Chinese theories on human nature: Mencius and Hsun Tzu

One of the most prominent schools of thought in ancient China is the Confucianist school. Two of the most prominent figures that have stood as vanguards of the teachings of the Master (Confucius) are Mencius and Xunzi. The distinguishing mark of the two appear on what seems to be their defense of the Confucian faith in a time where attacks are being hurled against Confucianism. Yet even though they belong under the same roots, Mencius and Xunzi appear to have dissimilarities specially when one is to take a careful examination on their proposal as to what indeed is the nature of man.Central to the philosophy of Xunzi (sometimes referred to as Hsun Tzu) is his belief in human nature as essentially evil. This evil nature is seen as the essential trait that gives rise to having a strong urge for profit and beauty, the proneness to jealousy and hatred. These things would bring about chaos and calamity if men submit to these things and allow themselves to indulge freely on them.

Xunzi then proceeds by arguing that in order for men to be guided away from these wretched evils, there should be a teacher who will provide men with the proper knowledge so as to guide them towards the morally upright path. This guidance, for it to become proper, should also come from a proper teacher and not just any other teacher. Xunzi qualifies this proper teacher as one who was trained in the ancient sage kings for the reason that the sage kings are the ones who understood that the nature of men are wrong and inherently immoral. Thus, for men to be brought to the right direction, it is necessary that guidance should come from the right mentor.Apparently, it would only be the sage who will not seek to understand heaven since the sage is already good and already has knowledge of heaven. On the other hand, the evil nature of man provides the very reason as to why man should seek heaven by embracing the right path.

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The very necessity for man to commit himself to advancing himself towards that which is good is seen in Hsun Tzu’s discussion on the origin of morality which we will try to explain as the discussion progresses.Since every man by nature is evil, no good is intrinsic in him. Thus, everything that is deemed to be good and of value would result not from within man but from his endeavors.

Human effort reflected more precisely in one’s actions constitute the values and things which are good done by man and the collective entity of these values comprise man’s culture. In essence, the values produced by men are derived from culture, and this culture is man’s accomplishment.This very achievement of man which Hsun Tzu calls as culture is the result of his actions in such a way that men have to do certain actions so as to continue existing.

These actions have to be guided in the right way. Given the proper guidance from a proper teacher, men will begin to act in the right manner. And since utilizing the resources available to man is essential so that he will continue with life, and since his actions are properly guided, culture is then constituted. The fact that human nature is essentially evil, human nature should be cultured.It must be noted that for Hsun Tzu even though man is evil in nature, he still has the attribute of intelligence.

This intelligence gives man the capacity to be good in his actions which are to be found as beneficial for him inasmuch as this same intelligence is the core upon which the teachings regarding the right path seek to influence. This, it is indeed very possible for one to become a sage if one prefers to be a sage.With regards to Hsun Tzu’s concept of the origin of morality, he provides us with two arguments for the support of his claim. The first argument is that men cannot prolong their existence if their existence is devoid of any sort of a social organization. In the case of men living isolated from one another, individuals won’t be able to provide for all of their basic needs and, hence, man’s life will degenerate.

But with social organization, men will tend to co-operate and mutually support one another so as to attain better living.Moreover, for man to be able to overpower other creatures that may either pose threats to their existence or tightens the competition for acquiring resources, men need to be unified. Individually, man cannot subdue the far stronger creatures. Without being able to subdue these creatures, man’s existence will continue to be threatened as competition for resources remain tight and man is not the dominant force.

But collectively as in a working society, men will be able to outdo the stronger creatures and be able to finally conquer the lands and to secure for themselves the resources needed to sustain their lives.It is then proposed that for the continuity of man’s society, rules of conduct are necessary. These rules are the rites, rituals, and customary rules of living which will ensure for each individual and for the whole society as well the avoidance of disorder and the degeneration of man’s life.

Hsun Tzu later claims that one of the basic distressing fact for humanity is that the world is not as ideal as we may begin to conceive of it. Quite on the contrary, people may actually desire or hate the same things in the world. With this common hatred or desire, it is not quite surprising for men to come into conflict which can result to disorder from within the society. It is also idealistic to claim that all of the things that the rest of humanity may desire are exceptionally abundant. Rather, the things that we actually desire in common are the essential things first and foremost. These essential things are called to be as such for the very reason that they give sustenance to man’s life and brings him away from having a degenerating life.

With limited resources, it is most likely that men will do every possible measure so as to obtain these essentials. And since people cannot live isolated from the rest of humanity, bringing them altogether in a society would result to conflicting interests. This is the core reason why a set of rules is needed to be imposed, for with these rules give limits to the actions of men in his quest for satisfying his interests in life.

As a consequence of this limiting, men are guided accordingly in their actions and that men continue to live without inflicting harm upon the other members of the society. These rules of conduct—the li— come in the form of rituals and rules. In essence, men should live collectively yet with the limits set by the li.Further, Hsun Tzu offers us the distinction between what is of nature and what is of culture. The former gives us the notion concerning the facts of nature, such as maleness or femaleness. By saying that these are facts of nature, what is being meant is that these are facts independent of social organization, that individuals can be either male or female regardless of their association to a social union.

On the other hand, relationships in a certain society such as mother and daughter, or husband and wife are the consequences of civilization and of man’s culture. These relationships are not primarily the direct results of nature though to a certain degree some of these relationships reflect the biological connections among individuals. Nevertheless, the very fact that these relationships could not have been as they are without the society is reason enough to go with Hsun Tzu’s claim that these relationships are the constructs of the society.Far more importantly, all these relationships existing in the society (for husband and wife, mother and daughter or father and son relationships will not exist when individuals live in utter isolation) as well as the characteristic of the human nature, and the guiding of men by the proper teacher contribute to what has been known as morality. That is, man is prompted to have a concept of morality and morality itself not because he is incapable of restraining himself from having it, but because men in the society ought to have morality.On the other hand, Mencius varies from Hsun Tzu in the sense that the former has the primary belief that men are inherently good and are essentially capable of doing good to himself and to others.

It has been observed that the philosophy og Hsun Tzu represents the realistic wing of Confucianism primarily because his views are significantly attached to the worldly perception that men are to seek heaven because the knowledge of it is not intrinsic among men and, hence, they are prone to committing evil deeds towards others. Mencius, on the contrary, firmly asserts that men are naturally good and have the four beginnings which can bring him to the four constant virtues. His very assertions have been seen as one which reflects his idealism and that, consequently, Mencius symbolizes the idealistic wing of Confucianism.By arguing that human nature is inherently good, Mencius does not explicitly maintain that every man is already a sage himself at his birth. What Mencius claims is that men are born with the four beginnings. These beginnings are the starting point which man will himself develop so as to achieve sageliness within.

“The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of human-heartedness. The feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness. The feeling of modesty and yielding is the beginning of propriety. The sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.”(Yu-Lan, 1948)One classic example given by Mencius is that of the famous infant on the brink of falling into a well. “Any human being—in Mencius’ view—no matter how corrupted or dulled by the habits of an unworthy life, will feel a spontaneous, uncalculating impulse to snatch the child away from the well.

”(Schwartz, 2004) It may be argued that it might only be the case that the person snatching the child away from falling into the well was acting primarily because of the positive image the rest of the society may bestow on his merit. Or that the person was simply moved by his thoughts on other merits he can derive out of saving the child from harm’s way. Or that, further, the man acted in such a way just because his interests have driven him to do so. But Mencius will disagree on these justifications.

What he then say is that the man was compelled to save the infant because of his human-heartedness, that he was moved to rescue the child because of his original nature which is good.For man to arrive at the four virtues which develop from the four beginnings, he should practice these beginnings by extending himself towards others. That is, man should treat others with human-heartedness. In this regard, man should allow these beginnings to grow naturally out of his actions in daily life.

Constant practice of these beginnings especially when dealing with other people leads to a fuller realization of the beginnings until one attains the constant virtues.Mencius nevertheless admits that there are also other elements in the human nature aside from the element of being good. Apparently, these “other” elements are neither good nor bad in themselves. They only grow to be bad when man himself fails to control these elements within him. These “other” elements are the elements which are also present among the animals, and that these represent the “animal” part of the life of man. An example of which is the appetite for food. This characteristic is both present among man and beast and hence cannot be taken as something which is either good or bad in itself.

Rather, it is only when this appetite is not duly controlled that it turns out to be a bad element. The existence of these elements in human nature does not qualify the nature of man, rather it is his intrinsic goodness that is responsible for the valuation of his nature.Central to the attainment of a good society for Mencius is man’s inherent moral intentionality, that there are cases which will prove in fact that man is essentially good. The classic example of the infant on the brink of falling into a well provided by Mencius adds to this claim. Whereas, in a society of intrinsically good-natured men, it is not a farfetched idea that the collective good nature of men serve as the ultimate foundation of a moral society, one which is in control of evils that may corrupt man and the system in which he dwells upon.Both Mencius and Hsun Tzu are under the Confucian school of thought. Yet in a seemingly unlikely manner, they hold varying conceptions with regards to human nature. The sharp distinction tells us something more than what can be immediately observed.

That is, the evident distinction creates the impression that even under the same school of thought, variations among the thoughts influenced by Confucianism tell us that even with dichotomized paths, the destination is one and the same—to know heaven.In summary, Mencius believes in the innate goodness of man, and that the development of this goodness manifested in the four beginnings which are also innate to man himself leads to the realization of the four constant virtues. The development of these beginnings can be achieved through practice by extending one’s self to others. Thus, the source of morality for Mencius is man himself and that this morality constitutes the very essence of a government. In principle at least, the government for Mencius is one which is a moral type of government with the leadership of a moral ruler which is the sage-king.

 On the other hand, Hsun Tzu (Xunzi) believes in the innate evil nature of man. With this human nature, he affirms that the way to redirect man is to guide him through proper teaching aided with no less than the proper teacher. Thus, the source of morality for Hsun Tzu is within the association of men in a society arising from the need to preserve one’s life in the face of a degenerating one nestled in a seemingly disordered environment and isolated life. Nevertheless, the very core upon which the views on morality of the two Chinese philosophers rests on the interpretation of human nature.