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Confucius and Martin Buber: Understanding Goodness

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The central Confucian virtue of jen, most often rendered as "goodness," defines the proper relation of one person to another, a relationship always articulated for Confucianism in ethical terms. Its core foundational meaning is best understood in terms of the Confucian virtue of shu, reciprocity, defined by Confucius as: "Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you" (Analects 15:23).

The virtue of goodness thus occupies a critically important position within Confucian teaching. Still, how do we get a handle on the concept of "goodness," its meaning and its actions and how it can be applied in a contemporary context?

Let me suggest a way of understanding Confucian "goodness" through an unlikely comparison -- Confucius and Martin Buber.

One of the great Jewish theologians of the 20th century, Martin Buber (1878-1965) proposed a unique way of describing relationships within humanity and between humanity and God. He used two descriptions that have become emblematic of his teachings and theology in general -- "I and Thou" and "I and It."

Buber's concern was to take notice of the condition in which people live their lives, largely alienated from both humanity and God. Beginning with humanity, we relate to others, but we relate in ways that for Buber never moves beyond regarding the other person as an "object," an "It." Because of this form of relationship, the result is a failure to fully experience the "other" for what her or she actually is fully as a human being: a caring, nurturing and loving being who seeks meaning and purpose in life just as we seek such goals for ourselves. Because of this failure to fully experience the "other" as we would want ourselves experienced, in depth and meaning, there is a fracturing between oneself and others.

When the same issue is applied to the concept of God, Buber argues, the results are the same. God in modern times is largely seen as an object, an "It." In what Buber would consider the most important of human relationships -- the relation to God -- that relation too is fractured and thus alienated.

Thus, whether in our relations to people or to God, humanity and God are only so many "objects." And as objects, they are neither whole nor complete. But the problem does not stop with the object alone. Because neither humanity nor God is whole, in turn we ourselves are not whole. And thus the world we inhabit, from Buber's perspective, is simply incomplete, fractured and alienated. This is the world we have inherited and this is the world we maintain and perpetuate, a world ultimately of little meaning or purpose.

But what of that ideal condition that all religious traditions seek? For Buber, the issue at the foundation of the problem of the world is an issue of relationship. And there is a remedy and a rectification to our plight. The "I and It" relationship can move toward a higher condition with humanity as well as God. Instead of an "I and It" relationship, Buber recommends an "I and Thou" relationship in its place where the "other" is in a shared and meaningful relationship.

To Buber an "I and Thou" relationship can remake the world, for the other is no longer looked upon as an "It," or an object, but as a source of reverence, esteem and closeness that brings the observer into intimate relation with the observed.

And what of that most important relation of the individual to God? Buber suggests that by changing our relation with God from an "I and It" to and "I and Thou," we have made the relation whole, for neither God nor we are any longer fractured. Instead, it is wholeness in relation to wholeness: God is whole and in turn and therefore we are whole. Thus this relation of "I and Thou" brings us to that ideal state of what should be the condition of the world, the endpoint of a religious tradition and of humanity's religious aspirations.

Meanwhile, what about the Confucian virtue of goodness? What, if any, is the comparison with Martin Buber, a 20th century Jewish theologian operating within the context of Abrahamic traditions?

The answer is surprising! There is a remarkable comparison to be made between Confucius' utilization of jen, goodness, and Martin Buber's idea of "I and Thou." The basic definition of goodness from the root meaning of the Chinese character is "person-to-person," that is, the relation of one person to another. If goodness is ever to be made manifest, then it will be found first and foremost in how one person treats another, person to person and person by person. And what is the most basic principle of the relation of one person to another? The relation must be grounded in ethical principle -- the other person must be treated morally.

As for Buber, so also for Confucius! The movement from the present condition of the world to what ought to be the condition of the world is grounded in the relation between the self and others. The relations in need of rectification are those that surround us -- the "other," be it a relative, neighbor, business partner or the virtually limitless arena of relationships that make up the interactions of our daily lives. Confucius even had a term to describe what he considered to be the essential process of making right the relation with others: cheng-ming, rectification of names. Such relationships will be bettered if we think of them in terms of "I and Thou," where we have a moral relation with others as the foundation of interaction.

For Buber, the ultimate relation of greatest importance is between the self and God. For Confucius, that most important relation is between the self and T'ien, Heaven. For both the fundamental definition of relationship is no longer the fractured world of "I and It," but the ideal state of "I and Thou." At the religious level, the parallel is remarkable and insightful. Ultimately, religious meaning is relational and the plight of the world as we know it is all too easy to predict where the "other" is viewed without either moral responsibility or moral consequence.

The message to contemporary society from two different religious perspectives is the necessity of acting through moral reflection in how one interacts not only with others, but also ultimately with one's source of religious authority, be it God or T'ien, Heaven.

Around the Web

Martin Buber - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I and Thou - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I and Thou - Google Books

Martin Buber (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Confucianism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rodney L. Taylor, Ph.D.: Who Was Confucius and ... - Huffington Post