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Chinese Conception ofUnderlying Beliefs

Understanding what is genuinely human in the Confucian theory of ren requires knowing ren's underlying metaphysical and psychological beliefs. According to ancient Chinese belief, Heaven (tian, literally meaning "sky") has an impersonal ordering force. Heaven is said to have its dao (literally, "path" or "road," usually translated as "way," meaning the characteristic mode of existence or action of a thing). Everything in the world has its own dao, or way, as well. Each particular thing's dao is related to the dao of Heaven in the way that the dao of each thing is the individualization of the dao of Heaven in that thing. If everything follows its imparted or natural dao, the dao prevails in the whole world and the world is a harmonious and integrated organism. Following this, the human dao is thought to be the dao of Heaven as individualized in a human life. It is the dao in accordance with which one should lead one's life. If one can live in accordance with the human dao, one also embodies the dao of Heaven. Such a life is meaningful and authentic. In Chinese intellectual history, it was Confucius who first raised the following question: Where is the dao of Heaven as individualized in a human life, that is, the way (dao) of being a human? From Confucius on, it became the common task for classical Chinese philosophers to find and establish the dao. Chinese philosophical schools in the classical period offered competing accounts of what dao is.

Human dao, the individualization of the dao of Heaven in human beings, is called de (related to the verb "to get"). A person who acquires the dao of Heaven is a person of de. The term appears in the ancient oracle bone inscriptions, referring to the psychic power that an individual possesses to influence and attract other people and even the surrounding environment. In particular, de means the power that rulers hold that enables them to command others without appealing to physical force. Because the exertion of such power is associated with desirable attributes such as kindness and dutifulness, de comes to be used to refer to these attributes or qualities as well, and hence it is usually translated into English as "virtue."

The Analects has this dao/de (way/virtue) framework at its core in its discussion of what a human being is, as in the following passage: "How can a man be said either to have anything or not to have anything who fails to hold on to virtue [ de ] with all his might or to believe in the dao with all his heart[?]" (19:2). Both dao and de, however, are formal concepts. When Confucius sets out to reflect systematically upon what human dao or de is, that is, the way of being a human, he must provide a substantive specification of its content.

The theory of ren is a specification of what Confucius thinks human de or human dao is. (This explains why both de and ren in the Analects can be translated as "virtue." De is a formal conception of virtue, whereas ren is Confucius's understanding of what it is in a substantial sense). Hence, Confucius's theory of ren, that is, his humanism, is about the dao, or way, of being a human, and in his pursuit of human dao, he appeals to ren (the virtuous disposition that makes a human being a true human being).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Heterodyne to Hydrazoic acidHumanism - Chinese Conception of - Underlying Beliefs, Achieving Ren, The Beliefs Of Mencius, Contemporary Revival Of Confucianism, Bibliography