- Pronunciation: rén (ˈreːn)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Chinese, Confucianism, Taoism
- Example: “If your ambition is humanity [仁], and if you accomplish humanity [仁], what room is there left for rapacity?”—Confucius, Analects, 20.2
- Suggested Use: Try to translate rén into a Western language of your choice, and you will inevitably think about your place in the Anthropocene.
The logogram for rén combines two of the most frequently used characters (hànzì) in the Chinese language, 人 (human, person) and 二 (two): 仁. In Confucian ethics, rén draws on this etymology and denotes kindness, humaneness, humanity, goodness, authoritative conduct, and benevolence. According to the Analects of Confucius (~475–220 BC), rén is the absolute disposition rulers and their subjects should strive for: “Seeking to achieve humanity [仁] leaves no room for evil” (Analects, 4.4). Rén, once attained, abolishes all violent social antagonisms. An almost archetypical example of an untranslatable term, Western sinologists, poets, and philosophers have made numerous attempts to translate rén in the many English translations of the Analects that have been published in the last century. These translations often provide fascinating insights into Western conceptions of goodness and humaneness, yet the recent emergence of the Anthropocene as a concept in the humanities, as well as the renewed interest in political and ecological virtues it has generated, arguably complicate the evaluation of these translations. In this entry, several classic translations of the Analects and of the word rén will serve as a way of thinking about the Anthropocene and about several questionable assumptions the concept involves.
The Confucian rén and the notion of the Anthropocene share a linguistic and conceptual ambiguity. The singular term anthropos (ἄνθρωπος, man) at the core of the geological concept of the Anthropocene remains as evasive as the singular 人 (human, person) on which rén is predicated. Indeed, charges of ideological whitewash have been leveled against use of the term “Anthropocene” in the humanities: while the Anthropocene unfolds on a global scale, the anthropos (man) at its etymological and causal root may conceal an all-too-familiar Homo industrialis. Industrial-capitalist societies, not “mankind” in general, are responsible for the degradation of nature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. Can we hold on to the concept of humanity, and hence to humaneness or rén, as a political and ecological virtue, without overlooking causality and culpability?
This question has long captivated readers and translators of Confucius’s Analects. Generally the Euro-American word anthropos, “man,” reappears as a kind of cultural contraband in the 人 of most of the early translations of the Analects: the way European and American translators have dealt with rén reflects historically and locally constituted discourses. Some of the well-known translators of the Analects were poets who had not mastered classical Chinese but were keen to bolster their radical aesthetic aspirations with exoticized translations of Asian literatures. Ezra Pound, for example, plucked the modernist motto “Make It New” out of the Da Xue (Great learning), one of the four books of the Confucian tradition. Pound defined rén as “Humanitas, humanity, in the full sense of the word, ‘manhood.’ The man and his full contents.” He speaks of the few historical examples of rén incarnate (described in Analects 18.1) as “men (with a capital M),” while Canto LXXXIV, in a comment on the same passage, mentions “men full of humanitas (manhood) or jên.”
For all their masculinist overtones, Pound’s translations manage to convey the importance of education in Confucian ethics. Pound’s translation of rén as humanitas refers not only to the cultural ideals of Renaissance humanism but also to the fact that the Latin word humanitas itself was the way Roman authors liked to translate the ancient Greek word paideia (παιδεία), perhaps one of the most complex notions in ancient Greek. Paideia is the ancient Greek educational program of “moulding human character in accordance with an ideal,” which aimed at making “each individual in the image of [the] community” to which he belonged. Indeed, Pound’s use of humanitas is suggestive of the Confucian attempt to build community around ideal ethical norms. In the Analects, the crucial document of Confucianism attributed to the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) and compiled by his followers, the ideal of moral perfection, while being rooted in compassion, is nevertheless a product of ritualized learning (礼, lıˇ, ritual, ceremony, propriety, convention)—that is, education:
3.15 The Master [Confucius] visited the grand temple of the Dynasty. He enquired about everything. Someone said: “Who said this fellow was expert on ritual [礼]? When visiting the grand temple, he had to enquire about everything.” Hearing of this, the Master said: “Precisely, this is ritual [礼].”
Ritualized Confucian learning implies a kind of studious docility that was also the essence of ancient Greek education. In Confucianism, but also in Greek paideia, moral perfection may only be attained by individuals who are able to renew traditions—after having submitted to them. This, of course, has left the door open for several antidemocratic interpretations of both Confucianism and Greek paideia from a Western perspective. Industrial societies consistently make access to cultural resources, and hence to cultural responsibility and political agency, more difficult for the weak and poor than for others. For example, political scientist and ecologist William Ophuls calls for a renewed attention to paideia as a means of enforcing the rise of “a natural aristocracy instead of an artificial meritocracy” that could be entrusted with the task of sustainable governance, thus contradicting “the prevailing democratic ethos, according to which there can be no ‘betters.’” While the antidemocratic sentiment that transpires here is as old as ancient Greek pedagogy itself, Ophuls’s conclusion is somewhat misleading in suggesting that paideia (or, by transposition, humanitas, and for Pound, 仁) produces a natural hierarchy among citizens. Rather, the political community that supports and enforces the ideals of paideia remains aware of the extreme artificiality and contingency of the citizen it manages to “mold” from the clay of the originary anthropos. The “beautiful and virtuous” citizen (καλὸς κἀγαθός, kalos kagathos) is so precisely because he meets the ideals instituted by the community and meets these ideals for the community. There can be no question here of a natural aristocracy arising merely from society’s perpetuation, especially if this entails this society’s ecological self-destruction.
Western conceptions of rén are, then, open to both democratic and antidemocratic interpretations. Considering this ambiguity, and considering the possible value of rén as a virtue, Pound’s translation of rén as humanitas is both faulty and insightful. In the Analects, Confucius suggests that rén “comes from the self, not from anyone else,” yet ultimately benefits “the whole world” (12.1). Pound, however, seems to point out the perennial dispute Western civilizations have grappled with since Greek antiquity: can virtue be the object of communal elaboration and transmission? Can virtue be taught?
In raising this question, Pound merely echoes the reaction of sev-eral Chinese philosophers to Confucian virtue ethics 2,300 years earlier. Laˇozıˇ, the founder of philosophical Taoism and a possible contemporary of Confucius, gives an oblique answer to the question of whether virtue can be taught. Chapter 38 of Laˇozıˇ’s Dàodéjı¯ng (fourth century BC), an “assault” on Confucian virtue ethics, discusses rén in dismissive terms; Brooklyn poet Witter Bynner’s (1881–1968) often-quoted pseudo-translation (1944) of the Dàodéjı¯ng renders rén [仁] as follows:
Losing the way of life, men rely first on their fitness;
Losing fitness, they turn to kindness [仁];
Losing kindness [仁], they turn to justness;
Losing justness, they turn to convention [礼].
In Laˇozıˇ’s Dàodéjı¯ng, rén is merely the corrupted form of “the way of life,” or Dao. Kindness, or rén, stands somewhere between supreme virtue and mere convention, which prompts Laˇozıˇ to add: “It is because the most excellent do not strive to excel / That they are of the highest efficacy”—or, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s terse and idiosyncratic rendering of the Dàodéjı¯ng: “Great power, not clinging to power, / has true power.” Le Guin’s anarchist sensibility is clearly at play here and brings the profoundly conservative nature of Confucian moralism to light: If rén can be taught, the Dàodéjı¯ng wryly suggests, it is precisely as a debased, “teachable” virtue—that is, as a virtue that “clings” to its conceptual delimitations—producing acts that are easily identifiable as virtuous ones (for instance, “greenwashing” the commodities of industrial capitalism), rather than standing as an absolute ethical imperative (for instance, saving the environment from total destruction). Responsibility and humanity, Laˇozıˇ and Le Guin suggest, imply a constant alertness to the way words cling to power and facilitate its self-perpetuation.
The various translations of rén discussed here are a case in point, as is Bynner’s translation of rén as “kindness.” Kindness derives from the Neolithic, proto–Indo-European root *´génh os (lineage, race), itself derived from *´génh - (to produce, to give birth). Several further inflections may be observed along the evolution of Indo-European languages: Old English cynd (nature, race, family, gender, sex), ancient Greek γένος (race, kind), Latin genus (kind, birth, race), Old French gentil (noble), and the more contemporary gentillesse (kindness). Located at the etymological intersection of nature and politics, of moral dispositions and social order, the word kindness eschews attempts at a stable, politically inoffensive definition. Bynner’s translation of rén as “kindness” serves as a potent reminder that Indo-European languages strictly predicate “benevolent” moral dispositions and their corresponding social practices on a normative construction of the human—or at the very least they consistently make this predication possible. In other words, Bynner suggests that no language can convey a truly universal conception of benevolence, or indeed kindness. A language always conveys its own social history, and the word kindness always speaks the language of a tribe, a clan, race, or a gender.
This is of crucial importance for the examination of the biological and moral notion of humankind, which the concept of the Anthropocene draws on. Wendell Berry quotes Witter Bynner’s “losing kindness, they turn to justness” in a discussion of the disintegration of communities and of their essential role “as principle and as fact” for the defense of “ecological, economic, social, and spiritual” health. As an alternative to “litigation,” Berry thinks of “community” as the “indispensable form that can intervene between public and private interests.” As we have seen, however, establishing kindness (and, vicariously, 仁) as the moral disposition that is most naturally akin to communal life presents several pitfalls, for the deep semantic layers of kind and kin could be restored in order to legitimize communities built around notions of race, kinship, class, clan, gender, nobility, or nationhood. Here, rén (as “kindness”) might legitimize tribalism and nationalism as responses to climate change and environmental migration.
Yet historians of ideas have long insisted that though common use of the term kindness often ignores these tribal, genealogical, and national delimitations, an alternative, universalist construction of kindness may turn out to be equally unsatisfactory. Kindness toward one’s universal kin reproduces the same conflation of a moral virtue and a covertly reductive sense of belonging. As Marc Shell remarks, the French revolutionary motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” and the various religious and political doctrines of universal siblinghood (“All ye are brethren,” Matthew 23:8) always imply a logical correlative: “Only my ‘brothers’ are men, all ‘others’ are animals and may as well be treated as such,” or “Be my brother or I will kill you.”
The Analects outline a similar tension: “Since a gentleman behaves with reverence and diligence, treating people with deference and courtesy, all within the Four Seas [i.e., ancient China] are his brothers” (12.5). It continues, “Let the lord be a lord; the subject a subject; the father a father; the son a son” (12.11). The clarity of the contradiction between universal brotherhood and patriarchal structures (father and son, lord and subject) seems intentional and enables a central argument of the Analects to unfold. Both traditional social structures and the moral imperative of achieving universal siblinghood (which would abrogate these very structures) are declared to be norms in the Analects. Confucianism thus holds on to both universalism and particularism, and inserts these norms into its conception of rén, revealing a seemingly unsolvable contradiction. From the perspective of what it seeks to make thinkable or possible, rén points toward a final, universal reconciliation while preserving the social structures on which accountability and responsibility may be instituted. Resolving this contradiction would reconcile what environmentalists fight for with what environmentalists fight with (laws, knowledge, indignation, protest). The Confucian tradition locates rén at the intersection of responsibility and reconciliation, and asserts that reflecting on the tension between these terms is constitutive of superior moral conduct.
Despite the calculated contradiction outlined here, the Confucian tradition has long attempted to clarify the political and ecological implications of instituting rén as a social and moral ideal. Chinese philosopher and Confucian commentator Mencius (~372–289 BC) recounts a parable that proved decisive for the later development of neo-Confucian rationalism: Emperor Xuan witnesses people hauling off an ox to the temple, where its blood is to be drawn to consecrate a new bell. Having seen the ox “shivering with fear like an innocent person,” Emperor Xuan intervenes and asks the people to sacrifice a sheep instead. Worried that his gesture might be misinterpreted as an expression of miserliness unbefitting of an emperor, he asks Mencius for advice:
“No harm done,” said Mencius. “That’s how Humanity [仁] works. You’d seen the ox, but not the sheep. And when noble-minded people see birds and animals alive, they can’t bear to see them die. Hearing them cry out, they can’t bear to eat their meat. That’s why the noble-minded stay clear of their kitchens.”
Cynical as it may appear to be, Mencius’s final sentence is not an injunction to “stay clear of the kitchen,” to shut one’s ears to brutality and exploitation. An indirect reading of this parable is possible, in which Mencius’s comments do not only discuss the ambiguities of rén in political practice but circuitously hint at Emperor Xuan’s assumption concerning the other moral category at play in this parable: miserliness, meaning Emperor Xuan’s fear of being perceived by his subject as ungenerous and selfish. Mencius outlines an ethics of self-restraint and environmental sustainability that suggests that Emperor Xuan’s conduct would have been adequate even if it had not stemmed from compassion, hence implying that sacrificing a sheep instead of an ox out of frugality is in itself an act that is both laudable and conductive of rén:
Mencius said, “The forests were once lovely on Ox Mountain. But as they were near a great city, axes cleared them little by little. Now there’s nothing left of their beauty. They rest day and night, rain and dew falling in plenty, and there’s no lack of fresh sprouts. But people graze oxen and sheep there, so the mountain’s stripped bare. When people see how bare it is, they think that’s all the potential it has. But does this mean this is the nature of ox mountain?
“Without the heart of Humanity [仁] and Duty alive in us, how can we be human? When we abandon this noble heart, it’s like cutting those forests: a few axe blows each day, and pretty soon there’s nothing left.”
Mencius develops and makes somewhat more explicit Confucius’s discourse on self-restraint in the Analects. The “rapacity” (20.2) of those who do not possess rén is equal to the “covetousness” of those who do not know “when to stop” (1.12). This lack of restraint and sense of shame is illustrated with immediately intelligible poetic images; it also has concrete effects on the biosphere, the degradation of which, Mencius suggests, eventually becomes just as obvious: there can be no such thing as Mencius’s kitchen, or any other place where nature may be exploited behind closed doors, in a thoroughly and visibly exhausted environment. Mencius institutes “nature” as a way of thinking about politics in such a way that it remains an extension of virtue—that is, an “extension of ethics.”
The sporadic use of rén in recent environmental writing is indicative of the contradictions at the core of the discussions of the Anthropocene currently taking place outside the domain of the natural sciences. At times, and taken as a whole, the canonical translations of rén resemble a sprawling, scholastic inkblot that reveals less of Confucian ethics than it does of the Western longing for a virtue that would meet the two criteria of being apolitical and regulating (in other words, normative); yet these criteria must remain in contradiction with each other if Western societies hope to overcome a politically naive and, more importantly, counterproductive conception of a common “humanity.”
In this, rén can be thought of as a conceptual tool to highlight and comprehend several contradictions between Western virtue ethics and the global environmental predicament. The term rén, understood through the lens of its various Euro-American translations, might lead industrial-capitalist societies to reconsider their ambiguous but culturally essential commitment to collective virtues as well as their persistent attempts to deflect responsibility.
As long as industrial-capitalist societies cannot produce a better translation of rén—that is, as long as industrial-capitalist societies need rén as a loanword to think about the conflicting claims of conciliation and responsibility, of virtuous humanity and individual accountability—the most daunting cultural problems posed by the Anthropocene may be considered unsolved. Rén reveals the ethical and political tensions Western societies face in the Anthropocene. Thinking about such a term is one way of addressing them.
Another Path: Hyperempathy
1. All excerpts from the Analects quoted in the text are from the Simon Leys translation unless otherwise noted. Confucius, The Analects, ed. Michael Nylan, trans. Simon Leys (New York: Norton, 2014).
2. See Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 85–116.
3. Confucius, Confucius: The Great Digest, The Unwobbling Pivot, The Analects,trans. Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1969), 22.
4. Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, vol. 1, Archaic Greece: The Mind of Athens (Oxford: Blackwell, 1946), xxii, xxiv.
5. William Ophuls, Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011), 99.
6. See also Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 7–20.
7. Daodejing: “Making This Life Significant”—A Philosophical Translation, trans. Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (New York, Ballantine Books, 2004), 137.
8. Witter Bynner, trans., The Way of Life According to Laotzu: An American Version (New York: Perigee, 1994), 67.
9. Daodejing, 135.
10. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Le Guin (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), 52.
11. An argument developed by François Jullien in De l’Être au Vivre. Lexique euro-chinois de la pensée (Paris: Gallimard, 2015), 194–98.
12. All quotes are from Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 139.
13. Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, 119.
14. The second quote is attributed to Nicolas Chamfort. Marc Shell, Children of the Earth: Literature, Politics, and Nationhood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), x, 25.
15. Mencius, trans. David Hinton (Berkeley, Calif.: Counterpoint, 2015), 27–28.
16. Mencius, 148–49.
17. Douglas Robinson further develops this argument in The Deep Ecology of Rhetoric in Mencius and Aristotle: A Somatic Guide (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), 26–48.
18. In his 1938 translation of the Analects, Arthur Waley renders 20.2, quoted at the beginning of this entry, as, “If what he longs for and what he gets is Goodness [仁], who can say that he is covetous?” Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, trans. Arthur Waley (London: Allen & Unwin, 1945), 233.
19. Analects, trans. Leys: “In a country where the Way prevails, it is shameful to remain poor and obscure; in a country which has lost the Way, it is shameful to become rich and honored” (VIII.13).
20. Analects, trans. Leys, xvi.