Political Morality and Confucianism: The Interpretation of Li, Yi and Ren

Posted in China | 23-Feb-11 | Author: Dr. Ravindra Kumar

Li, Yi and Ren, the three principles, fully imbued with morality, and propounded by Confucius, the matchless Chinese thinker, constitutes the fundamentals of his philosophy known as Confucianism. I am of the opinion that akin to Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism these principles may also be hailed as the Triratna of Confucian philosophy. Moreover, Li, Yi and Ren are all interconnected with the bond of morality and forms the broad basis of human equality. Therefore, due to their presence, Confucian philosophy becomes peerless, important and significant. This is because morality is one of the principal foundations of civilized life; in other words, it is one of the fundamentals of civilization. Without morality civilization is meaningless. Confucius not only emphasized upon its necessity in life, but also laid great stress on its inclusion in routine practices. He proclaimed morality to be indispensable for human existence and urged to make life more meaningful and significant through its adoption in day-to-day practices. How? To comprehend this let us analyze Confucianism, accepting Li, Yi and Ren as its Ratnatreya, particularly starting with Ren, which, despite being placed at last is, in fact, the foremost among them.

Ren: The principle of Ren is based on understanding others and expressing sympathy towards fellow human beings. There is no discrimination in this principle on the basis of low and high or poor and rich. The principle may be applied to one and all. According to Confucius, this is the best equality-based worldly human practice, and in comparison to any of the declared divine orders, it is the source of true and stable morality. The one who carries out his day-to-day practices by staying within the scope of Ren, in fact, lives well and justifiably. Furthermore, it marks the golden state of life. It is the best, most effective and practical way of ensuring harmony, equality and unity among human beings in the true spirit of Confucius who believed, “Behave with juniors in the same manner in which you want seniors to behave with you.”

Yi: Yi means thereby justified, and/or pious. It originates from Ren in which a human being detaches himself entirely from self-interests and carries out his routine practices adhering to the norms of justice. Thus, he bears a good conduct and embarks briskly on the pathway to morality. By doing so, he sets an example for others to emulate and is, thereby able to sail through the warp and woof of the society with the help of morality. He, by dint of his common practices and virtuous acts ascends to the peak of humanity. Hence, he not only emerges as a source of inspiration for others to lead a consequential life, but also revitalizes and strengthens the civilized life, at the same time he adds to the treasures of civilization. \

Li: Li has originated from Yi. It is the root of human behaviour as it leads a man towards the good or evil. It is, in a way, Li, which acts as the basis of routine progress as well as of creating prosperity and worth for one’s existence. Confucius, in fact, refining the old Chinese tradition pertaining to Li as per the demand of time, associated it with day-to-day human practices, in other words, with humanity and called for the creation of a society based on its ideals.

Hence, all three of Confucian principles, viz., Li, Yi and Ren are closely linked to each other. Each is rather the genesis and sustenance of the other. All three create high morality at the individual and social levels and pave the way for happy and prosperous living with a sense of responsibility in prevailing circumstances. Needless to say, the virtuous human deeds and the highest level of morality constitute the nuclei of the whole process. Consequently, they may be hailed as the Triratnas as well as the fundamentals of Confucian philosophy.

Importance and Relevance in the Current Perspective: It is clear that the Triratnas - Li, Yi and Ren - of Confucian philosophy are dedicated to the highest level of morality. In other words, they instill a human being with ethical values and inspire him to perform virtuous acts. Not only this, they show the way to follow morality through day-to-day practices and mutual dealings. As stated already, morality is an essential condition for a civilized life. Like Ahimsa and freedom it is one of the fundamentals of human civilization, therefore, its importance and significance cannot be minimized. Rather, the more we incorporate morality in our daily routines and accept it as a duty at individual and social levels, the more we contribute towards the prosperity and solidarity of society. It is the law of nature that every worldly thing undergoes change and refinement as per the demand of time and space. Every thought or view comes within the domain of this law. Therefore, in this constant process of change morality also cannot be an exception to this law. In this regard, Confucius himself, refining the old Chinese concept pertaining to morality in the prevailing circumstances of his own time, called for making it a part of daily human practices. Contrary to the view popular in the Chinese society of his own times that morality is a divine grace, Confucius made it clear that it was consequent of human behaviour. Therefore, under any state of affairs man should not get away from it. Rather, accepting morality as an essential part of his duty one must ascertain that:

1. It works for the growth of harmony in society; and

2. No one is deprived of her/his freedom under its cover.

This is the essence of Triratnas of Confucian philosophy. Undoubtedly, the principles of Li, Yi and Ren, are as important and relevant even today as they were in the time of Confucius himself. Not only this, they will continue to be relevant likewise in the times to come, if accepted in their refined form under prevailing situations and as per the demands of time.

Confucianism, its Triratnas and Political Morality: An important feature of Confucian philosophy can be seen in its laying stress on political morality. In this regard, Confucius, particularly stated that the people in rule should carry out their administrative activities on the basis of spirit in the root of Ren. As already discussed, being the source of true morality and based on human equality, Ren is the leading principle of Confucianism. It also points out that the best rule could be the one in which pressure and partialities have no place. This statement along with his emphasizing on accepting Ren as the guiding force in carrying out administrative activities, is really relevant and significant even today for fair and smooth working of a democracy, especially to determine that those in public life follow morality and ethics, and values that are essential for the success of the democracy. In the contemporary times of corruption, eroding values, crass materialism and violent assertions of the individualistic notions of the society, the three valuable principles of Confucianism, if practiced diligently can go a long way refilling the vacuity of political morality, created by the degenerating practices of modern civilization.