Confucius, to whom most of the sayings in the Analects are ascribed, was a descendant of an influential family of the state of Lu in the present-day eastern Chinese province of Shandong. His family name was Kong. His personal name was Qiu and he was also known as Zhong Ni. Later he was known as Kong Fuzi, meaning Master Kong, out of respect. At the time of his birth, his family was already in reduced circumstances, but he could boast of a long line of illustrious ancestors, dating to before the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.). Because of Confucius’s fame, his family history is perhaps the most complete and extensive genealogy in the world.
Orphaned at an early age, Confucius went to work while still in his teens. He held a number of minor posts in the government and in the employ of the nobility. His service record and his self-cultivation soon won for him wide recognition. Students gathered around him for instruction in ethics, literature, and the art of government service. He was particularly respected for his knowledge of ancient rituals. Among his followers were men of diverse interests and temperaments. Myth and legend grew around the historical Confucius over the centuries, and the story of the ancient sage’s life has become anything but monotonous. Confucius is said to have had to put up with one student who was too stingy to let his master borrow his umbrella; consequently, Confucius was drenched in the rain at least once. Confucius, so the legend says, had constantly to restrain a second student whose hot temper involved himself and his master in frequent difficulties. Confucius is believed to have had a narrow escape from a third disciple whose reaction against his master’s ceaseless moralistic admonitions amounted to a murderous intent.
Confucius divided his time among lecturing to his students, editing reading materials for his students, and trying to persuade the men in government to adopt his ideas. If he failed in the last, he certainly succeeded remarkably well in the first two tasks, as his Analects and its lasting influence testify. Being a collection of remembered dialogues recorded by his disciples and their pupils, there is clearly a question about the accuracy of the statements in the Analects. In addition, the extremely terse style of these dialogues lends itself to a variety of interpretations. However, upon a careful perusal of these sayings, many key ideas of the Confucian system emerge with clarity.
Of the central idea that is discernible in Confucian thought, the idea of ren is perhaps the greatest in importance. Ren is the foundation of Confucian ethics because ren stands for the ideal relationship among human beings. The etymological significance of the Chinese character ren yields a key to this idea: The symbols that form this character mean “two human beings,” hence the suggestion of “the ideal relationship between any two human beings.” Ren suggests gentility, magnanimity, humanity, goodness of character, and benevolence. The last sense is the one most frequently used to translate this term. In short, ren is the perfect virtue of human beings; it is the only road to the peace and harmony of a society. One who embraces the principle of ren will treat people gently and humanely; and for this person, everything will go well.
In answering his disciples’ questions on the existence and functions of ren, Confucius stressed the importance not only of internalizing the principles of ren to make them a part of a person’s natural disposition but also of putting them into daily practice. He wanted his students to practice courtesy, magnanimity, good faith, diligence, and kindness everywhere and all the time. He came close to advocating an infinite compassion when he summed up his own exposition with a succinct command: to practice ren is to “love mankind” universally. Most frequently Confucius emphasized that ren was not a lofty metaphysical abstraction beyond the comprehension of the ordinary person. On the contrary,...
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