On 信

From Easter to Bastille Day, I will practice and write about the five Confucian virtues: 仁,,礼,智, . I am conducting this project alongside Patrick Laudon, Frenchman based in Tokyo. We will spend three weeks with each virtue, following the same protocol: first explore its meaning and relevance, then articulate and adopt a daily practice to cultivate that virtue, finally reflect on the practice and share this in two parallel blog posts. This is not a solid introduction to the Confucian framework of virtues – but rather, a prototype attempt at connecting classical philology to practice.

The character 信 – xin, typically translated as trust – brings together the character for ‘man’ on the left and the character for ‘language’ on the right. A superficial reading would identify the following simple metaphor, that a trustworthy person it true to their word – they are reliable, they tell the truth, and there is consistency between their actions and the promises they make. But as I considered the character further, 信 started reminding me of the first virtue that I examined in this Confucian cycle, 仁. Ren is the virtue that prevails in a relationship between two people – benevolence as a basis for all positive human interaction. Could 信, then, connecting man and language, represent the other end of the spectrum, the virtue that binds a large group of people together through shared language and stories?

Looking through the Analects, I noted how xin was repeatedly mentioned in relation to friendship. Articulating a definition of the noble man, Confucius says “He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber.” [1:8] (主忠信。无友不如己者。). This statement is repeated almost word for word at [9:25]: “Base yourself in loyalty and trust. Don’t be companion with those who are not your moral equal. ” (主忠信。毋友不如己者。) One of the things that qualifies a person as ‘learned’ (学) is to “be honest in speech when dealing with your friends” [1:7] (与朋友交、言而有信。). When the Master is asked about his aspirations, again, trust and friendship are mentioned: “I would like to give comfort to the aged, trust to my friends and nurturance to the young.” (5:26) (老者安之、朋友信之、少者怀之。). Earlier in the text, at [1:4], as part of an introspective series of questions, we can read the following: “In my interactions with friends, have I been untrustworthy?” (与朋友交而不信乎。) – for this would be the biggest failure in friendship.

I was brought back to my early readings of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where friendship is defined as a primary virtue – the source of our deepest happiness – and a cornerstone of political life. Indeed, Xin must prevail not only between friends, but also  between rulers and the ruled. When asked what a government needs to succeed, Confucius replies: “Enough food, enough weapons and the confidence of the people.” [12:7] (足食、足兵、民信之矣。) When asked which of those three is most important, Confucius identifies trust, because: “ From ancient times, death has come to all men, but a people without confidence in its rulers will not stand.” [12:7] (民无信不立。)

Trust is, indeed, what allows a ruler to guide the action of the people: “After the ruler has the trust of the people, they will toil for him. If he doesn’t have their trust, they will regard him as oppressive. Only after gaining his trust will they criticize him openly. If he doesn’t trust them, he will take their criticism as backstabbing. ” [19:10] (君子信而后劳其民。未信、则以为厉己也。信而后谏。未信、则以为谤己也。) We know that there is a correlation between the level of trust that prevails in a country and its wealth. Indeed, this is not surprising: if I operate in a high trust environment, then I will build teams and coordinate projects on the basis of talent and motivation. But if trust is lacking, I will work only with people that I already know, and whose behaviour is controlled through a dense network of mutual connections, mafia style.I ndeed, xin is the hallmark of a person’s usefulness: : “If a person lacks trustworthiness, I don’t know what s/he can be good for. When a pin is missing from the yoke-bar of a large wagon, or from the collar-bar of a small wagon, how can it go?” [2:22] (人而无信、不知其可也。大车无輗、小车无軏 , 其何以行之哉)  This primacy given to trust is universal. “If your speech is sincere and honest, and your way of carrying yourself is earnest and reverent, such behaviour will work even if you live among the Southern and Northern barbarians. But if your speech is insincere and dishonest and your way of carrying yourself is neither earnest nor reverent, then even if you live in your hometown, you will have problems.” [15:6[] (言忠信、行笃敬、虽蛮貊之邦行矣。言不忠信、行不笃敬、虽州里行乎哉。立、则见其参于前也。在舆、则见期倚于衡也。)

When I considered a potential practice to better understand this virtue, I chose to write down what expectations I had of my friends, my government, and the people leading various projects I am involved in. The intention was, after identifying those expectations, to figure where they stemmed from, whether explicit promises had been made, or what assumptions I made as to their expected future behaviour.  With surprise, I noticed a recurring incongruence: there is a gap between what I wish for, and what I expect. In all cases, my expectations were inconsistently both high and low. I hope for the greatest levels of support, transparency, reliability – yet anticipate situations where friends, governments and leaders fail on all fronts. Am I setting myself up for constant disappointment on the basis of past negative experience, doubts about my own trustworthiness, or the side effects of working with global catastrophic risks?

A discussion with Patrick yielded a precious insight. The conversation was going sideways, exploring an inherent tension in the coaching practice. On the one hand, a coach must create a safe space where ‘what is’ for the client is accepted with no judgement – as a therapist; on the other hand, a coach must help their client identify patterns of possibility inherent in their situation, and help them go through personal transformation, leaving ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what may be’. I realised how strongly the second appealed to me, and how thinking about that aspect of my own practice resonated with a number of elements in my mental pantheon: Shiva, god of creative destruction; the family myth of a grandfather in the French resistance during the Second World War; my ongoing fascination for power as the basis for transformation.

Could it be, then, I thought, that when considering friends, government and organisations, trust is about focusing not on ‘what is’, but ‘what may be’. Patterns emerge, hinting at future potential – which I see, giving me those high hopes – but I remain aware that what I perceive is not ‘what is real’, only ‘what could be’ – and that many negative ‘could be’s’ are latent in any situation, and need to be accepted from the start. This – I thought – may very well constitute the essence of trust: not a promise made and kept, but the willingness to keep space open for an uncertain future.

Trust, then, is not about firmly constructing an island of reliability within the chaos of a threatening world, but rather, the deliberate opening of a collective space that welcomes and embraces transformation. Where trust prevails, it becomes possible for individuals not only to identify the many potential futures latent in the present, but also, to weigh in on the situation and, hopefully, with help from their friends, bring about one of those futures. Trust offers an alternative to determinism and fatalism: when trust exists, the future is no longer simply conditioned by the past in a linear manner. Trust is not blind continuity, but narrative potential imagined in conversations with friends and emerging from coordinated action, whereby a group of people establish a joint reading of their collective past that leads towards their chosen collective future. Trust, understood in that manner, is then the political virtue par excellence, grown through friendship, extending across teams and governments – and the cornerstone of human freedom.

All translations of the Chinese in this text are from Charles Muller

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