Kongzi’s “Golden Rule”

Bloch's "The Sermon on the Mount"
The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Harmony is the chief accomplishment of human activities in the Analects. We look to 2.14 and 15.22 for discussion of the culinary nature of the term rendered commonly as “harmony” (he 和).

Rosemont, Jr. and Ames state, that “harmony is the art of combining and blending two or more foodstuffs so that they come together with mutual benefit and enhancement without losing their separate and particular identities.” (Philosophical Translation of the Analects, 254—258)

Identity here is a matter of negotiating one’s situation in the filial context. “Who we are” is the sum of the roles we perform in a meaning-generating and enforcing network of communal living. We become “this-particular-son” or “this-particular-teacher” by individuating ourselves in our wholehearted engagement with the rituals of our stations.

Rather than seeking to achieve a unity through sameness—as we see in the sameness of voice in the Händel chorus above—or sameness of dimension—as we see in the felloes above—which are indicative of what is meant by harmonia, in pursuing he (和) what is sought is a dynamic balancing of differences.

A note on terminology

Without these differences, the kind of harmony that is sought by the Ruists (儒學) isn’t possible. The term ru (儒) means “erudite” or “classicist,” and is the term that folks who observe the teachings and practices of Confucius.

The name “Confucius” is a Latinization of the Chinese name Kongfuzi (孔夫子), we will refer to him in this class as Kongzi (孔子, “Master Kong”).

Golden Rules and Translation Differences

Those of you familiar with the Christian tradition will likely know the “Golden Rule” to be something like what we see in Matthew 7:12 or Luke 6:31, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

We see something similar when we look at Analects 15.24:

Zigong asked, “Is there one teaching that can serve as a guide for one’s entire life?
The Master [Kongzi] answered, “Is it not shu [恕], ‘sympathetic understanding?’ Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.”

The concept shu 恕 which Slingerland translates above as “sympathetic understanding,” is critical to our ability to comprehend Kongzi’s “Golden Rule.” Shu is elaborated upon in Analects 4.15:

The Master said, “Zengzi! All that I teach is unified by one guiding principle.”
Zengzi answered, “Yes.”
After the Master left, the other disciples asked, “What did he mean by that?”
Zengzi said, “All of what the Master teaches amounts to nothing more than zhong 忠, ‘loyalty,’ tempered by shu 恕, ‘sympathetic understanding.'”

Slingerland emphasizes in his footnote to the above translation that, “To be zhong 忠 ‘loyal’ or ‘dutiful’ involves fulfilling the duties and obligations proper to one’s ritually defined role.” This sense of obligation—which can be quite cold if we reflect on what we tend to think about the concept of duty—must be tempered by putting ourselves into another person’s shoes.

Because “duty” is such a cold concept for many of us, I prefer the way Ames and Rosemont translate zhong 忠 here as “doing one’s utmost.”

Kongzi reiterates his “Golden Rule” in several other places as well.

Analects 5.12
Zigong said, “What I do not wish others to do unto me, I also wish not to do unto others.”
The Master said, “Ah, Zigong! That is something quite beyond you.”

We get the sense that Zigong, one of Kongzi’s students, is working persistently to fully comprehend an important lesson from his teacher.

Analects 6.30
Zigong said, “If there were one able to universally extend his benevolence to the people and bring succor to the multitudes, what would you make of him? Could such a person be called ren [仁, “one of consummate character”]?
The Master said, “Why stop at ren 仁? Such a person should surely be called a sage! Even someone like Yao or Shun [legendary kings of antiquity] would find such a task daunting.
“Desiring to take his stand, one who is ren 仁 helps others to take their stand; wanting to realize himself, he helps others to realize themselves. Being able to take what is near at hand as an example could perhaps be called the method of ren 仁.”

Slingerland comments in his translation that “taking what is near at hand as an example,” sounds like a formula for performing what is intimated by the term shu 恕 as in Analects 4.15.

Analects 12.2
Zhong Gong asked about ren 仁.
The Master said, “When in public, comport yourself as if you were receiving an important guest; in your management of the people, behave as if you were overseeing a great sacrifice. Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire. In this way, you will encounter no resentment in your state or in your family.”
Zhong Gong replied, “Although I am not quick to understand, I ask permission to devote myself to this teaching.”

Kongzi’s “Golden Rule” and he 和

With the Christian formulation of the “Golden Rule” we get the sense that other people are like us and want what we want. We should do unto others what we want done to us. In part, I suspect, this is because the assumption in the Christian perspective is that there is one True way to be and one True thing to desire that we all hold in common.

But this is not at all the assumption in the Ruist perspective. Other people are different and they will likely want different things. So, we are advised to do our utmost and seek ways to understand others from their own perspective before we try to act on their behalf.

This is a radical difference between these two traditions.