Three Confucian Theories of Human Nature



Mencius (371-circa 289 B.C.E.), Xun Zi (flourished 298-238 B.C.E.), and Dong Zhongshu (circa 179-circa 104 B.C.E.): Three Confucian Theories of Human Nature

A topic that interested ancient Chinese philosophers was human nature. Is there such a thing as human nature, and if there is, what is it? Is human nature good, bad, or indifferent? In this essay, we see three Chinese philosophers arguing about human nature.

Mencius (371-circa 289 B.C.E.) takes the position that human nature is basically good. Xun Zi (flourished 298-238 B.C.E.) takes the position that human nature is basically bad. Finally, Dong Zhongshu (circa 179-circa 104 B.C.E.) takes a middle position: Human beings are not by nature good, but human nature contains the “seeds” of goodness.

All three Chinese philosophers were followers of Confucius (551-479 BCE), who was a great Chinese teacher and the author of the Analects.

Mencius: The Nature of Man is Good

According to Mencius, “All men have the mind which cannot bear [to see the suffering of] others.” In other words, all men are basically good. To illustrate this, Mencius uses a famous example. He asks what you would do if you were to see a child suddenly fall into a well. According to Mencius, you would see that the child is in danger of drowning and you would immediately rush to help the child. Furthermore, you would do this without first taking thought about possibly earning a reward. Instead, you would try to help the child simply because your nature is good.

Indeed, according to Mencius, there are four things — the “Four Beginnings” — that all men have:

The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Men have these Four Beginnings just as they have their four limbs.

However, merely having the Four Beginnings is not enough — they must be developed if one is to achieve humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. This is something that everyone — including the ruler — must do.

Mencius’ view does not go unchallenged. Kao Tzu’s view of human nature is very much different from Mencius’ view. According to Kao Tzu, human nature is neither good nor bad; instead, a human being can be made either good or bad. Through proper training [education], a human being can be made good, but through bad training, a human being can be made bad. Human beings are like water. Water can be made to flow East, West, North, or South simply by digging a channel in the direction that you want the water to flow.

Mencius, however, replies that water does have a nature: It always flows downward. According to Mencius, “There is no man without this good nature; neither is there water that does not flow downward.” True, one can splash water to make it fly up into the air, but the moment you are done splashing, the water obeys its nature and flows downward once more.

Of course, all of us are aware that some people are good and other people are bad. If human nature is good, why is there this diversity in the goodness of human beings? According to Mencius, “If you let people follow their feelings (original nature), they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by saying that human nature is good. If man does evil, it is not the fault of his natural endowment.”

During good times, young people behave well. During bad times, young people behave badly. (The sage behaves well during both good and bad times.) However, Mencius says, the young people’s nature is good, but during bad times, they allow their minds “to fall into evil.”

This is similar to growing wheat. We plant wheat, and it grows. Some of the wheat is good, because it was planted on good soil and received adequate water. Other wheat is bad, because it was planted on bad soil and did not receive adequate water. The wheat is essentially the same, but its environment affects the way it grows. Similarly, a bad environment can make a good human being bad.

Mencius points out that human beings are essentially alike. Our sense of taste is essentially alike; our sense of hearing is essentially alike; our sense of sight is essentially alike. In general, people can agree on what is a good flavor, what is a pretty sound, and who is a handsome man. Since we are so much alike in our human senses, doesn’t it follow that we should be alike when it comes to human nature?

People with essentially good natures do become bad, but that does not mean that they were bad to begin with, Mencius points out. For example, a mountain that used to be forested can become bald if people chop down its trees and start grazing cattle and sheep on the mountain. But that does not mean that the mountain was never forested. Therefore, even if you see a bad person, that does not show that the person was not good to begin with.

Mencius was a good person. If Mencius had to choose between life and righteousness, he said that he will choose righteousness. This does not mean that life is unimportant to him, only that he values righteousness more than life. Other people feel the same way, for if they did not, they would avoid danger at all costs.

One more point: All people are by nature good, so why do some people become great men and other people become small men? Mencius replies, “Those who follow the greater qualities in their nature become great men and those who follow the smaller qualities in their nature become small men.”

Of course, this leads to the question of why some people follow the greater qualities while others follow the smaller qualities. According to Mencius, we can be led astray by material things. Instead, we should build up “the nobler part of our nature” first, for if we do so, the inferior part of our nature will not be able to harm us.

Xun Zi: The Nature of Man is Evil

Xun Zi (whose name can also be rendered in English as “Hsun Tzu”), in complete opposition to Mencius, considers the nature of man to be evil. According to him, the goodness of man comes from human activity. That is, a human being is born with evil tendencies, but through education and training — and personal effort — a human being can become good.

To illustrate what he means, Xun Zi uses the examples of crooked wood and blunt metal. In order to straighten crooked wood, you must first heat it, then bend it. In order to sharpen blunt metal (for example, the blunt edge of an ax), you must grind it and whet it. Similarly, in order to make a human being good, you must teach him and discipline him. Thus, both teachers and laws are necessary for human beings to become good.

According to Xun Zi, the sage-kings of antiquity realized that human nature is evil and therefore they “created the rules of propriety and instituted laws and systems” so that men could become superior men. Superior men follow the rules of propriety and obey the rules of the realm, while inferior men let their passions run wild.

There is a difference between human nature and human activity, according to Xun Zi. Man’s nature is something that we have no control over — we cannot learn it. However, we can learn to have propriety and to have righteousness.

The nature of man is evil, as can be shown by man’s desires. Anyone who is hungry desires to eat. However, although a hungry person in Chinese society wants to eat, if he sees some elders ahead of him, he will wait for them to eat in order to show them respect. In addition, a younger brother will take over the work of an older brother in order to show the older brother respect.

Of course, one may ask the question, “If man’s nature is evil, whence come propriety and righteousness?” Xun Zi answers that propriety and righteousness come from “the activity of sages.” So once more, activity results in propriety and righteousness — these qualities are not a part of human nature. So if some brothers decide to divide their property, if they follow the nature they were born with, each of them will try to grab the largest share. But if they have been taught well, they will divide the property fairly.

According to Xun Zi, “People desire to be good because their nature is evil.” By this, he means that evil is a lack, and people wish to fill their lacks. If people are ugly, they wish to be handsome. If people have low status, they wish to have high status. If people are poor, they wish to be rich. So, since people have an evil character, they wish to be good. (If people were already good, they would not wish to be good.)

However, because people’s nature is evil, we need civilization. We need rules of propriety, laws, a ruler, and punishments for crimes. Without these things, according to Xun Zi, “The whole world would be in violence and disorder and all would perish in an instant.” (In many ways, Xun Zi is like Thomas Hobbes, who also felt that without laws, a ruler, and punishments for crimes, the world would fall into chaos.

Lest someone should think that Xun Zi is too pessimistic, here is his answer to the question, “Shall we consider humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles as basically impossible to be known or practiced?” According to Xun Zi, people can know these things. The sages have learned them, and so can other people. If they do not learn them, it is because they do not wish to learn them.

Dong Zhongshu: Man’s Nature is Neither Good Nor Evil

Dong Zhongshu takes a middle position between the positions of Mencius and of Xun Zi. According to Dong Zhongshu, “In his real character man has both humanity (ren) and greed.” Man receives his character from Heaven, and Heaven also has opposing forces — the yin and the yang — so we should not be surprised that man also has opposing forces.

Many Chinese philosophers draw comparisons from nature, and Dong Zhongshu is no exception. He compares man’s nature to rice stalks and goodness to rice because rice comes out of a rice stalk, but not all of the rice stalk becomes rice. Similarly, goodness comes out of a person’s nature, but not all nature becomes goodness. Dong Zhongshu also compares man’s nature to eyes because when a person’s eyes are closed he cannot see. A man’s nature before he becomes good is like an eye that has been closed. It takes training before a man’s nature can be opened to goodness.

In addition, Dong Zhongshu compares man’s nature to a silk cocoon or an egg. Before the egg becomes a chicken, it must be hatched, and before a silk cocoon can be made into silk it must be unravelled. Similarly, a man’s nature “needs to be trained before becoming good.”

Because of these comparisons, Dong Zhongshu concludes, “Therefore goodness has to do with training and not to do with nature.”

This brings up the question, “Since nature contains the beginning of goodness and since the mind possesses the basic substance of goodness, how can nature not be regarded as good?” Dong Zhongshu answers that the silk cocoon contains only potential silk and that the egg contains only a potential chicken. Therefore, a person’s nature contains only potential goodness. To make the goodness actual takes training.

Dong Zhongshu uses a high standard of goodness — the standard of the Sage. To be good, one must achieve the standard of the Sage. Because of this, Dong Zhongshu’s evaluation of life and nature differs from the evaluation made by Mencius. Mencius thought that people are good by nature, but Dong Zhongshu thinks people become good through training.

Note: The quotations by Chinese philosophers that appear in this essay are from A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated by Wing-tsit Chan.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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