Huston Smith on Confucian Ideals

Huston Smith sums up Confucian ideals under five key terms:

The first term is jen, which “involves simultaneously a feeling of humanity toward others and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears…In private life it is expressed in courtesy, unselfishness, and empathy, the capacity to ‘measure the feelings of others by one’s own’…

The second is chun tzu “Fully adequate, poised, the chun tzu has toward life as a whole approach of an ideal hostess who is so at home in her surroundings that she is completely relaxed, and being so, can turn full attention to putting others at their ease. The chun tzu carries these qualities of the ideal host with him through life generally…Only as those who make up society are transformed into chun tzus can the world move toward peace…

The third concept, li, has two meanings. Its first meaning is propriety, the way things should be done. It is comme il faut. It is wary of excess and it guards the Five Constant Relationships, “those between parent and child, husband and wife, elder sibling and junior sibling, elder friend and junior friend, and ruler and subject. It is vital to the health of society that these key relationships be rightly constituted.

The fourth pivotal concept, Te, means literally, “power, specifically the power by which men are ruled.”..No state, Confucius, was convinced, can constrain all its citizens all the time, nor even any large fraction of them a large part of the time. It must depend on widespread acceptance of its will, which in turn requires a certain positive fund of faith in its total character…Real Te, therefore, lies in the power of moral example…”

The final concept, Wen, refers to the ‘arts of peace’ as contrasted to the ‘arts of war’; to music, art, poetry, the sum of culture in its esthetic mode. Confucius contended that the ultimate vitory goes to the state that develops the highest Wen, the most exalted culture…For in the end it is these things that elicity the spontaneous admiration of men and women everywhere.

— Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, pp. 159-166

4 thoughts on “Huston Smith on Confucian Ideals

  1. Hello Caterina, I just read an article about you and Hunch on wired magazine. Wow, very impressive career and story. What are you doing now? What are you liking on the webisphere at the mo? And have you had that holiday yet?



  2. Hi Caterina,

    I enjoyed your piece on NYC entrepreneurialism in the NYTimes and decided to check out your blog. Interesting stuff.

    Are you familiar with Jane McGonigal (author of Reality is Broken)? She wrote quite a bit about the concept of “jen” in her book, and the use of alternate reality games to increase the “jen ratio” of real world environments. I’d definitely recommend checking it out. Alternatively, you can check out her TED talk for a quick overview of her ideas.

    Keep sharing the great posts!

  3. This is only the second post I have read on the site, so forgive me if this is obvious to older members of your community. What insight or utility to find for the Confucian ideals in this form?

    The concepts of Te and Wen are the most deserving of thought. The other 3 seems to some degree all receive thought, but no one I know talks about the possibility of virtuous government, or creative culture as society’s highest achievement.

  4. Ah! Typos galore…the bane of all cell phone users on the net!

    My initial question was: “what insight or utility *do you* find…”

    And… Te and Wen deserve the most thought, *in my humble opinion*

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