For richer, for poorer, I have been fascinated with words, ever since I was “knee high to a grasshopper,” a saying we kids used when growing up in Bayonne, N.J. There are many words that have a surplus of meanings. Think of the Italian word, ciao, translated as hi, hey, hello, goodbye, or as the English say, cheerio. Ciao bears a similarity to the Arabic word, salaam, the Hebrew term, shalom, and the Korean word, annyeong.
In this piece I reflect on the Chinese word, rén, that has many meanings such as affection, humanity, love, benevolence, goodness or humaneness. Unlike the Greeks who often think in terms of “either-or,” Chinese philosophers speak in terms of “both-and.” Rén may be regarded as the characteristic behavior of an exemplary human being who tries to promote a united and flourishing community. Rén may be thought of, then, as the defining virtue of jun-zi, or the morally superior person.
The Chinese understanding of rén may help break the logjam that exists in the U.S. between Democrats and Republicans. Each party sees the other as “fake news.” How did our nation become so divided? That’s the $64,000 question. The media may have been partly at fault. On the one hand, we have Fox News watched by the followers of Trump and the majority of Republicans. On the other hand, we get a diametrically opposed view from Democrats and independent voters who constantly look at MSNBC and CNN news. Hence, the average Joe or Mary cannot differentiate between the two competing networks. Therein lies our conundrum as a divided nation.
In earlier days, the major TV stations weren’t consumed by the ratings system. That’s another matter today when the major stations live or die based on the ratings they receive for the nightly news. One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 is the fact that he constantly made the news because of the outlandish and provocative statements he made. The major networks would stop a regular program to speak of his latest outburst describing it as “Breaking News.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton had to spend huge amounts of money for the ads run on the major networks and could not compete with getting the nation’s attention.
Rén deals with interpersonal relationships. Why so? Rén understood as affection has two components to it. It’s composed of the word “man” (today we would say person or “mankind”) and the numeral number two. There can be no talk of an interpersonal relationship, if there’s only one individual. Rén means affection between two persons. To say that a person has rén means that an individual has excellent interpersonal skills.
Master Meng or Mencius (372-289 BCE) is one of the best-known and beloved students of Confucius. Mencius had a very upbeat notion of life and stressed the basic goodness of every person. For Mencius, rén sums up what’s the essence of a human person. This does not imply that hostility doesn’t exist. Rather, it means that impulsive behavior contrary to rén would cause a person to drift further away from her/his own nature. Mencius once remarked that “Charity, righteousness, propriety, and moral consciousness are not something drilled into us; we have them originally with us.”
Mencius also noted that humans tend to be good, similar to the way water tends to flow downwards. All persons have this particular tendency to be good, just as all water has a tendency to flow downwards. Mencius has a clever response to the question “How are some individuals great souls who have a heart larger than the State of Texas, while others are small-minded and petty? Mencius concedes that everyone is equally a person, but some are special, that is, they are morally superior persons. He adds, that those who live rightly, removing within themselves the obstructions to the free flow of the spiritual force are great souls. Those who follow another path become lost in the dust.
Similar to our own struggles today, Mencius preached during difficult times, namely, the Warring States Period when false doctrines arose to confuse the people. He warned his people that the path of the ancient sages was in danger of extinction. He pointed out that leadership should set a moral example and facilitate education in the rituals (li) of proper behavior. Might we in the U.S. take to heart some of the ancient wisdom of the Chinese? Kindness, joy, and compassion to all we meet, should be the hallmark of America. It seems that no country has a monopoly on wisdom, just as no country has a monopoly on stupidity. We’re all in this together, come what may.
Richard Penaskovic is an Emeritus Professor at Auburn University. His writings have appeared in the Birmingham News, Columbus- Ledger Enquirer, Montgomery Advertiser and online by Informed Comment and Politurco.