humanity, genuine-humanity, consummate virtue, benevolence, empathetic-effort
Ren is an enigmatic concept about which Confucius’s students frequently inquired. It has various aspects which can be described separately.
First of all, Mencius defines ren 仁 as “to be human” or “to be a person” (Mencius 7B16), and he suggests that ren grows out of a sense of compassion, without which we would not be human (ren 人) (Mencius 2A6). So, “humanity” is a primary sense of the word.
Also, ren is often paired with ai (love/care)—as in Analects 12.22 and Xunzi K: 29.7. So the connotations associated with love and care are likewise to be included in our understanding or ren, while not limiting it to a psychological feeling.
Ren is also homophonous with ren 任, meaning burden. In the Analects, Zengzi says, “Scholar-officials must be strong and determined, for their burden (ren 任) is heavy and their way (dao) is long. They take ren 仁 as their own responsibility (ren 任). Is this not heavy? And they carry it until their dying day. Is this not long?” Thus ren may be thought of as taking on a burden on behalf of those loved. As Chen Jingpan puts it, ren “is an earnest desire and beneficent action, both active and passive, for the well-being of the one loved.” Note that while ren involves taking on a burden, it also promises just rewards: “Undergoing difficulties, and only then reaping the rewards can be called ren” (Analects 6.22).
Ren can be understood as being a composite of zhong and shu. Shu, conveniently, has the sense of putting oneself in another person’s shoes. And, zhong is doing one’s utmost. Thus, to be ren is to try to see things from other people’s perspectives, and then to do one’s best for them with that in mind (see Analects 6.30). In a word, it is to exert “empathetic-effort.”
Confucius also characterized ren is in terms of virtues, such as “respectfulness, magnanimity, trustworthiness, diligence, and kindness” (Analects 17.6). If ren can indeed be thought of as exhibiting the full range of Confucian virtues, it may be aptly rendered “consummate virtue.”
Considering the Confucian conception of the social self, and the form of the character ren—that is, (人 person) plus (二 two)—it makes sense to think of a ren person as someone who has developed these virtues through appropriate social engagements, and has thus increased the scope of his or her relations and influence. In Randall Peerenboom’s words: “the Confucian concept of ren is a duty to act appropriately in relation to others,” it is “excellence in interpersonal relations.” Thus, renren 仁人 can be rendered “consummate person,” or “authoritative social person.”
Putting this all together, a person of ren can be thought of as someone of consummate virtue, who do their utmost lovingly in the service of others, and thus achieve their “genuine-humanity,” which is the best of all possible rewards.