Asian Philosophy 8: Mencius, Xunzi & Neo-Confucianism
The Great Learning & Doctrine of the Mean
Before covering Mencius, Xunzi and the Neo-Confucians, it is important to cover two short texts that became very important for the early and late Confucians. Both the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean were chapters of the Book of Rites, one of the five classics Confucius compiled to be the curriculum of his education system. Zhu Xi, the central Neo-Confucian who lived 1600 years after Confucius, similarly created a new four book canon to be used for Confucian education: the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean. While the other texts Confucius compiled were studied, these four formed the new core that would remain the central subject matter of the government exams in China for 800 years until 1905.
The Great Learning is a short text attributed in the tradition to Confucius, followed by commentary attributed to Zengzi, one of Confucius’ students. Both Mencius and Xunzi were influenced by the text and its teachings, as both were familiar with not only the Analects but the five classics Confucius compiled. Wang Yangming, the second most famous Neo-Confucian who disagreed with Zhu Xi and argued that practice is essential to and one and the same as learning, did not like Zhu Xi’s pulling of the Great Learning out of the Book of Rites and giving it special emphasis. The most famous quote from the work, the central of three sections, reads:
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the world, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed. Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.
Essentially, if things are investigated, this leads to knowledge, which leads to right thoughts, which leads to a good heart, which leads to a good person, which leads to a good family, which leads to a good state, which leads to a good world. Notice that the heart is the center of the person, and the family is the center of the state.
The Doctrine of the Mean, also translated as the Middle Way, (like the doctrine of the Buddha) is another short chapter of the Book of Rites that teaches to never act in excess to either side of an opposition but always practice moderation. Remember that Confucius in the Analects wondered if no one would leave a room without using the door (with the possible exception of the Incredible Hulk or the Kool-Aid guy), why people “walk outside the middle way” in their life practices.
The text says that the noble person embodies the course of the mean, the balance of extremes, while the crude person acts against the course of the mean, acting out of balance and “to the extreme”. An old translation of the text I have says that the mean (lowercase: hateful) man acts against the course of the Mean (uppercase: balance), which is needlessly confusing. The noble are cautious and thus stay balanced, while the crude are hasty and thus overact. As we will see with Daoism, this is quite in accord with the Daoist concept of wu-wei, acting less to stay in accord with the way of things. Speaking of the sage-king Shun, we read:
There was Shun. He indeed was truly wise! Shun loved to question others, and to study their words, though they might be shallow. He concealed what was bad in them, and displayed what was good. he took hold of their two extremes, determined the mean, and employed it in his government of the people. It was by this that he was Shun!
The superior person “cultivates a friendly harmony without being weak”, and thus is firmly energetic without being overbearing. This is associated with the principle of reciprocity, which is repeated in the text. It is then extended to the five relationships, telling us to treat those above us as we would have those beneath us treat us. We should refrain both from treating those beneath us with contempt as well as court favor with those above us. The noble quietly work with their situation, while the crude look for lucky breaks.
Another metaphor used is the noble archer, who after missing the target turns around and examines himself (rather than turning around and saying, “Somebody coughed” we assume). Psychology experiments have found that in competition with others when we succeed at tasks we credit ourselves (internal attribution, looking to the self), and when we fail at tasks we blame the situation (external attribution, looking outside the self), but when others succeed at tasks we credit the situation, and when they fail we blame them. Clearly, the noble have the wisdom to reverse this initial bias and work on themselves rather than blaming others.
Mencius & Human Nature as Good
Mencius (370-290 BCE) or Menzi, the second patriarch of Confucianism, taught that human nature is good and we should develop the heart, growing the four virtues through love. He argued that because the human individual is essentially good, we need ritual to guide our growth but love is the true essence. Xunzi (312 – 230 BCE), the third patriarch of Confucianism, argued, against Mencius by name, that human nature is evil and without the rituals and tradition to hold our nature back and transform us through education we would be selfish and uncivilized. (Xunzi is pronounced “Hsun tzuh“.) This remained the major divide and debate in Confucian thought. We can see that there are various views and opinions within the school, and that individuals can draw on Mencius, Xunzi or both to back up their own interpretations of Confucius.
Mencius was born in the small warring state of Zou, near to where Confucius was born and taught. He is sometimes said to have founded Confucianism as an official school, but like with so many cultural movements there were followers of Confucius who compiled the Analects before Mencius, and certainly there were strands of schools that followed Confucius earlier. Mencius was, however, the primary interpreter of the themes of the Analects for the Confucian tradition to follow.
A thousand years later, with Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi taught that Mencius was the last great thinker of the Period of the Hundred Schools and the patriarch of Confucianism, made the Mencius one of the four books of Confucian education along with the Analects, and declared Xunzi to be a heretic for arguing against Mencius. This is the reason that when the Jesuits got to China 700 years after Zhu Xi and the Neo-Confucian revival, they Latinized Kong Fu Zi as Confucius and Menzi as Mencius but did not Latinize Xunzi. Strangely, though the Jesuits did argue that Confucius and Mencius were akin to Christianity, they also believed in the sinful nature of humanity after the Fall of Adam, which is closer to Xunzi then Mencius.
Like Confucius, Mencius’ father died when he was very young. Mencius’ mother, who is revered as an ideal example of nurturing motherhood, famously moved three times with Mencius (known as Mencius’ mother’s three moves) to ensure that her son would be raised in the right environment. At first they lived near a cemetery, but young Mencius began impersonating the funeral mourners who were often paid to pretend to cry and wail. Remember, Confucius thought mourning without grief, ritual without intent, is the worst thing possible. She moved near a marketplace, but the boy began imitating the cries of the merchants who were known as swindlers and deceivers. Confucius was said to have tried being a merchant, but became disgusted at other merchants who suggested he fix the balances to make extra money off of rice, beans and other goods. Finally, she moved near a university so that Mencius would imitate the scholars and teachers, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. Also like Confucius, Mencius held moderate government positions for a short period of time, but became discouraged by the politics of the time and resumed teaching instead.
Mencius argued that qi (“chi”, energy) is cultivated through moral practice, and that compassion, like any exercise, is good for your health. In 2A:6, Mencius states a major thesis of his work: No one is devoid of compassion for others. Mencius argues at several points in the book that we naturally feel for others and their well-being as we do for ourselves, and that when we fail to care for others there are other factors involved that block or reverse our natural compassion. Xunzi, as we will see, is very opposed to this interpretation of Confucius’ thought and argues that compassion must be planted in the human being by society and study because it is alien and opposite to human nature. Both agree that when we care for others, we cultivate ourselves (as we read in the Analects). Mencius believes that compassion is our nature and just as water naturally goes downward unless it is obstructed by something humans are naturally compassionate unless matters are complicated by obstructions. For Xunzi, humans are originally evil and desirous by nature and require society, education, and the experience of caring for others to learn to be compassionate.
Mencius is famous for using the young child falling into a well example to back up his argument. He argues that anyone would feel panic and fear if they saw a child in danger, regardless of how evil that individual is or how twisted they have become. This point is excellent for debate. We can all imagine someone who is so evil or sociopathic that they would not care watching a child in serious danger or coming to harm, but is this common? If it is possible, is it due to obstructions to original nature, to isolated psychological situations?
Mencius believes that there are four parts of the human heart that are developed and cultivated by society and study such that four virtues are grown like plants, germs or sprouts. The heart is a root system which grows the virtues of humanity when properly cultivated through education and practice. The four parts of the heart are compassion (ren) which sprouts benevolence, shame which sprouts duty and righteousness (yi), courtesy/modesty which sprouts observance of ritual and principle (li), and a sense of right and wrong (chih) which sprouts wisdom.
In 3A:5, we see Mencius getting into a battle with a Moist over whether one should love one’s own family more than others. While compassion is central to Confucianism, whether or not it is innate like Mencius says or has to be transplanted like Xunzi says, Confucians believe that one should have more love for one’s parents, children, family, and country and that this is the natural and proper way of things. Moists, who are radical egalitarians, argued against the Confucians that we should love everyone without distinction, as much as we love ourselves, our parents, our children, and our country. Confucians argue that the Moists are breaking with the natural way of the human heart and society, and that proportion in love is proper and best.
Mencius argues that we all do naturally love infants and young children and that this is good. He returns to his well example, and argues that Yizi, a Moist, is taking this one case and applying it improperly to everyone. Mencius says that the Moist wants us to deny our natural gradations of love which grow in society while affirming that love is the true nature of humanity, setting love in opposition to itself and making love both natural and unnatural at the same time. Mencius argues that it is both our nature to love everyone and our nature to love those we are close to more than others, balancing empathy and transformation with duty and tradition.
Mencius argues that love and care for others began with early humans, living before civilization, seeing the decaying bodies of their parents being attacked by animals. Because humans naturally care for others, and particularly their parents, they were moved at the sight to bury the bodies. Note that this makes for proper burial, the topic of the debate with Yizi. Indeed, archeology today recognizes the birth of culture and civilization in the increasingly ritualized burial of the dead, who are increasingly ornamented and buried with items which were precious to the individual and possibly useful in the afterlife or next life. Yizi concedes the point and accepts that love starts with the love one has for one’s parents and develops from there, but presumably still believes that this initial love for family should be cultivated into caring equally for all humanity. In Chinese philosophical texts, there are often instances of a famous member of an opposing school conceding in argument to the author of the text, showing us the rich tradition of debate between various schools in Chinese thought. With Daoism, we will see that even Confucius is made to accept defeat and concede superiority to the Daoists several times in the text of Zhuangzi.
In 4A:12, Mencius elaborates and says that goodness starts with working on the self and love for one’s parents, and moves outward from there to one’s friends and the whole of one’s society. Thus, he agrees with Yizi the Moist that one should cultivate a love for all of humanity, but still thinks it improper to lose all reverence and distinction particular to one’s family, friends, and culture.
In 4A:16, Mencius considers another example famous in Confucian scholarship for its implications. A scholar, school unknown, poses a problem to Mencius: It says in the laws that it is improper for men and women to touch hands if they are not married, but if your brother’s sister is drowning, shouldn’t you reach out to save her? Mencius replies that it is proper to save her, and that one must not blindly follow the law but use discretion given the situation.
This passage is famous, because Confucians are big on observing law and ritual but sometimes one must break the law. Confucius said in the Analects that even though the rites say to use a silk hat, it is OK to use a hemp hat instead because it is more modest. He also tells his students to rise up and overthrow an unjust tyrant. The scholar debating Mencius says the empire is now drowning, implying that they should radically break with the laws, traditions and government to save society. Mencius replies that upholding law and ritual is the way to save society and so the example of the drowning sister-in-law does not justify a radical break from tradition. Remember that this was during the Warring States Period. Mencius is arguing that restoring the old Zhou ways would be the solution, like Confucius believed, while the scholar seems to suggest a radical change in social structure, like the Moists argued. As we will see soon Moists believed that all property should be used in common and everyone live in common as one family.
In 4B:12, Mencius says the great person retains the heart of a child. A Moist might point out the previous battle with Yizi and say Mencius is going against what he has said before if a child is all loving and completely open. Mencius might counter that retaining the child heart will naturally grow into its arrangements while being pure and absolute, in the same way that children naturally love their parents and those with whom they are familiar.
In 4B:13, Mencius says that following one’s parents when they are alive is good, but following them after they are dead is greater and shows that one is truly cultivated and a noble person. Xunzi might be cynical here, because if you applied this to society he would argue that without society one would tend not to be good at all and that the one who follows the ways of one’s parents after they are dead does so only because society still surrounds them. He would likely agree with Mencius, however, that this would demonstrate one was truly cultivated and transformed by society.
In 6A:2, as in several other places, Mencius likens love and human nature (which he believes to be identical) to water and argues that just as water naturally moves downward love naturally moves outward. If water does not move downward, it is blocked by something. In the same way, if a human being is not loving towards others and compassionate, it is blocked by something. As seen, this love would grow outward naturally but equally would radiate in differentiated levels. Love for those close would be greater than love for those far, but love for those close and love for those far would mutually support and increase each other.
In 6A:7, Mencius speaks of sowing barley on various ground (strikingly similar to the parable of Jesus, which must have astounded the Jesuits along with the Gold and Silver rules of reciprocity). Just as when barley does not grow the seeds have fallen on bad soil, when humans are bad it is not because they do not have love and goodness in their nature but because they are put in a bad situation. Recall Mencius’ mother repeatedly seeking a better environment for the cultivation of her child. Reason and goodness are common to all. The sage or great person simply recognizes this and grows what all have to become great.
Xunzi & Human Nature as Evil
Xunzi (in the older Wade-Giles, Hsun Tzu), the third most important Confucian after Confucius and Mencius, studied and taught at a university in the state of Chi. Like Confucius and Mencius, he briefly held a government position until his patron was assassinated, then returned to teaching. He had many followers in his day, some of whom are said to have used his teachings in the service of Legalism, which strangely sought to have Confucianism banned when supported by the Chin and then was banned by the Confucian supporting Han in turn. Unlike Confucius and Mencius, he did not travel widely. Also, unlike the Analects and Mencius, his text is his own, not a set of anecdotes and sayings collected by followers. Thus it is more systematic and contains entire arguments at length.
Xunzi argued that human nature is evil because human nature is desire. Common to human thought across all cultures is the frame of desire and hate as the lower selfish part of our nature and reason and love as the higher compassionate part of our nature. While Mencius argues that we naturally are the upper and it is merely obstructed by the lower when we are evil, Xunzi argues that we naturally are the lower and it is only through cultivation that we develop compassion. Are either singularly human nature? Regardless, there is a common theme that we only come to be fulfilled in the way desire tries through developing reason and love, which truly satisfy.
Like Mencius, Xunzi argued that anyone in the street can become a sage, but it depends on environment and effort. If one hangs out with foolish people, one will be foolish, and likewise if you stick to the wise and read the wisdom of great books you will become wise. While we are not originally good according to Xunzi, we have the capacity to become good even when it does not yet exist. Much like Mencius’ barley sewing analogy but distinct, Xunzi would see the seed sowed not as the original heart and nature but as external education and civilization, while the original nature would be the soil, devoid of the seed but capable of sustaining growth.
Xunzi argues that without society and laws people would grab for themselves and do nothing for others. Like Hobbes, the English political philosopher, Xunzi argues that this justifies the king acting any way the king sees fit, including killing his subjects, in the name of the good and safety of the entire people. He was also a pragmatist, arguing that laws, morals and rulers are tools to be used for the cultivation and happiness of people. It is this part of his philosophy which may well have been supported by the Legalists.
In Improving Yourself (Section 2 of the Xunzi), he argues that if we stick to the rituals and laws our behavior will be good and if we abandon the rituals and laws it will be bad. He draws openly on the behavior of civilized nobles versus the behavior of poor country folk to back this up. He will draw a similar distinction between children and adults. Clearly, Xunzi is a city dweller. While Daoists saw the common country people as exemplary of virtue, Xunzi sees them as course and uncultured. As an aside, this is strangely like the civilized versus barbarian view many Chinese had for thousands of years of Southeast Asian people, as well as Cantonese Chinese from Hong Kong have of the Mandarin Chinese from mainland China. Clearly this is a very human problem.
Xunzi argues that one’s temperament and intelligence need to be in balance and if they get overgrown they will cause ruin. This is very much in line with the Doctrine of the Mean or Middle Way found in the Analects and the Xunzi text. Human abilities need to be reined in by society and customs, or they will cause problems. Xunzi argues that only by following laws can one be liberal and compassionate. Compassion is the goal that is possible, but it cannot be achieved without laws and principles. Following one’s parents and teachers is necessary for human development. Confucius says in the Analects that learning without thinking is bad, but thinking without learning is dangerous. Xunzi is likely thinking of this very passage.
In Man’s Nature is Evil (Section 23 of the Xunzi), he opens with this thesis and states that all goodness is the result of growth and effort. People naturally desire. They must work and change to understand that they only get what they desire when they put their desires in check, and they only learn this through involvement with society and its laws. Freud argued very similarly about sexual impulse, and that all technology is sexuality denied and deferred into work. The first paragraph lays this out succinctly.
Xunzi openly refers to Mencius by name and his theory that human nature is good and says that Mencius is wrong. Xunzi argues that Mencius is confusing human nature with the results of conscious human activity and development. Xunzi believes that the early legendary sage kings created society because they realized that human nature is corrupt and they created a method for us to grow from our nature and become excellent in spite of it. Some argued against this by asking how the great sage kings could have created a just society if one did not yet exist, to which Xunzi replied that they had reached a level of cultivation such that they could then transform society profoundly.
While Mencius teaches to look inside ourselves to find morality, Xunzi teaches to look outside ourselves, to both society and the cosmos. The sage kings looked outside of themselves not only to great texts and social arrangements, but to the order of the universe to develop themselves. Xunzi is more cosmological than both Confucius and Mencius, speaking of the orders of nature and base but can potentially develop to be great like a society or the cosmos. In one passage, Xunzi argues that fire and water have energy but no awareness, and that animals have energy and awareness but no morality, but humans have energy, awareness and the capacity to develop discrimination of right from wrong and morality. They develop this by looking outward and learning, not by looking inward which will only stunt growth and keep us in an immature and desirous state. It is making distinctions that makes us greater than beasts, and the rituals and traditions that are the greatest distinctions passed down from the sage kings.
Xunzi argues that the example of childlike love Mencius employs is misleading. Children do not know enough, are not developed enough, to refrain from grabbing for themselves. Good people restrain their own desires to be good to others, unlike the child. Note that we tell people to be like a little child (when happy & loving) and we also tell people to NOT be like a little child (when angry & upset). While children are innocent, and when happy adorable, it is true that they do not have the ability to care for others and support others that the developed adult has, and if a desire or negativity gets in their way they quickly lose all focus.
Xunzi argues that greatness IS an object of desire, and the great person desires to overcome desire and discipline desire to truly fulfill desire. This seems paradoxical, but true to life. Modern psychology experiments have shown that children who learn to control their desires and defer pleasure with patience are more successful later in life in their achievements. The achievements satisfy the person more than the initial lesser things desired.
If Mencius is right, Xunzi argues, we could dispense with society and be good in the state of nature. Both the Daoists and Rousseau the European political philosopher hold this to be true. Xunzi is arguing that, if we believe Mencius, we may as well all become Daoists. If we honor the sages and the good over the stupid and the evil, we do so because of how much each has developed and not because of their universal nature. Xunzi is arguing that, if we believe Mencius, we may as well all become Moists.
Xunzi argues that all human beings are equal in their capacity to become good and develop, but they do not start out good. The sage is one who has developed, not the one who remains the same as they were in the beginning. Xunzi argues that because one has two feet, one can theoretically walk to the ends of the earth but no one has so far managed to do so. The famous bows (for arrows), leaders and horses all became famous for how they were cultivated and developed and were not excellent without conscious effort and process. He ends by saying twice: “Environment is the important thing!” Remember Mencius agrees in speaking of sowing barley. For Confucians, society is essential. The debate is on whether the environment compliments or contradicts human nature.
Those who are good at discussing antiquity must demonstrate the validity of what they say in modern times; those who are good at discussing Heaven (the way of things) must show proofs from the human world. In discussions of all kinds, men value what is in accord with the facts and what can be proved to be valid. Hence if a man sits on his mat propounding some theory, he should be able to stand right up and put it into practice, and show that it can be extended over a wide area with equal validity. Now Mencius states that man’s nature is good, but this is neither in accord with the facts, nor can it be proved to be valid.
Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi & Wang Yangming
About 1100 CE, during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), Confucianism merged with Daoist and Buddhist ideas to form a Confucian revival called Neo-Confucianism by scholars today. Buddhism, including both Chan and Pure Land schools, had flourished during the Tang (618 – 907 CE). Most of the great masters and their koan encounters had happened during this period, and then the koan collections such as the Blue Cliff Record were collected and codified during the Song. The Neo-Confucians sought to take the flagging Confucian orthodoxy and put it once again at the center of education and society after losing ground to Buddhism for five hundred years. Buddhist metaphors such as the pearl at the bottom of the muddy lake and the sun emerging from behind the clouds, as well as Daoist concepts, were reinterpreted in light of Confucianism, giving them an active educational and moral interpretation.
The Cheng Brothers, Cheng Hao (1032 – 1085 CE) and Cheng Yi (1033 – 1107) were two philosophers, teachers and officials whose work and schools led to the Neo-Confucian revival. Together with Zhu Xi, the central systematizer of Neo-Confucianism who was deeply influenced by and indebted to the Cheng brothers’ work, the three are considered the founders of Neo-Confucianism. Their father was a county detective in Huangpi of central-east China. The two brothers were known also as Cheng the Elder and Chang the Younger, even though Cheng Hao was only one year older than Cheng Yi. Cheng Hao was known for being happy and laid back, while Cheng Yi was strict and uptight.
Both brothers believed in Li, which as mentioned with Chinese Buddhism was now not simply tradition, principle and ritual but cosmic and identified and equated with the Dharma of Buddhism and the Dao of Daoism. Both identified Li with physical form and purpose, beyond ritual and tradition, just as the Buddha’s teaching and Daoist sage’s way of living were identified with the law of the universe. The elder laid back Cheng Hao founded the School of Mind, arguing that Li was psychological, while the younger uptight Cheng Yi founded the School of Law, arguing that Li was physical. This split is along the classic lines of dogmatism, truth as objective, and skepticism, truth as subjective. Much like in the work of Plato and Neo-Platonism of medieval Europe, the Cheng Brothers saw Li, form, combined with Qi (“chi”), energy, as the composition of all things. The noble and the sages seek the forms of things.
Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE), also known as Zhuzi or Master Zhu, was the systematizer who took the work of the Cheng Brothers and others and created the educational system of China that lasted almost 600 years from 1313 to 1905. He was taught in the lineage of Cheng Yi and the School of Law, and argued that Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, the three great Chinese traditions, were teaching the same truth but that Confucius was the superior and primary teacher. Like Confucius, he gathered a small canon of four books to be the foundation of education: the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning. Zhu Xi put a very heavy emphasis on reading and study, particularly re-reading the right books again and again to understand the essence of morality and principle.
Wang Yangming (1470 – 1530 CE) one of the most revered Neo-Confucians, was famous for the idea of the unity of knowledge and action. He was opposed to Zhu Xi, who he argued put too much emphasis on study and not enough on integrating knowledge with action and practice, without which it is not genuine knowledge. While Confucius taught that intention and action are distinct things, Wang Yangming taught the complementary truth that the two are interactive as one whole. It is true that they are different, but this should not distract from their unity and complementary nature.
While someone can say that they know something, we can judge whether they truly know or not by how they act. Two examples he uses are knowing that a color is beautiful and knowing that a smell is bad. To see a beautiful color and to feel pleasure are one and the same, the seeing corresponding to mind and investigation and the feeling corresponding to body and action. If someone says they know that a smell is bad, but they do not act like it is bad (gagging, opening a window, pointing at their younger sibling), we could say that they do not really know that the smell is bad but only saying the smell is bad. Wang Yangming argues that if someone’s nose is stuffed up, they can be told there is a bad smell but they do not know there is unless they react to it. In the same way, if we know someone is a good person we do not get nervous around them or hide our valuables when they come over. If we did, it could be said that we do not truly know they are good because we do not act like they are trustworthy.
Wang Yangming is arguing against Zhu Xi’s teaching that reading and study are central. If one does not act well and put morality into practice, mere reading and recitation is not true knowledge but nothing more than “ghosts and shadows”. Notice how similar this is to Buddhist metaphors. Wang Yangming, unlike Zhu Xi, is closer to Cheng Hao than Cheng Yi, arguing that all things are mind, also similar to Buddhism. In his day, Wang Yangming was accused of being a crypto-Buddhist and corrupting Confucianism, though in fact Zhu Xi and others were borrowing from Buddhism and Daoism, if less overtly.