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Mencius and Xunzi on Human Nature

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Mencius and Xunzi on Human Nature

Mencius and Xunzi both follow Confucian philosophy yet have a dramatically different understanding of human nature. Additionally, the two philosophers make their arguments in strikingly different literary methods. Mencius believes that the “goodness of human nature is like the downward course of water” (147) in that people are naturally inclined to be good, and he makes this argument through conversations among friends and public figures. In contrast, Xunzi staunchly argues that “Human nature is evil” (179) and through essays claims that human nature’s only “goodness derives from the conscious activity” (179). The two philosophers both use many metaphors to explain their own interpretation of human nature in different ways. By exploring the philosophies of these two great Confucian thinkers, one better understands the multitude of ways human nature can be explained in Confucianism throughout Chinese history. As the “single most influential contributor to a view of human nature in Confucianized East Asia” (116), Mencius’ philosophy is fundamental. Mencius argues that human nature is good, and “ru” teachings furthered natural tendencies. To explain the natural goodness of human nature Mencius shows that “the goodness of human nature is like the downward course of water.” By this he claims, “there is no human being lacking in the tendency to do good, just as there is no water lacking in the tendency to flow downward” (147). Furthermore he counters the claim that water can be manipulated to go many directions by rationalizing that, “while people can be made to do what is not good, what happens to their nature is like this”(147). Overall, this metaphor is used to show that without manipulation or outside forces, people naturally want to do good things. Additionally, Mencius asserts that the innate knowledge and ability, that of the child, is original and good due to the natural human tendency toward goodness. He explains that, “what people are able to do without having learned it is original, good ability. What they know without having to think about it is original, good knowledge” (156). Furthermore he gives the practical example that, “there are no young children who do not know to love their parents” (156). Another metaphor, that of the child falling into the well, advances the idea that this innate knowledge can be found in all people. Mencius explains that a man upon seeing a, “child falling in to a well, his mind would always be filled with alarm” therefore, “all human beings have a mind that cannot bear to see the sufferings of others (129). By claiming that a man can not help but feel this alarm naturally supports Mencius’ idea that by nature humans can not bear to see the suffering of other. Finally, Mencius uses the example of Ox Mountain, which was once beautifully covered in trees but is now bare to show the transformation of the outward appearance of human nature. Upon seeing, “this barrenness, people suppose that the mountain was never wooded. But how could this be the nature of the mountain?” (151) He asks. By this Mencius illustrates that one might suppose that a man never had the capacity for goodness just because he does not now follow the Way, however just as is the mountains nature to be wooded, it is man’s nature to be good. In contrast to Mencius optimistic thoughts on human nature, Xunzi argues that, “human nature is evil; its goodness derives from the conscious activity” (179). By this Xunzi means that human nature tends towards a “fondness for profit…envy and hate…beautiful sights and sounds…” and “following human nature and indulging human emotions will inevitably lead to contention and strife” (180). Such a grim outlook on human nature likely derives from the tremulous and violent time period in which he developed these philosophies. Xunzi’s journeys during the Warring States Period likely had an impact on his pessimistic stance on human nature. However, Xunzi explains that these low human desires can be and should be controlled and directed by means of ritual and teachings. He praises the value of teachers as a way of practicing virtue and claims, “one must be transformed by the example of a teacher and guided by the way of ritual and rightness before one will attain modestly and yielding, accord with refinement and ritual, and return to order” (180). Xunzi refutes the idea that ritual and rightness are part of human nature and instead are the result of activity through the metaphor of a potter and carpenter. Xunzi rationalizes, “a potter may mold clay and produce an earthen pot, but how could molding pots of clay be the potter’s nature? A carpenter may carve wood and produce utensils but how could carving utensils out of wood be the carpenter’s nature?” (182). In this metaphor Xunzi illustrates how rituals are the result of conscious activity, and these rituals “established models and limits in order to reform and improve the human emotional nature” (180). Without such limits to evil human nature, society would fall into chaos. Mencius, in each of his metaphors illustrates how human nature has a tendency to be good. In contrast Xunzi’s metaphors and explanations illustrate his claim that human nature is bad. Although these two thinkers differ greatly in philosophy, they share the idea that governance and personal cultivation have a close relationship. Mencius’ belief that human nature is good is related to his idea of proper governance. Leading by example allows people to follow the Way and to be in touch with their true human nature, and therefore Heaven. In contrast, Xunzi believes that evil human nature can be curbed and directed through conscious activity and ritual so as to allow for order in government. Finally, the two, as “ru” thinkers, also believe in the ability of humans in general to aspire to higher personal cultivation. Mencius states, “if one does what is not good, that is not the fault of ones capacities” (149) and similarly Xunzi also claims, “The man on the street can become a Yu” (183) meaning any man on the street has the natural endowment needed to understand virtue.

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