Political Philosophy – Mencius, Xunzi & Mozi on Human Nature
For this lecture read this chapter (2A) of Mencius, sections 3 & 6.
“Everyone has a heart which cannot bear the suffering of others. The ancient sage kings had this compassionate heart, and thus had compassionate kingdoms. When such a kingdom was ruled by such a heart, ruling the kingdom was as easy as turning it over in the palm one’s hand. If anyone sees a child about to fall into a well they will feel fear, not because they may impress the child’s parents or their neighbors and friends. From this we can see that compassion is essential to humanity, along with shame, modesty and acceptance.” – Mencius, 2A:6
“When you conquer others by force, they do not submit in their hearts. They submit because they are not strong enough to resist you. When you conquer others by virtue, they are pleased in the core of their hearts and sincerely submit, as did the seventy disciples of Confucius.” – Mencius, 2A:3
“Human nature is evil. Virtue is the result of action. We are born with desires for profit which lead to war and suffering, not courtesy and humility. We are born with envy and hate which lead to violence and crime, not loyalty and good faith. We are born with desire for beautiful sights and sounds which lead to indulgence and laziness, not to tradition and law. Thus, anyone who follows our nature and desires will inevitably become involved in war and strife, will violate the rules of society and will end as a criminal. Therefore, we must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by tradition and principles, and only then will we be courteous and humble, obey the law and achieve greatness.” – Xunzi, Human Nature is Evil
The Period of the Hundred Philosophers
One would like to think that times of peace and prosperity are good for systems of thought, but times of civil war and disintegration of empires seems best for thinkers and cultural progress. This was true in ancient Egypt, India, Greece, and true in the golden age of ancient Chinese thought as well. Human beings only rethink problems when they are faced with them, and they are only able to teach new and counter-cultural solutions when the orthodoxy is weak and failing. In Confucius’ China there were great problems in the Warring States period (500 – 220 BCE) as many kings came and went, each calling themselves ‘mandated by heaven’. Interestingly, this same period is known as the golden age of Chinese thought, the Period of the Hundred Philosophies, also called the Period of the Hundred Schools or Period of the Hundred Sages. This included the teachings of Confucius and the early Confucians such as Mencius and Xunzi. (Xunzi is pronounced “Hsun-tzeh”, not to be confused with Sunzi, who wrote the Art of War.)
In the ancient cosmology of ancient Egypt and Persia, influencing the later ancient cultures of India, Greece and China, the world was thought to be built like a person and order was thought to be spoken downward from the heavens to the earth. In ancient China, it was said that if a king was good he would be supported and affirmed by the voice of heaven, which in speaking for a king gave the king the “mandate of heaven” and allow him and the empire to prosper. Likewise, the king would speak for and support local rulers and ministers. This is very similar to most other polytheistic and monotheistic cultures of the ancient world.
If the king does not follow the way of heaven, the gods or god stops speaking for the king, and someone else comes along and takes the king’s place. Each new king claims that the old king was ‘no longer spoken for’, so the populations of ancient Greece, India, as well as China, find themselves wondering: who or what kind of king exactly does heaven (the heavens) speak for, and why? Philosophy of the ancient world was both about how to rule the self and how to rule a people, and the questions were often intertwined. Up until the French Revolution in the 1700s, Louis XVI claimed to be similarly spoken for.
Confucius’ father, a soldier, died when Confucius was very young, presumably in combat. Confucius was alive as the Zhou Dynasty disintegrated during the Spring and Autumn period, though he did not see things deteriorate further as they did in the Warring State Period, the time when Confucius’ teachings were taken up by Mencius, Xunzi and others as the way to cultivate and restore both society and the self. Confucius’ family were nobles, but they were lower level aristocrats, shi, sometimes translated into English as ‘knights’, and they had fallen on hard times. They had left the state of Song to the South after political infighting and assassinations. By the age of fifteen Confucius had decided that he wanted to study the classics, which fortunately were better kept and studied in Lu than in other states. When he was twenty three, he began teaching publicly and privately. By thirty, he was studying ancient government in the court of Lu with other scholars and had a position as overseer of public fields and the state granary.
Legend has it that early in his life Confucius opened a school for children and would charge parents of children what he thought they could afford. When the rich complained that their children were being taught for great sums and the poor children were being taught for next to nothing, Confucius replied that the rich were welcome to take their children to any teacher they saw fit, and he would keep his prices as they were. Another story tells of Confucius putting an apple in a vase, and telling the children that the first to get the apple out could eat it. The largest boy in the class shoved in front of the others and reached in to grasp the apple, but he could not pull it out as the apple was nearly the size of the opening. Confucius took the vase, turned it over, and the apple fell out into his hand. The story illustrates a basic lesson of Confucianism: study is central to self-development, but critical reflection, turning things over in the mind, is equally valuable.
After briefly fleeing to Chi during a time of unrest, and refusing to participate in the government of a tyrant who had taken control of Lu, in his fifties he joined the court of rulers who overthrew the tyrant and became Chief of Justice of Lu. Later in life, after teaching and participating in local government, Confucius left Lu in 479 BCE and traveled with many followers from local court to regional kingdom attempting to teach rulers his ways and find patronage. In one story of his travels, Confucius came upon a woman weeping over the body of her son as a tiger disappeared into the forest. Confucius asked her why she chose to live where there are tigers, and she replied that the local rulers were corrupt and it was better to live with the tigers. Confucius turned to his followers and told them to remember her words.
Confucius is said to have visited at least nine states of the old Zhou empire attempting to bring the rulers together in a new confederation that would restore the ancient order. Unfortunately the political tide was not in his favor, and just less than ten years before the Warring States Period (475 BCE) Confucius returned to Lu in 484 BCE and died five years later at the age of seventy three in 479 BCE, two and a half thousand years ago. His travels, while they did not restore the Zhou as he had hoped, surely helped spread his reputation and teachings such that his school flourished in the Warring States Period and was later patronized by the Han as they attempted to hold on to the disparate states.
Confucius believes that the heart is the center of the human being, and compassion (ren) is the central thread running throughout his system according to a famous passage of the Analects. Notice that heart as ‘center’ is both mental and physical, fitting with cosmology, psychology and medical practices. The term ren, often translated as love or compassion, is literally, ‘humanity’. Loving others and being compassionate for others is to be more human and humane. Confucius is often understood as a champion of tradition, principle and ritual (li), as he is a proponent of civilization and education against the Daoists who are proponents of nature and meditation. However, it is clear from the Analects that Confucius believed it was more important to have right motivation rather than right ritual or tradition, to have right intentions than right actions, i.e. ‘one’s heart is in the right place’. In other words, while one should have both compassion and tradition, it is most important to have compassion, and without it tradition is corrupting the best things.
Confucius believed that ritual was the strength of a society and so one should perform the rituals to the ancestors, but he also believed that the worst thing was not to simply avoid ritual but to do ritual without the proper intention. We could say that Confucius would say to a churchgoer today: it is more important to enjoy your church than to attend your church, for if you do not enjoy it you should not go. Empty ritual, ritual simply for the motions rather than authentic love for and continuity with one’s society, is the worst thing, and thus it would be better in such a case to avoid false ritual and simply not perform the ritual at all. This point is often lost when people focus on Confucius’ great love of ritual and city culture. The best example is clearly 3.26, “Authority without generosity, ceremony without reverence, mourning without grief, these things I cannot bear to contemplate”.
Confucius is credited as the father of China’s civil service system, a system in which anyone who tested well, regardless of their position in society, was given a government position. This is similar to the development of types of scribes in Egypt. It is just such a development that we call ‘the middle class’, the individuals who through study and work can rise or fall in position to fit the many niches required to run large cities and systems. In combination with the last point, this means that Confucius hates scholarship for show without genuine love of learning and discovery of human nature. A good example is 4.9, ‘if a scholar is ashamed of his shabby clothes or poor food, he is not worth listening to’.
Confucius was a genius at seeing himself as equal to everyone, and he encouraged this attitude as the path to goodness itself. Most of us have likely heard the ‘Golden Rule’, which is paraphrased from Confucius: ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’. My favorite example is 7.22: Confucius says that if you put him with any two people at random, he can take their strengths as a model to follow and their faults as a warning. Clearly, Confucius believed that we all share the same set of strengths and faults, no matter how talented (or horrible) we happen to individually be or where our talents are. Confucius teaches us that NO ONE is perfect, not even himself, but there is good in everyone and everything, and we had best remember that we will never lose any of our connection to our fellow human beings if we only remember to look hard enough for it. Another excellent example from the Analects is, “When you see a worthy person, follow their example. When you see an unworthy person, examine yourself”.
Mencius, Xunzi and the Debate on Human Nature
Confucius had two major followers who shared many views in common but also had opposite interpretation of the Analects when it came to the issue of human nature. Mencius (370-290 BCE) or Menzi, the second in command of Confucianism by popular consent in the tradition, believed that Confucius taught that human nature is good and develops out of the heart, growing and developing the virtues through love. He argued that because the human individual is essentially good, we need ritual to guide our growth but the love we already have for others before we are taught anything is the true essence of human development.
Xunzi (312-230 BCE), the third most important Confucian after Confucius and Mencius, more cynical and conservative than Mencius, argued that human nature is essentially evil and without the rituals and tradition to hold our nature back we would be selfish and uncivilized. This remains the major split in Confucian thought. We can see that there are various views and contradicting opinions within the system, and that individuals can draw on Mencius, Xunzi or both to back up their own interpretations of Confucius.
In 2A:6 of the book collected under his name by later Confucians, 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 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. In coming weeks, we will see similar sides taken between Rousseau and Hobbes. 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.
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 goes on to presume that love and care for others possibly began with early humans, living before civilization, seeing the decaying bodies of their parents being attacked by animals and because humans naturally care for others, and particularly their parents, they were moved to bury the bodies. Note that this makes proper burial, the topic of the debate with Yizi. In the text, Yizi concedes the point and accepts that love starts with the love one has for one’s parents and develops from there. In Chinese philosophical texts, often there are instances of a member (sometimes quite famous) of an opposing school conceding in argument. 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.
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. The scholar debating Mencius says the empire is now drowning, implying that one needs to radically break with the laws and traditions 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.
In 4B:12, Mencius says the great person retains the heart of a child. A Moist might point out the previous battle with Yi Zi 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 4B:13, Mencius says that following one’s parents when they are alive is good, but following them after they are dead is greater. 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.
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. In 6A:7, Mencius speaks of sowing barley on various ground (strikingly similar to the parable of Jesus). 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. Reason and goodness are common to all. The sage or great person simply recognizes this and grows what all have to become great.
Xunzi and Human Nature as Evil
Xunzi, the third most important Confucian after Confucius and Mencius, argued that human nature is evil because human nature is desire. Without society and laws, people would grab for themselves and do nothing for others. Hobbes, we will see, argues the same thing and believes that this justifies the king acting any way the king sees fit, including killing his subjects. 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 gentlemen vs. the behavior of poor country folk to back this up. He argues that one’s temperament and intelligence need to be in balance and if they get overgrown they will cause ruin. Human abilities need to be reined in by society and customs, or they will cause problems. He 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.
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. He argues that the example of child-like love 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).
Xunzi says: “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.”
If Mencius is right, Xunzi argues, we could dispense with society and be good in the state of nature. Both the Daoists and Rousseau 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.
Not much is known about Mozi, Master Mo, founder of Moism, one of the major schools of the Period of the Hundred Philosophers. His disciples collected his sayings and dialogues to make the Mozi text, just as the disciples of Confucius and Mencius did. It is believed that Mozi lived sometime between the death of Confucius in 479 BCE and the birth of Mencius in 372 BCE and that the Moist school was flourishing around the year 400 BCE (the same time as Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece).
One ancient work says that Mozi studied under Confucians at a Confucian school, but then became disgusted and developed his philosophy in opposition to Confucianism. We know that Confucianism and Moism were both flourishing and in competition at the same time from texts like the Zhuangzi (one of my favorites, in which Zhuangzi states that what the Confucians call right the Moists call wrong and vice versa). Like Confucius, Mozi likely traveled to schools and noble courts expounding his philosophy and seeking disciples. Nobles and other wealthy individuals would often put on banquets and debates for education and entertainment.
Because Mozi was a great critic of the excesses of the powerful and champion of the common people, some scholars have speculated that Mozi was an ex-convict and Mo meant tattoo like the sort used to brand ex-cons (thus, Mozi would mean Master Tattoo or Master Tat). These scholars are likely thinking of Zhuangzi’s use of ex-con teachers countering Confucius while playing the Moists and Confucians against each other. While Mo Zi criticized the luxurious excesses of dancing girls and music of the wealthy, particularly in light of the suffering of the poor and oppressed, it is unlikely that an ex-con would have access to the noble courts and fine houses that Mozi frequented in seeking to expand the influence and membership of his school of thought.
How could Mozi get away with criticizing the powerful? Like the ancient Egyptian proverb, “Trust no one by birth, judge a person by their actions”, Mozi argued (as did the Confucians) that it is behavior that makes one a good person and not high birth. As in ancient Egypt and India, the top ranks of power are in constant struggle with the up and coming powers. In India, Buddha, Mahavira and other great philosophers were second class educated who were critical of the upper class and older traditions. In ancient China, Moism and Confucianism (as well as other schools) appealed to the newer and lower nobles and wealthy who did not have the finest families but surrounded themselves with the talented and new artists and thinkers. Unfortunately, it may have been the hard-lining Moist stance against the top levels of society that ultimately resulted in the downfall of Moism when the Han unified China and endorsed the Confucians and Daoists but not the Moists. Moism was neglected for 1,500 years afterwards. It was only in the times of Neo-Confucianism (1100 CE), ironically, that Mozi was reexamined along with Buddhism and put in a Confucian context.
Mozi had a system of three tests for examining the validity of beliefs. First, asking the origin of the belief (remember, the ways of the sage kings were highly valued and used by most schools of ancient Chinese thought). Second, the empirical validity of the belief (how well the belief corresponds to what we have discovered to be true). Third, the practicality and applicability of the belief (identical to the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill).
The Moists are famous for their doctrine of universal love. Mozi had the hard task of trying to convince rulers and common people alike that they should not only love others as themselves, which the Confucians also teach, but that they should love other families as they love their own families and love people of other countries as they love the people of their own country. The Moists believed in both debate and warfare, and they excelled in both logic and military science, but only for the purpose of self defense and defending the weak against the strong. Remember that the period of the Hundred Schools was also the warring states period, a time of instability when many who were weak were being abused and killed by local wars and bandits. Today, the Swiss embody this stance on war the best as they spend a decent amount on defense and bases from which they launch jets out of mountains but they never go on the offensive.
Mozi says that universal love is practical and could be put into practice if enough rulers are convinced that it is in their own interest as well as in the interest of their people. Mencius seems terrified by Moism, his major rival in Northeast China at the time, writing that the ideas of Mozi and other thinkers are found across the countryside (Mencius 3B:9). Mencius argues that loving everyone as one loves one’s own father means that one has no father. Considering the emphasis that Confucians such as Mencius put on following one’s father, this would be a great evil. This is strikingly similar to philosophers who believe in absolute truth and fact saying that if there is no absolute truth but only relative truth then there is no truth whatsoever.
In the section Universal Love of the Mozi text, he begins by stating that the good person seeks to promote what is good and reduce what is harmful (identical, again, to the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill). He argues that the greatest harm is powerful states and families attacking the weak states and families and the strong oppressing the weak. All this comes about not by love but by hate, not by universality (caring about the whole) but by partiality (caring about part of the whole as opposed to another part). Partiality must be, therefore, replaced with universality. Note that all of this is very similar to the Communism of both Marx and Mao. Mozi argues that this can be put into practice or even he would be critical. We naturally trust the universal person with our family and possessions more than the partial person. Therefore, we naturally love and trust the universal ruler more than the particular ruler. There is, however, a problem with this view that Mencius mentions: we do in fact see people naturally loving their own more than their neighbor, just as we do see people trusting partial rulers rather than universal ones. Mozi says there are no fools in the world like this, but experience does show us otherwise. However, he argues that if the people saw rulers that fed and clothed everyone equally, there could be radical change in society within a single generation.
In the section Against Offensive Warfare, Mozi says that everyone knows that it is wrong to steal from one’s neighbors, but that when it is called warfare it is praised. If it is true that killing one person is a crime, then killing a hundred is far more of a crime. People are truly confused about right and wrong if they consider warfare to be justice.
In the section Against Confucians, Mozi argues that the Confucians are wrong about degrees and gradations of love based on one’s relationship to one’s other. Mozi argues that it is wrong to love one’s family and state more than other families and states. He argues that both Confucius and Confucians are hypocritical and often pay more attention to matters of ritual than to the deeper underlying problems of society. He attacks Confucian practices of mourning, weddings, and fatalism and says they produce contradictions and hypocrisy. He argues that the ancient ways were once new ways, so why should we honor the ancient heroes and sage kings for invention, innovation and change by sticking to the old ways? Mozi believes that the Confucians are drawn into caring about the trivial while at other times supporting the substantial revolution that society requires. At times, they believe in silence and deference to authority even when it is wrong, but at other times they endorse rebellion.