Righteous and Yi義

Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. Vol. I: Books 1-6
John Knoblock
Review author[s]: William G. Boltz
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 54, No. 2. (1991), pp. 414-418.

“Knoblock’s discussion of the twin terms ren
仁 and yi 義 stands by and large as a satisfactory
account of the meaning of each separately,
and of their relation to each other. For yi
Knoblock correctly points out that the ‘ rightness
‘ associated with the word is relative to the
circumstances in question, and that the real
sense is ‘proper, fitting conduct in a certain
situation ‘; the propriety of the conduct may
change from circumstance to circumstance.
Knoblock is entirely correct to stress that there
is no intrinsic sense of ‘ absolute rightness ‘ in
the word yi, even when it is used, as he says, in
Xunzi as ‘ the basic moral principles [sic] underlying
all good, all order, all human relationships’
(p. 96). Here still the sense is ‘ what is
proper relative to the particular kind of
" good “, order, or relationship in question ‘. It
is an uncompromisingly relative term. He seems
to overlook the fact that by contrast the word
ren is a complement to yi, and is in a sense an
absolute, at least to the extent that it designates
a sense of ‘ humankindliness ‘, or ‘ humaneness ‘
that remains constant irrespective of particular
circumstances, that does not change in its moral
or ethical implications or force according to
specific context." (416)

In this case, the yi should not be understood in terms of English “righteousness" unless we consider it as a term pairing with ren, that is to be understood together with ren. That means yi as “proper, fitting conduct in a certain situation’ should be understood as the proper and fitting conduct of ren. If ren is the intrinsic immanent aspect, yi shall be the extrinsic or external expression in a right situation and right manner. That which guides the manner is ren from inside and li禮from outside.

“Where Knoblock goes awry is in associating
ren with the behaviour of a ‘gentleman ‘ to a
greater degree and in a more fundamental way
than he does yi (p. 96). It would be more accurate
to say that the ‘gentleman’ (Knoblock’s
translation for junzi 君子is characterized by
having a clear understanding of how to deport
himself correctly according to the percepts of
both ren and yi, striking a proper balance
between the two, and recognizing their
fundamental complementarity and the need for
him in his very specific place in society to
uphold that complementarity. In his introductory
notes to the translation of book 6
Knoblock gives (p. 221) a brief, one-paragraph,
description of the ‘ gentleman ‘ that misses the
point altogether, and instead reflects a potpourri
of vague and idealistic features like
having the ‘ heart of a sage ‘, being ‘complete
like Heaven and Earth , and ‘loving and
respecting all ‘, that really defines nothing specific,
certainly nothing genuinely pertinent to the
role and nature of the junzi in the Xunzi text or
in its pre-Han historical and social setting." (416)

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