Xunzi
Human Nature is “Bad”

 

Human Nature is Evil
Chapter 23

Human nature is evil; its goodness derives from conscious activity. Now it is human nature to be born with a fondness for profit. Indulging this leads to contention and strife, and the sense of modesty and yielding [???with which one was born???] disappears. One is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft, so that the sense of loyalty and good faith [???with which one was born???] disappears. One is born with the desires of the ears and eyes and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds, and, by indulging these, one is led to licentiousness and chaos, so that the sense of ritual, rightness, refinement, and principle [???with which one was born???] is lost. [SCT, 179-80; Xunzi 23.1]
 
NOTE: The phrase “with which one was born” does not appear in the Chinese text. How does the addition of this phrase change the meaning of the text? Do you think it makes more sense with or without this phrase? To read the original Chinese with word-by-word definitions (hover over a character for its definition), click any of the blue links above.
 
  • Xunzi emphasizes the fact that we are “born with desires of the ears and eyes,” which he claims lead to “licentiousness and chaos.” How does Mencius deal with this issue?
… Mencius said, The fact that human beings learn shows that their nature is good. I say this is not so; this comes of his having neither understood human nature nor perceived the distinction between the nature and conscious activity (wei ). The nature is what is given by Heaven: one cannot learn it; one cannot acquire it by effort. Ritual and rightness are created by sages: people learn them and are capable, through effort, of bringing them to completion. What cannot be learned or acquired by effort but is within us is called the nature. What can be learned and, through effort, brought to completion is called conscious activity. This is the distinction between the nature and conscious activity. That the eyes can see and the ears can hear is human nature. But the faculty of clear sight does not exist apart from the eye, nor does the faculty of keen hearing exist apart from the ear. It is apparent that the eye’s clear vision and the ear’s acute hearing cannot be learned. [SCT, 180; Xunzi 23.4]
  • Does Xunzi accurately describe Mencius position?
  • How does Xunzi’s definition of “human nature” differ from Mencius’?
  • How does this different definition change Xunzi’s approach to the problem of “evil”?

 
 
禮論
A Discussion of Rites
Chapter 19
What is the origin of rites? I reply, human beings are born with desires, and when they do not achieve their desires, they cannot but seek the means to do so. If their seeking knows no limit or degree, they cannot but contend with one another. With contention comes chaos, and with chaos comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated chaos and therefore established rites [li] and rightness [yi] in order to limit it, to nurture people’s desires, and to give them a means of satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not exhaust material things and that material things did not fall short of desires. Thus both desires and things were supported and satisfied, and this was the origin of rites. ...
       Those below are compliant; those above are enlightened; the myriad things change but do not become chaotic. One who turns his back upon rites will be lost. Are rites not perfect? When they have been properly established and brought to the ultimate point, no one in the world can add to or subtract from them. Root and branch are put in proper order; beginning and end are correlated; distinctions are expressed through the most elegant forms; explanations derive from the utmost discernment. Those in the world who follow the rites will be orderly; those who do not follow them will be chaotic. Those who follow them will be at peace; those who do not follow them will be in danger. Those who follow them will be preserved; those who turn against them will perish. This is something that the lesser person cannot comprehend. [SCT, 174-5; Xunzi 19]
 
 
  • What is Xunzi’s position on the relation between humaneness and ritual/propriety?
  • Is Xunzi or Mencius closer to Confucius position on the relationship between these two key concepts?
天論
A Discussion of Heaven
Chapter 17
The processes of Heaven are constant, neither prevailing because of [the sage] Yao nor perishing because of [the tyrant] Jie. Respond to them with order, and good fortune will result; respond to them with chaos, and misfortune will result. If you strengthen what is basic and are frugal in your expenditures, then Heaven cannot make you poor. If you nourish and provide for the people, acting in accordance with the seasons, then Heaven cannot cause you to be ill. If you practice the Way and are not of two minds, then Heaven cannot visit calamities on you. Thus flood or drought cannot bring about starvation, heat or cold cannot produce illness, and strange or preternatural events cannot result in misfortune. But if you neglect the basis and are extravagant in your expenditures, then Heaven cannot make you rich. If you are deficient in nourishing and dilatory in your actions, then Heaven cannot make you whole. If you turn your back on the Way and behave recklessly, then Heaven cannot bestow good fortune on you. Thus even before floods or droughts have arrived you starve; even before heat or cold has set in, you grow ill; even when no strange or preternatural events have occurred, you suffer misfortune. The seasons come just as they do in a well-ordered age, but the disasters and calamities that occur show the difference between a well-ordered age and this one. You should not blame Heaven; it is a matter of the way you have followed. Therefore if you can distinguish between the natural and the human you deserve to be called a perfect man. ... [SCT, 170-171; Xunzi 17.1]

If you perform the sacrifice for rain, and it rains, what does that mean? I reply, there is no meaning. It is as though the sacrifice for rain had not been performed and yet it rained anyway. The sun or the moon is eclipsed, and one “saves” it; a drought occurs, and the rain sacrifice is performed; only after divination has been carried out is a decision taken on a matter of great consequence. These actions are performed not as a means of achieving some result but as a means of ornament. Therefore the noble person regards them as ornaments, while the common people regard them as supernatural. To consider them as ornaments is fortunate; to consider them as supernatural is unfortunate. [SCT, 174; Xunzi 17.13]
  • How does this conception of Heaven (tian) change the way one might approach moral self-cultivation and social transformation in the Confucian tradition?