Mengzi and Xunzi are great Chinese philosophers. They both belong to the Confucian school of thought, but at the same time they represent opposite views of human nature, and, as a result, on human society and its institutions. Mengzi believes that human nature is good from the birth and all the evil manifestations are just deviations from it. Xunzi, on the contrary, supposes that people are born evil and need to be made good through upbringing and enforcement. The paper will consider both theories for understanding the Chinese philosophy and appealing to fundamental issues of human being and the way it should interact with this word.
Mengzi: Human Nature Is Good
According to Mengzi, people are born good and righteous. The motives, inclinations, sentiments are pure and kind, so people are predisposed to be wise and moral. He believes in the power of compassion, in people’s willingness to help each other, to unite in the face of danger and calamity. He also sees the reason for evil deeds in the corrupt influence of civil society or its inability to cultivate human innate nature. According to Mengzi’s philosophy, individuals can divert from their inner route in order to fit into society, to meet social requirements. Thus, the roots of evil are external, social, but not moral. However, he believes in the power of rituals that can help people nurture their righteousness. He says that, despite the innate good human nature, self-cultivation is necessary. It is an continuous process that requires commitment and hard work; it is a constant striving for improving our own character. Human character is like a flower, which is beautiful itself, but needs to be watered and looked after to shine more brightly in the world. Likewise, social force should not enforce, but promote good, help people develop their inborn abilities to the fullest extent; instead of making them good, it should help them become better. According to this concept, people do not need any guidance from external authorities; instead, they need to use their minds to the utmost, to know their nature. As a consequence, education must not impose something on individuals or create any artificial rules, but help people find answers within themselves.
Mengzi underlines the necessity to develop the Four Beginnings, which are: commiseration, the feeling of shame and dislike, the feeling of deference and the feeling of right and wrong. These are rudimentary elements, pillars of inner goodness, which need to be developed. Social system should create a favorable environment for cultivation of inner dispositions. Education should aim at finding and awakening innate abilities of the human mind. Mengzi is a vigorous critic of mechanical memorizing texts and blind obedience. Instead, he encourages questioning authorities, debating over the factual existence of events or their representation in textbooks, and forming one’s own opinions and ideas on everything.
Additionally, Mengzi has an interesting view on politics and social hierarchy as well. Confucians have a tendency to regard rulers highly and even admire the greatest ones. According to Mengzi, they are similar to servants, in spite of a seemingly higher status. They are subordinate to citizens and must be accountable before them. The rulers have to prove their right to take their position before expecting obedience from the people. Otherwise, citizens have a full right to overthrow an unjust leader. It is not a recommendation to start violent riots or a chaos, but to believe that common people should actively participate in civil life. Everyone must contribute to the society, as one is appreciated for what one gives.
Destiny takes a special place in Mengzi’s philosophy as well. He believes in it as in some kind of a path or a natural order of events. It is not a blind ruthless force that decides what a person should do, but more of a person’s way to self-fulfillment and happiness that comes from inner voice and intuition. It is what a person is inclined to do or to be, a way towards self-manifestation in this world. If one does what they are destined and lives according to inner inclinations, they will be happy and do good things for others.
His theories have integrated best parts of the Taoism and Confucianism practices. As Taoists, he believes in human innate good nature, unlike their belief that people need to follow the instincts, he trusts cultivation. In this he resembles Confucians, since he does not accept the favor of external enforcement, self-containment, and obedience to higher authority advocated by Taoists.
Xunzi: Society Should Set Up Moral Norms to Limit People’s Selfish Desires
Xunzi holds opposite views on human nature and interaction between an individual and society. Unlike Mengzi, he thinks that people are bad from birth because they are full of selfish desires. They do not care about each other and tend not to feel or express compassion and mercy. These egotistic wishes are dangerous, as they can cause chaos in society. Everyone is searching for means to satisfy their own desires without thinking how it will affect other people’s lives or society in general. These interests and ambitions can clash, which will lead to conflicts, quarrels and even wars. Besides, there is no end to human desires, and as soon as one is fulfilled, the other takes its place. That is why there must be some external mechanisms of limiting this infinite flow of wishes and containing human’s greed and hunger. Therefore, the first difference is in the view of human nature, whereas the second one lies in the attitude towards the role of society in human’s life.
Xunzi believes in control of the state and the power of social institutes in forming morality. Rules and rituals are necessary not for improving or cultivating, but for rectifying imperfect individuals. Moreover, moral and educational standards must be set and imposed on people externally to refine them and to put an end to their desires. Xunzi’s views on human nature is far from not optimistic, but he has faith in the power of education and rituals that could arouse goodness in people, and make them conform to moral standards.
This social mechanism is called Li, and it includes endorsing social distinctions and sustaining social order. In other words, a peasant should be happy as a peasant, and there is nothing wrong for a rich person to praise and show off their wealth. Everybody has a place in society, and in the world, and it must be accepted with humility and joy. According to Xunzi, social distinctions are our second nature and are the key to the strong, moral and harmonious society. If one is not satisfied with their place, they will strive for more, and it will inevitably lead to chaos. Since greed is innate in human beings, there must be some external force to contain it and impose a definite order of things. Xunzi imparts this function to the wise, so-called sages. Their responsibility is to pass these social distinctions and the way everything must be done to people. They create moral standards, rules and rituals, and serve as shepherds, mentors, who transform human nature into something good and moral.
Thus, Xunzi’s view is rather pragmatic, for he does not pay any attention to the necessity to figure out the true motives of human nature. His doctrine is as simple as that: people have a constant need to satisfy their limitless desires, which will cause chaos; therefore, it must be stopped through enforcement and upbringing. From his point of view, there is no place for nurturing people’s talents or helping them to fulfill their potentials. A human being is a clay, raw material, which needs to be transformed into something perfect, and not by themselves, but by sages. What is more, an individual is not considered unique or the one that should be allowed to cherish their dreams and define their path. Xunzi does not agree that society will benefit if everybody pursues their own way.
On the one hand, there is no place neither for individual freedom nor for recognition of the people’s right to find their place and apply their talents in life. However, there is some sense in it, as not everybody can be a ruler, or a teacher. Thus, everyone should do their job instead of taking someone else’s. It is also useful to appreciate what one already has and be able to stop wanting more. Of course, there must be some social distinctions, but a place and time for change and development can as well be present. Otherwise, the world will never evolve. Social order and safety have been the most important things in the world for Xunzi, and for that he is ready to take away people’s chance to find out what path they should choose, and rather decide it for them.
Comparison of Both Views and Their Influence on Society
Doctrines of Xunzi and Mengzi have been influential at different times. Xunzi’s views, for instance, play an important part in forming the official state doctrine of the Han Dynasty. Meanwhile, during the reign of the Tang Dynasty, Mengzi’s influence becomes more prevalent. Both theories are important parts of the Chinese philosophical heritage and are significant for the development of civil society. Xunzi is the mentor of Li Si and Han Feizi, proponents of Legalism, rule of law. Therefore, he contributes to the idea of state control through law and penalty. Mengzi enters history as a loyal follower of Confucianism. In fact, his interpretation of it is recognized orthodox by the Neo-Confucians. He has had many pupils among feudal lords and has been rather influential among people. Mengzi has written a book of conversations with kings of the time that consisted of long dialogs, various arguments and deliberations. Later, this book becomes one of the Four Core Books of Neo-Confucian philosophical system. All things considered, Mengzi seems to have gained more recognition in present days, but Xunzi has been an authority figure at his time as well. Both of their views are extremes built on the belief in the dualism of human nature, in prevalence of good over evil, or vice versa.
Reflection on Philosophers’ Views and Ideas
People are complicated and far from perfect creatures. In addition, they lack balance and understanding of themselves. Xunzi may be wrong that people are fully evil from their birth, but they are not fully kind from the very beginning as well. The truth is that people are kind and evil at the same time. One trait of the character can have both benevolent and maleficent expressions, depending on the intention and direction where it aims. Actually, both philosophers have something in common: they believe that everybody should take their own place, instead of wishing to take somebody else’s. The difference is that Mengzi believes in Destiny, and in people’s ability to reveal and follow it; while Xunzi stands in favor of the power of social enforcement shaping people into conforming to external standards.
Compassion, kindness and desire to help are innate inclinations in human nature. However, at the same time, people are full of greed and selfish desires. Unfortunately, often they deviate from goodness and become indifferent towards anybody, apart from themselves. There are many reasons for that: the corrupt influence of society, poor upbringing, personal traumas or just the specifics of the character. Nevertheless, society creates many pressures, and, since people have formed it, they themselves carry the burden of responsibility.
Mengzi’s ideals concerning the system of education and role of society in shaping human’s personality seem reasonable and appealing. Every individual is unique, and everybody should have the possibility to find their path and pursue their dream. If each person follows their path and becomes the highest version of himself, society will benefit from this. People will live in a happy, prosperous community, where everybody creates something good and useful, and shares with others. However, social order has been vital for a long time, and, being used to it, people are not ready for implementing Mengzi’s ideas to the fullest extent. Social enforcement, external control, and restraints are still needed to secure safety. It is not only due to high levels of violence and crime, which must be punished, but due to the fact that people have not managed to overcome their selfish ephemeral impulses. All people have precious gifts and inclinations, but many do not care, as they do not think about the future consequences of their actions.
This leads to two conclusions. First, not only kindness and compassion are inherent to human nature, but also greed and selfishness. Some are not able to appreciate what they have and use their talents for good. Instead of finding and following their path, and developing their talents, they desperately long for taking someone else’s place out of envy. That results in conflicts in our private and professional lives, as well as wars, corruption and terrorism. Second, there must be some moderate external restraints and leverages for maintaining social order. These social tools should not be used to the benefit of the mighty ones. In addition, the system of education should focus on developing people’s talents and raising both social and individual awareness. In essence, love, kindness and prudence are strong within us, but one cannot forget about wrongs and evils that are always present. In the end, people inherit both good and evil, and it is one’s responsibility to choose their way and follow it. Meanwhile, society and individual should cooperate with each other, because both individual and social orders are important and interconnected.