As you have probably noticed, I regularly complain that ancient Chinese thought rarely breaks through into contemporary American consciousness. So, I was pleasantly surprised this morning when I sat down with my second cup of coffee and took up my hard copy (is newsprint "hard copy"?) of the Sunday New York Times (one of the few rituals I practice in my life) to find right there on the first page, this sentence:
The research topics are formidable and include the cardinal virtue of ren in Confucius’s “The Analects,”...
(Nice to see the link to Robert Eno's translation there in the electronic version). The story is about a new means of applying to college being undertaken by Bard College: prospective students can write essays instead of taking the SATs and the like. A great idea! Made even greater by the inclusion of a question on The Analects. The folks over at Warp, Weft, and Way have also noted, with approval, this modest advance of Chinese philosophy into wider publish circulation.
It is not very common for Chinese thought to make it into the pages of the New York Times, and even rarer for such a citation on the front page in a general news story. So, imagine my surprise when I turned my attention to the Sports section and, lo and behold, a second mention of Chinese philosophy turns up. This time it was Daoism:
Mariano Rivera understood what Steve Jobs, Lao Tzu and Bruce Lee understood: that simplicity is an art and a strength, a source of joy and beauty and power.
I admit this second reference is not very much to go on. There is no further explication of how Rivera might embody certain Daoist ideas, but only a vague sort of parallel drawn between Lao Tzu and Zen. Something about minimalism, I guess. More could be said, of course, and has (right here at this blog). But, hey, you've got to take what you can get, and even a vague reference is better than nothing.
The Bard College story also includes a sidebar that provides the full question on The Analects:
In “The Analects,” Confucius identifies the cardinal virtue of ren
(variously translated as goodness, humanity, benevolence) with many
different attitudes and behaviors. Yet Confucius also says, “There is
one thread that runs through my doctrines.” Commentators differ about
what that one thread is. What, in your opinion, could that one thread
be? How does that one thread tie together the wide range of moral values
that Confucius celebrates in “The Analects”? Support your answer by
interpreting specific passages from the text.
That's a good question, and not an easy one for a person who does not have some familiarity with the text. Do they teach The Analects in high schools now? Without some sustained study of the book, it would be hard to locate the relevant passages. So, here let me help.
Here's passage 4.15, with Hinton's translation:
The Master said: "Zeng! There's a single thread stringing my Way together."
"There is indeed," replied Master Zeng.
When the Master left, some disciples asked: "What did he mean?"
"Be loyal ot the principles of your heart, and treat others with that same loyalty," answered Master Zeng. "That is the Master's Way. There is nothing more."
The idea of a "single thread" is repeated in passage 15.3:, noted here with Hinton's translation:
The Master said: "Kung, do you think of me as someone who studies widely and remembers what he learns?"
"Yes," replied Adept Kung. "Aren't you?"
"No. I've just found a single thread stringing it all together."
We might take the repetition as a sign of significance: the authors are suggesting that there is a key concept. But it is in the first passage where that concept is stated most directly: a combination of zhong and shu: 忠 恕, "loyalty" and "reciprocity." Hinton translates the pair together here as "treat others with that same loyalty." But that second character - 恕: shu - might be the key, suggesting as it does a certain moral reciprocity, a "golden rule" of sorts. And that is something to keep in mind when contemplating ren: 仁, which we might translate as "humanity" or "humaneness" or "benevolence". Ren is, as the question suggests, a very big part of The Analects. There are many passages that speak to it. My favorite is 6.30:
Here is Hinton's version:
Adept Kung said: "How would you describe a person who sows all the people with blessings and assists everyone in the land? Could such a person be called Humane?"
"What does this have to do with Humanity [ren] " replied the Master. "If you must have a name, call this person a sage. for even the enlightened Emperors Yao and Shun would seem lacking by comparison. As for Humanity: if you want to make a stand, help others make a stand, and if you want to reach your goal, help others reach their goal. Consider yourself and treat others accordingly: this is the method of Humanity.
So now we can all play at home, without having to apply to Bard: write an essay using the passages cited above to reflect upon the philosophy of The Analects.
And to think, all of this is inspired by a front-page mention in the Sunday NYT. More please....