Nirmal DASS

Painting of Xunxi, one of the most important Confucian thinkers.

A key figure in Chinese philosophy, Xunzi is best known for his critique of Mencius’ concept of the essential goodness of humankind and for moving beyond Confucian ideals. For Xunzi, a rigid hierarchical social structure constrained by tradition, moral education, and threat of punishment is the necessary antidote for the naturally evil tendencies of humanity.

Xunzi is both the name of one of the most important Confucian thinkers and also the name of the book containing his teachings and his writings as compiled over the years. The significance of Xunzi, the man, lies in his thorough critique of Mencius, who upheld the basic and innate goodness of human beings. For Xunzi, there was little to laud in humankind; he held humankind to be inherently evil and therefore untrustworthy if not constrained by tradition, strict guidance, and the looming threat of punishment.

Very few details of Xunzi’s life are known. He lived during the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), and he received his education in the city-state of Qi sometime in the third century BCE, after which he served in various courtly positions; he is thought to have died not long after the year 238 BCE.

Although Xunzi’s philosophy is thoroughly grounded in Confucianism, in so much as it recognizes the need for ritual and duty as taught by the sages of the past, it also seeks to fill an inherent insufficiency in the ideas of Confucius and Mencius concerning the human condition. Confucius is ambivalent; he states that there are people who are not interested in participating in the Way (the path to betterment, both of the self and the world), and such people are led into deeds of immorality. Mencius holds to the essential goodness of all people, who are only betrayed into immorality by a corrupted society. For Xunzi, both views are, at best, partial definitions of what constitutes the social makeup of the individual. If some people are not interested in following the Way, then the method of leading them is at fault because it abandons precisely those people that should be helped. Further, the Way becomes selective, picking and choosing who may follow and who may not, thereby becoming arbitrary. And if all people are inherently good, then there would not be any need for laws to govern people. But this is nowhere evident in human society; all people abide by rules and laws. This leads Xunzi to observe that human nature is evil and must be continually taught to become good, even if provisionally; the evidence for this evil is found in the manifestation of desire. People, if unchecked by regulations and prohibitions, would live solely to satisfy their desires, no matter what the cost to those around them or to society, and even the world. Hence the need for government, leaders, religion, rituals, rules and laws, all of which work in concert to retrain the natural, and therefore destructive, human tendencies. For this reason that which has been established by the ancient sages must be dutifully followed because such precepts have been put in place in order to guide the individual into correct social behavior. And these rules have been put in place by those who know better, namely, the ancient sages.

Traditions become important for Xunzi because he sees them as examples of the good which people must emulate; and this is the educational worth of tradition and ritual. Human beings need to follow examples; they need to see how they must behave and act in a moral fashion. This pedagogical turn in Xunzi’s philosophy points to a rather precise definition of people’s social behavior; they need good leaders. And just as examples educate men and women, so also must they be led by rulers who are learned in tradition, and therefore wise, who can explain to people the need for moral action. For Xunzi, a learned person is one that is fully adept in the tradition, so that he or she can teach those that need to be taught. And here Xunzi makes an important concession: people are inherently evil, but they have the capacity to be taught to be good and morally upright.

Thus, one of the central concepts for Xunzi is the need for education, which must continue until a person dies. Learning is not a natural process; it is not like taste or hearing, which one is born with; it is a very much an artificial process, and therefore a very human one. Learning does not lead to natural growth; rather, it leads to social and therefore moral growth. The ideal education for Xunzi consists of studying the canon, that is, books of poetry and history, as well as books dealing with rituals and observances; and he advocates the learning of music, which educates through inspiration and by providing evidence of harmony, order, and structure. And here the role of the wise teacher becomes much more essential; one cannot learn good music from a bad teacher. Only a wise teacher can lead one into the perfection that music demands.

Despite his insistence that the lowliest person from the street can be educated into wisdom, Xunzi does not abandon the need for punishment. Drawing upon the Confucian understanding that humans need to be continually perfected, Xunzi understands that this always brings about a fundamental division in society: the rulers and the ruled. Given this ongoing difference between people living within the same social structure, there must be the means available to the rulers to maintain order and negate chaos. Because human beings are forever seeking to fulfill their desires, they must be constrained by the threat of punishment, lest they willfully overthrow the fundamental structure of society, namely, its hierarchy. For Xunzi it is the structure of society that allows it to function harmoniously; and people need to be guided into being good, first through education, and then, failing that, through punishment.

One of the central shortcomings of Xunzi’s ideas is his inability to identify the role of practical reason. He does not delve into how the sages of long ago came up with traditions and rituals. What criteria of judgment did they use to say this ritual was good and that was not good? The question of individual judgment is indeed entirely lacking. In addition, he cannot explain why the sages were led to seek out morality, social order, and harmony, when they, like the rest of humanity, shared in an inherently evil nature. Why would they abandon their natural instincts to forever fulfill their desires and seek to impose restrictions upon themselves and upon others? In short, Xunzi does not explain what gives him the authority to understand human nature in the way that he does. Nor does he clarify why he holds his solution of education and punishment as being proper and good.

The importance of Xunzi lies in his ability to present Confucianism as the very best possible way of living a moral life—both for the individual and for society. The moral life may only be acquired, he maintains, through a moral education, which is a lifelong endeavor, for it is morality that ultimately refines the individual and makes of him or her a civilized human being.

The Works of Xunzi

Xunzi, a philosopher deeply concerned with promoting learning that is relevant to the present, makes a strong case for the value of personal association with a teacher and personal involvement in ritual practice—as opposed to education based on a bookish or antiquarian absorption in the past.

The noble person says: Learning must never cease.
Blue comes from the indigo plant, yet it is bluer than indigo. Ice is made from water, yet it is colder than water. Wood as straight as a plumb line may be bent into a wheel that is as round as if it were drawn with a compass, and, even after the wood has dried, it will not straighten out again because this is the way it has been bent. Thus wood marked by the plumb line will become straight, and metal that is put to the whetstone will become sharp. The noble person who studies widely and examines himself each day will become clear in his knowing and faultless in his conduct…

… Once I spent an entire day in thought, but it was not as good as a moment of study. Once I stood on tiptoe to gaze into the distance, but it was not as good as climbing to a high place to get a broad view. Climbing to a high place and waving will not make your arm any longer, but you can see from farther away. Shouting down the wind will give your voice no added urgency, but you can be heard more distinctly. By borrowing a horse and carriage you will not improve your feet, but you can cover a thousand li. By borrowing a boat and paddles you will not improve your ability in water, but you can cross rivers and seas. The noble person is by birth no different from others, but he is good at borrowing from external things.

Source: de Bary, W. T., & Bloom, I.. (1999). Sources of Chinese tradition, vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 161–162.

Further Reading

Cua, A. (1985). Ethical argumentation: A study of Hsün Tzu’s moral epistemology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Goldin, P. R. (1999). Rituals of the Way: The philosophy of Xunzi. Chicago: Open Court.

Hagen, K. (2007). The philosophy of Xunzi: A reconstruction. Chicago: Open Court.

Kline, T. C. & Ivanhoe, P. J. (2000). Virtue, nature, and moral agency in the Xunzi. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Lee, J. (2005). Xunzi and early Chinese naturalism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Liu, J. (2006). An introduction to Chinese philosophy: From ancient philosophy to Chinese Buddhism. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Machle, E. J. (1993). Nature and heaven in the Xunzi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sato, M. (2003). The Confucian quest for order: The origin and formation of the political thought of Xun Zi. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: E. J. Brill.

Stalnaker, A. (2006). Overcoming our evil: Human nature and spiritual exercises in Xunzi and Augustine. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Watson, B. (1963). Hsün Tzu: Basic writings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Dass, Nirmal (2009). Xunzi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2537–2539. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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