A Ku Indeed!

Jen: An Event or a Character?

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, virtue ethics by Chris on June 12, 2008

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?


11 Responses

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  1. Alexus McLeod said, on June 12, 2008 at 9:13 am

    What could also be going on is that ren might be used in different ways in 4.5 and 14.6. Maybe the ren that the junzi can depart from is ren construed externally, as connected with consequences of actions, or something like that, so that it might be thought of as “humane (results of) action” [trying not to make assumptions here about the right view of “action”], or something like that. If we read the ren in 4.5 as an internal or dispositional feature, something like “the disposition to act in humane ways”, then we can reconcile 4.5 and 14.6 by saying something like: The junzi cannot be without the disposition to act humanely (4.5), but can sometimes fail to act humanely (14.6)–although this failure cannot be due to lack of having a disposition to so act.

    I’m not actually the biggest fan of this kind of response, because I have some difficulties with taking ren to be dispositional (though at the end of the day I may just have to buck up and give in to the idea), but this is at least another live option.

  2. Alexus McLeod said, on June 12, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    Hold on a second–I just realized that what I wrote in the above comment is basically the same thing as what you said in the post! I’m out of it today–not enough coffee, I think.

    About your question at the end, though–Aristotle discusses this possibility in the NE (I have to check to find the exact place). He considers cases in which one has a disposition to act a certain way, but external forces keep one from performing the acts one intends to, or other considerations (for example, one act is even more virtuous than another) get in the way.

    If I remember correctly, he goes so far as to say that if a person is thwarted in this way from performing virtuous action very often, then the disposition that person has toward this action does not count as a virtue. He is able to maintain this (although it’s not explicit, but has to be interpreted) due to his distinction between “natural virtue” and “full virtue”. The requirements for having natural virtue are not as stringent as those for full virtue–for example, one need not be a phronimos to have natural virtue, and thus the virtues do not need to be unified. Thus, a person with “natural” courage might also be miserly, etc. Something like this distinction might be working in Confucius–but one of the reasons I think this is not quite right is that it puts the focus on the individual rather than the action–both natural virtue and full virtue are states of the agent, whereas only one of the types of ren you distinguish is a state of the agent.

  3. Bill Haines said, on June 12, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Alexus, I think Aristotle would say that someone who has no inborn talent for generosity but trains herself to generosity, but is then so much pushed away from generous action by the force of circumstances that she ends up with something less than the full virtue of generosity, doesn’t have natural generosity. (The “natural virtues” come more from inborn talent.) Is there a difficulty about that?

    Chris, I think I’m going to have to go back and read Foot as well as your earlier posts in order to understand fully what you’re saying. But here are some initial thoughts.

    Goodness, I think, is a matter of degree. What counts as a “good knife” or a “good person” or a “good result”? Well, the standard is higher or lower depending on the context. We assume a higher or lower standard depending on what we’re talking about and why. That is, the word ‘good’ is inherently flexible in that dimension, just as are such words as ‘exemplary’ and ‘wealthy’.

    It seems to me that ‘junzi’ is an evaluative term, and therefore inherently flexible in the same way, unless it is used only as a technical term for absolute perfection (which could have a narrative structure). Clearly often in the Analects ‘junzi’ is not used as a technical term for absolute perfection. So it’s inherently flexible. As I’ve argued recently in this forum, I think in 17.23 ‘junzi’ flexes in the course of a single remark.

    I think that in their translation of 4.5, Ames & Rosemont make a number of unusual choices that are not strongly suggested by the original Chinese. For example, they speak of becoming wealthy as a consequence of departing from *the* way, where the Chinese better supports “staying in wealth not by its proper way”. And they speak of warranting the name ‘junzi’, where the Chinese seems to mean “making a name for oneself.” Not to mention their use of ‘authoritative conduct’ for ‘ren’. And I agree with you that “bi yu” is better translated as “lean on” than as “turn to”, for precisely the reason you give.

    Here’s a more literal translation that doesn’t make controversial choices, and so is in some places ambiguous:

    4.5 The master said: “Wealth and honor: people desire these. If not obtain them by their way, not stay. Poverty and disgrace: people hate these. If not obtain by their way, not depart. If the junzi departs from ren, how does he achieve name? The junzi not for the space of a meal goes against ren. In troubles clings to ren, in dangers clings to this.”

    It seems to me that in the meal sentence, going against ren, or violating ren (the term for going-against is the same as the term Confucius uses in his short answer in 2.5), could easily mean going against a disposition by acting in conflict with it. I suppose that to go against ren during a meal would be to do something positively inconsistent with ren during that meal (which would imply that one doesn’t at that time have the full disposition). If the junzi simply eats her food in silence, she may not do anything that displays ren, but at least she hasn’t gone against ren.

  4. Chris said, on June 12, 2008 at 9:01 pm


    My Aristotle is nusty as an old nail. If he does say that — that external circumstance could prevent a courageous act from occurring and as a result the disposition underlying that (failed) act is no longer a virtue (in that instance), I’d like to see it.

    I took the “natural virtue” and “full virtue” distinction to obtain between a blind state or hexis and one directed by practical wisdom, but if it’s external circumstances that can discount it as full virtue, then that’s more stringent since that might not be a failure of phronesis, no?

    One thing that intrigues me about Confucius — though I may be wrong – is that I sometimes get the impression that certain descriptions, perhaps “jen” and “junzi,” seem to have societal meanings in that unless the agent is successful, say, at cultivating harmony, the agent’s “jen” is diminished and the degree to which that agent is a junzi seems diminished. To some degree, these terms seem success oriented, which would make them more than just dispositions, if that’s right.

    But I’m not sure.

  5. Alexus McLeod said, on June 13, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Bill and Chris–
    you’re right that Aristotle’s distinction between natural virtue and full virtue has to do with phronesis and what is trained and perfected vs. “inborn talent”, but I think something like this distinction might be used to explain something like the discrepancy between Analects 4.5 and 14.6. Stay tuned–I’ll give an argument for this in the next couple of days–I’m in the middle of moving back to a new place in CT from DC, and I’ve pretty much got to do the whole thing myself (Tara can’t help much as she’s taking care of Siddhu). But I promise, the argument will come in the next couple of days…actually, I may post on this on my blog as well.

    Till then–I think Bill’s observations about the Ames/Rosemont translation of 4.5 are right on. The wording of one of the critical sections, for example uses the term qi 其 (“it/it’s) in association with dao-以其道得之. If A/R’s translation were the right one here, one would expect just 以道得之. Ames and Rosemont is generally good, but I sometimes have the same problem with it Bill has–sometimes philosophical questions are begged just by the choices of translation. This seems to be a bigger problem in A/R than in, for example, Lau or Slingerland (although they have their problems too).

    Anyway–I’ll be back wielding the Nicomachean Ethics once I dig it out of the moving boxes.

  6. Alexus McLeod said, on June 13, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Arrgh. My English translation of 其 should read ‘its’, not ‘it’s’. I always do that. Damn inadequate American grade school education…

  7. Bill Haines said, on June 13, 2008 at 7:17 pm

    Hi folks. The second sentence of my minimalist translation of 4.5 should read: “If not obtain by their way, not stay.” That is, drop the ‘them’. Including it was careless of me, and made my translation contradict one of my criticisms of A&R.

    Here’s the issue. There are these sentences to interpret:

    (W): “Wealth and honor … If not obtain by their way, not stay.”
    (P): “Poverty and disgrace …If not obtain by their way, not depart.”

    There are these two choices about each:
    n/d: Are the statements normative or descriptive?
    s/e: What is being obtained: the status or the event (staying/departure)?

    Further, Lau suggests that the first ‘not’ in (P) is a copyist’s error. It would be a natural one. Adding that possibility, we have the following menu of interpretive choices for the pair, assuming parallelism (I’ve starred the ones that seem least plausible):

    (Wns): Don’t keep wealth inappropriately acquired.
    *(Pns): Don’t depart from poverty inappropriately acquired.
    (PnsL): Don’t depart from poverty appropriately acquired.

    (Wne): Don’t inappropriately keep wealth.
    (Pne): Don’t inappropriately stop being poor.
    *(PneL): Don’t appropriately stop being poor.

    (Wds): Wealth inappropriately acquired won’t last.
    *(Pds): Poverty inappropriately acquired won’t end.
    (PdsL): Poverty appropriately acquired won’t end.

    (Wde): One can’t keep wealth except by its proper way.
    (Pde): One can’t escape poverty except by its proper way.
    *(PdeL): One can’t escape poverty in its proper way.

    Translators (e.g. A&R) signal a normative reading by importing a first-person pronoun, making Confucius talk about what he himself would do.

    Another issue is whether the ‘its way’ (or ‘their way’) that Alex refers to should be understood as “the way connected with e.g. wealth” or “one’s way: i.e. the way of the person in question.”

  8. Chris said, on June 14, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    This is a very interesting thread here, guys. I’ll wait on Alexus’ contribution before throwing in my own 2c, though I of course defer to the translations you folks come up with here, as this isn’t my area!

    Just a quick note — I thumbed through Slingerland, and in the commentary for these two pieces I notice that he suggests the same prima facie worry.

  9. Bill Haines said, on June 14, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Hi Chris, I agree with you that the passage raises the prima facie worry. I just think A&R’s translation beefs up the problem in ways unsupported by the text, and that the independently knowable inherent flexility of ‘junzi’ is sufficient to solve the prima facie problem about contradiction.

  10. Chris said, on June 14, 2008 at 10:50 pm


    Right — I wasn’t putting him out there as extra evidence for the prima facie concern, just noting that he’d spoken of it. I hadn’t noticed until tonight when I read his commentary.

    I notice that he also quotes from Huan Maoyong, who explains 14.6 by speaking about the fact that in each case (of the petty and the junzi), “his heart remains firmly” either opposed (petty) or set on (junzi) goodness (jen). It’s left vague what “one’s heart being set on” amounts to, whether that means having certain dispositions, or having an intentional or resolute orientation towards, or whatever. He (neither Maoyong or Slingerland) doesn’t say.

    In any case, the suggestion is that this property (whatever it amounts to) trumps the action description, so that the petty can do something good without being good themselves, and the junzi can do something not-good while remaining good himself.

  11. Alexus McLeod said, on June 28, 2008 at 10:01 am

    By the way–I finally posted on that Aristotle issue I promised to get back to you on at:

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