On human condition, Mencius and Xunzi

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Whether Xing or human nature is naturally right is a popular debate among scholars studying pre-Qin Chinese thought. This discussion introduces and analyzes Mencius and Xunzi’s perspectives on Xing. Mencius lived between 385 and 215 BCE, while Xunzi lived between 310 and 215 BCE. Not only do these two points of view fascinate leaders, but they also help scholars better understand aspects of Xunzi and Mencius’ ideas, as well as how they affected early Confucianism. Mencius is said to have been born in the state of Zou around a hundred years after Confucius died. Mencius influence to study Confucianism is majorly attributed to the concept of “mengmusanqian” which means a change of resident three times. Apparently, after the death of their father, Mencius mother had to change places of stay three times before finding a conducive environment in which they young Mencius can grow in and become a useful man in the society. On the other hand, Xunzi studied in the state of QI which consisted of many philosophers well acquainted with Confucianism and must be the one that influenced his views. The paper analysis both the two views of human nature and concludes by stating the one I prefer.

Mencius on Human Nature

One of the significant contributions of Mencius was a clarification of Ren or Jen concept interpreted as humaneness or human-heartedness. In a similar manner to that of a modern psychologist, Mencius identifies the humaneness origin to be human sentiments of commiseration or empathy. To explain the master’s saying in the Analects the philosopher elaborates four basic human sentiments namely, sense of right or wrong, feeling of commiseration, feeling of modesty and yielding, and feeling of dislike and shame. These four fundamental elements as depicted by Mencius are not just feelings but were vital aspects of (Xing) human nature that constitutes the basis of human being. Furthermore, they are stated to be the beginning or sprouts of the four cardinal ethical ideals namely humaneness (ren), correctness (yi), wisdom (Zhi) and propriety (li). To demonstrate that humans are endowed with the four sprouts, the philosopher gave an example that all persons are distressed and alarmed whenever they see a child who is likely to fall into a pit. The other example state that individuals would instantaneously sweat if they chance to look at their parents remain being eaten by foxes or sucked by flies. Mencius further discusses human nature about every person’s heart and mind having a mutual preference for moral goodness and notes that organs prioritize certain things over others. For instance, the theorist observed that human ear is fond of listening to Shi Kuang music while eyes are intrigued by the Zi Du beauty.

Mencius proposes that just like organs prefer such things, human mind and heart also has a similar preference for propriety (li). In other words, Mencius can be taken to be suggesting that mind and heart are intrinsically drawn to moral goodness. The individual also identifies Zhi, commonly known as will and is described as a condition in which mind and heart are oriented towards a certain goal as the driver of qi (essential energies). In addition, vital energies have capabilities of moving Zhi. Typically, when vital energies are led by Zhi when they are properly nourished and developed, the person in question will have a firm mind and heart. This idea is also expressed when Mencius clarifies the reason sprout of a king does not grow equivalently with chess- playing. For example, students cannot master the art of the game if their minds and hearts are not sufficiently focused on attaining the Zhi or will, as they will get destructed. Distractions arise from sensory desires that emanate from interaction with external objects. As described by Mencius, sensory desires are essentials of a smaller body, and if the hearts together with mind are not well established within it, then the body could overcome their desires. This is probably the reason as to why the philosopher maintains that the best way to nurture mind and heart is to reduce bodily desires.

Although Mencius suggests that mind and heart can be swayed away in pursuit of moral goodness, the theorist posits that they do not have bad predisposition. This means that those who give in to bodily desires abandon their mind and heart because it is the sense that gets distracted not them. According to the philosopher point of view, sense forms the smaller part while heart and mind form the greater one. Since sense organs have no capacity of reflecting, they are easily obscured and strayed by external objects. For one to understand Mencius concept of interruption coherently, it is best to view heart and mind as inert whenever they are distracted. This is to mean that, though heart and mind intrinsically prefer moral goodness, they are not necessary when making a decision, as they can be inactive. In an example about king Xuan, the philosopher state that the individual was not in a capacity to be kind to people rather the king was not reflecting the kindness in the heart. According to Mencius, the kind heart and mind had all resources to pursue goodness but was not exercising them.

The theorist further points out that if a person likes both bear’s paw and fish and cannot choose both, then the person has to choose bear ‘s paw since it is more valuable than fish. Similarly, when people cannot choose both proprieties (li), they will opt for propriety instead of life. The philosopher then concludes that people who prefer gaining material wealth while violating li have lost their heart and mind (ben). This is similar to the view that great people never lose their infant like mind and heart. In other words, Mencius view seems to be suggesting that persons can never make moral mistakes if they act by their heart and mind and the problem occurs only when they fail to exercise them. As such, it can be said theory of virtue as postulated by Mencius is based on the belief that innate goodness is the foundation of human nature. Commiseration, repulsion, and shame, right and wrong, and respect are pre-given priority and therefore are not a product of experience and habits. In this regard, since intelligence, propriety, humaneness, and rightness are natural features of mind.

Xunzi on Human Nature

According to Scarpari (2003), the “e” Xunzi defined in human nature is not something that is positive and independent per se, but rather an absence, a lack of structural void within one deriving from one’s natural imperfection qua finite creature. Frequently, it is held that Xunzi only included sensory desires and emotion in the scope of human nature (xing) and omitted the mind and heart. One reasonable explanation for why academicians hold this view is that goodness according to Xunzi emanates from Wei, which is defined regarding mind and heart deliberation. Nonetheless, even if Xunzi allowed human nature to include mind and heart, it would still be evil unless the two exercise control over desires and emotion, which would result in strife and disorder. Based on this viewpoint, it is possible to take Xunzi stand on human nature to be conveying some concepts about mind and heart. According to this philosopher, human beings are intrinsically self-interested. A constituent of self-centeredness is the object of desires such as wealth, material goods, and prestige. Xunzi further notes that mind and heart of humans are predisposed to the preference of self-interest, and therefore they can be tilted by the objects of desire. In contrast to Mencius, this theorist was not concerned about people inborn likes and dislikes but acknowledges that since desires are inborn by nature, it is inevitable to pursue the objects. In addition, desire as illustrated by Xunzi does not fall under order and disorder, rather into the class of life and death, which is beyond the control of human being. Of more concerning to Xunxi are the detrimental consequences of these natural preferences which are the product of following approval of heart and mind.

As evident, Xunzi points to certain human tendencies such as being born with a love of benefit (hao li) and the feelings of envy and hatred (Ji wu). Xunzi concludes that there is no such a state in which human nature is good, he questions Mencius’ assumption that the moral resources are ready-made or inborn.According to him, desires are not source of the problem rather what makes one pursue desire objects is consent given by mind and heart. As such, desires are not bad according to Xunzi. In other words, mind and heart grants permission, objects of desires are pursued while pursuit is blocked when the two disapproves. This proposes that heart and mind are the sources of moral failure as they are the one that facilitates one to pursue object of desires. Even if mind and heart can block the problem of chasing after desires, they do not necessarily do it if they deliberate wrongly in cases where it lacks knowledge of Dao (right moral standards). The philosopher explains that the thing that makes heart and mind unable to know right ethical standards is their state of obsession with self-interest. Since heart and mind do not prefer Dao, there is no possibility that the two can be inclined to make the right decision that will lead to order. However, human nature is a type of raw material that is possible to be developed and transformed. For this, individuals need to learn and practice Wei for them to acquire knowledge right ethical standards, which will help them abide by Dao. Furthermore, rites and righteousness (li yi) are the results of human artifice, behavior according to the principles of right and righteousness must be learned (Chong, 2003).

Capacity for understanding Dao can be morally neutral which is possible to develop in different ways. Xunzi uses Zhi to discuss capacity of knowing right ethical standards in three different sense of which first is understanding things in a manner that sense cannot and humans possess and are born of similar Zhi. The second one defines Zhi as knowledge of certain objects which necessary does not mean knowledge of Dao. According to thoughts of Xunzi, one may know petty person, superior person, and servant but without assistance from the teacher, it is impossible to put that knowledge into appropriate use. In the third sense, Zhi refers to Dao knowledge and here the philosopher emphasis that mind and heart need to exercise capacity in a manner that helps a person to know Dao. These three observations demonstrate that capacity that assists people to know Dao is neutral and without understanding the Dao in such a manner, the mind and heart will automatically approve pursuit of desire objects. Based on this position, the theorist assertions that human nature is bad are directed at a natural inclination of mind and heart to pursue selfish interests, which result, to disorder and strife. However, this definition of human nature and way of changing mind and heart through learning is criticized by some Confucians such as Lau who assert that enlightened goodness or transformed goodness may not be grounded upon one’s nature and thus it is less real or pure compared to that origination from human nature. Xunzi defends his position by asserting that for people to acquire goodness truly, the mind and heart have to be adequately aligned with and motivated by right moral, ethical standards. As such, it is not precise to assert that goodness that emanates from transformation and learning is less real and pure.

Conclusion

Clearly, as can be seen above the main difference in Mencius and Xunzi concept of human nature is a description of mind and heart. In their postulations, they primarily disagree on the natural preference of mind and heart and what makes one prefer goodness over evil or bad. While Mencius view to heart and mind as part of a human that is inclined to prefer propriety, Xunzi thinks that they naturally prefer self- interests. Metaphorically Xunzi view to heart and mind as elements that are naturally attracted to desire objects and have the tendency to tilt. It is though transformation and teaching Dao that they both get rectified and become capacitated with the ability to disapprove pursuit of self-interests or objects of desires. In contrast, Mencius holds that heart and mind naturally bear goodness and when appropriately exercised one can behave morally upright and portray well. As such, Mencius point of view about human nature (Xing) cannot be learned instead it should be excised by not masking the heart and mind when making decisions. For me, I am more convinced by Xunzi understanding on human nature in which human nature is “e” (bad or evil). For instance, when we were a kid, we pretend to cry and scream to be given what we want by our parents and other people in which according to Xunzi is the notion of “wei” in human nature. When we gradually get older and educated, we start to notice the “shame” (Cua, 2005) inside us and appreciate what we are given by our parents and our friends. Therefore, from this aspect, I reckon Xunzi’s “xing e lun” is more convincible

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