaches knowledge is unable to guard ren; even if this person attains it, they necessarily lose it. If one who reaches knowledge is able to guard ren, but does not skillfully manage the people, then the people will not be reverent. If one who reaches knowledge is able to guard ren, skillfully manages the people, but in motivating them does not use li, this person has not yet done the right thing. ‘ (translation is my own)

This seems to go against the interpretation of the ren/li relationship which holds that making one’s actions accord with li is the very definition of what it is to be ren. After all, the end of this passage considers a person who is able to “guard ren” but not “use li“. Surely if to be ren is to act in accordance with li then the above would not be possible (unless “guard” [shou] does not entail “has”–which would be odd, I think).

At the same time, this passage looks like it is opposed to the interpretation of the ren/li relationship which holds that li is a way to enhance ren, the natural “human-heartedness” that a person might cultivate. In 15.33, we have ren discussed the same way in all three sections–it seems not to change. However, the person who has ren can change, and be a better or worse person, depending on what other “virtues” the person has. It looks like this passage might help to support a view of ren as a “non-major” contributing virtue for Confucius. Might it not be that ren is not a supreme virtue, but simply a necessary condition for being a junzi, although one Confucius concentrates on more than, say, yi (“righteousness”…?) or zhi (“knowledge”), because, perhaps, he finds ren more lacking in his students and the society at large than most of the other virtues?

For example, if I were teaching a bunch of lazy students, I might emphasize hard work more than other virtues, in my descriptions of the ideal person. This would not be because being hard-working is more important a virtue than, say, honesty, but rather because all of my students are honest, but most of them are lazy, so I decide they need no help with honesty, and great help with their laziness. I think something like this may be what is going on with ren, which may be part of the reason it is notoriously hard to crack.

Any thoughts?


2 responses to “Ren and Li according to Analects 15.33

  1. Alexus, perhaps we need to distinguish between “ren” as a comprehensive virtue encompassing all the other virtues, on the one hand, and “ren” as one of the particular virtues. “Ren” as comprehensive virtue I’d translate as ‘humaneness’ (which is nice when you want to render popular definitions of ‘ren’ like “‘ren’ is ‘ren'” = “to be humane is to be human”), and “ren” as particular virtue I’d translate as ‘benevolence’, following D.C. Lau in his translation of Mencius.

    So, “ren” is rather like the Greek word “dikaiosunE”, in that both words can stand for a comprehensive virtue embracing all virtues, or for a particular virtue. In ancient Greek moral philosophy it seems that “dikaiosunE” or justice can be a comprehensive virtue, or a particular virtue alongside courage, wisdom and temperance.

    As particular virtue, my suggestion is that “ren” is an other-regarding virtue (usually directed towards one’s kin, but which can and should be extended to others), and hence ‘benevolence’ is an apt translation. As comprehensive virtue, it seems to encompass both other-regarding and self-regarding virtues.

    The point has been made (I forget where, but possibly by Lau), that in the book Mencius, “ren” always stands for a particular virtue, namely benevolence. Possibly in Analects 15.33 “ren” should be translated as ‘benevolence’?

    Looking at how the word is used in surrounding passages might help. The Analects seems to have been compiled cumulatively over several centuries, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the word “ren” is used to refer to the comprehensive virtue in some chapters and to the particular virtue of benevolence in some others. If you have a copy of the Brooks’s THE ORIGINAL ANALECTS, it could provide you with some helpful guidance.

    “Li” too can be used in two senses, ‘ritual propriety’ when it is a virtue, or ‘rules of ritual’. Mencius seems always to use it in the former sense, as a virtue. But in the Analects I think you can find both uses.

  2. I think that’s probably true–the Brooks’s “accretion” hypothesis surely has something to it. But I wonder how much we can make sense of ren as having a particular meaning through much of the Analects. Someone (I think this may also have been Lau, or Shun) made a good point in saying that we should look to see if we can give a single meaning to terms using the whole text before we conclude that there are multiple meanings. Though maybe we should conclude with regard to ren that there are simply a multitude of different meanings, given that the text seems so disjointed on this matter, as you mentioned.

    I think my interpretation is a way to resist the branching of meanings for ren a little bit–holding on a bit longer. I want to say that at least part of the reason that ren seems to have varying meanings is due to the emphasis the virtue is being given in Confucius’s dealings with various students. This allows us to retain some basic (although perhaps nearly contentless!) notion of what “ren” is, which seems to change based on Confucius’s emphasis. Of course, this is problematic, mainly because I can’t yet give a picture of what the “bare” definition of ren is–if it has one at all.

    So all in all, I think you may be right about the “various meanings” view–this is, and should be, taken seriously by many of the scholars today–basically what I’m trying to do is see if the alternative yields any fruit. Even if it turns out to be wrong, I think, it might help draw out further meanings of ren or further subtleties of the meanings we have access to.

    Of course, that being said, I hope my interpretation is right.

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