A Ku Indeed!

May Sim on Jen

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Ethics by Chris on July 11, 2008

In May Sim’s new book, Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius (2007), she lays out (in a footnote on pg. 25) her suggestion that jen has three senses. Two of these are commonly argued for in the literature, but she wants to add a third. My question here is how Sim would handle a specific passage vis a vis her three fold definition of jen.

Sim suggests that the three senses are:

(a) jen as a particular virtue (benevolence)

(b) jen as a complete set of virtues (the jen person, as opposed to mere benevolence)

(a) and (b) are commonly argued for in the literature. She says:

“Finally, there is a sense in which jen is a general virtue that conditions other virtues and perfects them.”

So Sim suggests here that jen in the third “intermediate” sense (as she calls it, between the “general” and “particular” cases in (b) and (a) respectively) works as a sort of ideal through which dispositions are given a more exalted status.

I think her third sense is interesting, but my target here is this post is actually to wonder how a specific passage — 7.30 — would fit in this classification schema. I’ve long had a problem with 7.30, and have a hard time figuring out what the heck it means. It reads:

The Master said, “How could ren be at all remote? No sooner do seek it than it has arrived.”

How does 7.30 fit in?

Is it (a)? Once I desire to be benevolent, I am? This just doesn’t seem to accord with intuition for me, unless it is weakened significantly. I could say that it is my desire to be benevolent that is itself the product of benevolence, but that seems to be just about it. And that’s not much. To desire benevolence surely doesn’t mean that I will be disposed benevolently, which still needs to be worked on and cultivated.

Is it (b)? Can’t be — if ren in the general sense is more of a success term, and one that is far more demanding than the (a) sense, which itself is dependent on some degree of success (in habituation). Surely I can’t simply desire to have all the virtues, and *poof* I then do.

Is it (c)? No sooner to I desire the ideal of ren than it is here?  I’ll be honest  I am tempted to pick Sim’s third option here. My thinking here is Kierkegaardian, but requires a bit of shoe-horning. For Kierkegaard, to “arrive” (say) as an adherent of the ethical tradition would simply require a sufficiently willed resolve in favor of that choice. To become an “ethical person” (in K’s sense) starts at a ground floor that involves choosing to play that game as opposed to some other one. From that point on, of course, you exemplify that commitment through more concrete actions and patterns of self-mastery.

Could 7.30 be suggesting that one has “joined the club” of ren, so to speak, when one desires it, in an analogous sense? Ren has arrived, in an “ideal” sense, as an ideal towards which I can now orient my life around, when I commit to it as a life-organizing endpoint.

I’m not sure. Unfortunately, although I wanted to ask May Sim about this today, I didn’t have a chance. She did, by the way, give an excellent talk and also did a great job today assisting in the lecture discussions all morning and early afternoon. I learned quite a bit.


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