Philosophers throughout history have attempted to characterize human nature, but ironically, few have begun with humans. Most philosophies have begun the search with forms, ideas, and concepts. “Good” “righteous” “evil”- these terms have been tossed around in philosophy completely independent of man and man completely independent of them. In the end, conclusions such as “man is inherently good” are reached by first defining good, man as an independent entity, and somehow through convoluted reasoning linking the two. In his “Treatise on Ren”, Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi, confronts the moral implications of these characterizations and formulates his own kind of metaphysics, intertwining the definitions of man and his natural characteristics. This non-linear way of approaching human nature carries with it moral implications that when viewed broadly and historically, speak harshly of the times and of literati culture. Through justification on the basis of natural metaphysics, Zhu Xi’s moral philosophy semantically encircles of the terms “man” and “ren”- an encircling which ultimately stands as a critique of Song culture and the endeavors of the literati as a whole.
Zhu Xi’s morality is completely based on a system of natural metaphysics rooted in the structural parallelism between nature and man. He begins his analysis by saying that “The Mind of Heaven and Earth is to produce things”(Zhu Xi 593). and moves onto the second part of a syllogism- “In the production of man and things, they receive the mind of Heaven and Earth as their mind”. Following the logic of the syllogism, the mind of man must then have a unique function as that of heaven and earth- to produce. Zhu Xi contends that this “mind” of Man is “Ren” or true benevolence and loving-kindness. He parallels the fruits of creation, “origination, flourish, advantages, and firmness”(594) with the fruits of ren which are the four virtues of man. Ultimately, Zhu Xi contends, it is Ren that runs through all of these and it is ren that is the basis for them.
Zhu Xi’s “Treatise on Ren” stands as unique in the world of philosophy before it. A non-linear approach to human nature and its characterization, Zhu Xi’s moral system blurs the lines between man and the things that make him. Ren, or benevolence, can be read from the treatise to be an inextricable part of man- defining him, giving him a natural state and a purpose. Much in the same way, Ren exists only because man does and the two essentially define each other. This encircling of Man and Ren can be read as a critique of the striving, outward endeavors of the Song dynasty and the literati’s work before him. Zhu Xi’s revolutionary ideas, built off the work of Cheng Yi would continue to grow and become more important in Chinese philosophy until the point of dominating the civil service examinations and even spreading to Japan and East Asia. Much of the reason, perhaps, that Zhu Xi’s philosophy, or “Neo-Confucianism” may be because of the simplicity of its imperative- just be. For generations of disillusioned literati and failed examinees, Neo-Confucianism stood as a non-elitist, almost egalitarian philosophy. A philosophy that no doubt made a lot of sense in a world marred with disorder and political turmoil despite all the education and high flown philosophy.