Jen: An Event or a Character?
Every once in a while, two or more aphorisms from the Analects come together to yield a bit of head-scratching on the part of the reader. Sometimes the head scratching is due to the presence of a particularly cryptic piece of text. Other times, the text seems clear, but just doesn’t seem to be consistent with another piece of text. At the worst, head-scratching events of the latter type reveal possible internal contradictions in the text. One such problem arises, it seems, from a reading of LY 4.5 and 14.6
Here are the two pieces of text (taken from Rosemont and Ames):
14.6: “The Master said: ‘There have been occasions on which an exemplary person fails to act in an authoritative manner, but there has never been an instance of a petty person being able to act authoritatively.”
4.5: “The Master said: ‘Wealth and honor are what people want, but if they are the consequence of deviating from the way, I would have no part in them. Poverty and disgrace are what people deplore, but if they are consequences of staying on the way, I would not avoid them. Wherein do the exemplary persons who would abandon their authoritative conduct warrant that name? Exemplary persons do not take leave of their authoritative conduct even for the space of a meal. When they are troubled, they certainly turn to it, as they do in facing difficulties.”
The prima facie contradiction should be clear: the capacity for a junzi to depart from ren. The passages seems to suggest:
1. It is possible for the junzi to depart from jen on occasions. (14.6)
2. It is not possible for the junzi to depart from jen, even for the space of a meal (4.5).
If we were out searching for prima facie textual contradictions, this pair would represent a pretty good catch of the day. So what in the world is going on here?
I’m not sure. One possible way to read this is to suggest that being a junzi is being presented in two different ways, one narrative and/or dispositional and the other event-act oriented.
For example, in 4.5, we are told that the junzi does not take leave of their jen even for the space of a meal. One way to read this is to suggest that the junzi always acts in jen manner, even in small matters or for small periods of time. The problem with this reading is that it exacerbates the contradiction with 14.6, because 14.6 explicitly seems to suggest that jen can be described as a way of understanding the character of an act. So reading 4.5 in the same way makes the situation worse. Instead, 14.6 leaves open a space for a different reading. When the Master says that “When they are troubled, they certainly turn to it, as they do in facing difficulties” it gives the impression that we are not talking about an action-description.
If it were, we would be left with the difficulty of understanding how a person could “turn to it” in the sense implied. Instead, what seems to be suggested here is that a person can “lean on” their jen as a matter of support in times of difficulty, suggesting that jen is already there before the action displays it. As a consequence, one way of reading 14.6 is to see it in terms of character, or in terms of a property that describes a span of a person’s life (a narrative property).
In this case, 14.6 would allow for the possibility of doing something that is not jen, but it would not allow one to apply the name of junzi to a person who lacks the right character, thus maintaining the possibility that a person can have the right character but yet still do something wrong, resolving the contradiction.
Update: upon further reflection — is it possible to have the right character and fail to act accordingly, for Confucius? It is clear, I think, that a person can have certain dispositions but yet not act in a way that accords with the true aim of that disposition. So, for example, a person can fight courageously for the wrong things. But in such a case, I think Confucius might opt for Foot’s distinction between virtues of disposition and virtues of action, suggesting that in such a case the virtue does not display itself in action, and so is not a true virtue. Instead, such a person possesses the right state, perhaps, but the virtue is not complete (perhaps because practical wisdom is missing). I’ll call the difference virtue* (for incomplete virtues of disposition) and virtue for full virtue (of action).
In this case, if Confucius suggests that a person can fail to do what is jen, but yet still maintain a jen character, it might have to be the case that such a person, on such an occasion, really possesses jen* and as such displays a lack of yi (if this can be roughly seen as practical wisdom).
What do others think?