In order to understand mountain gorillas we study their behavior. Through history, anthropology, and sociology we attempt to do the same with humans, but for obvious reasons fail to attain the same objectivity. Nor should we expect or aspire to do so; the complete objectification of anything is to close oneself off from the infinite mystery that everything is. Nevertheless, there is value in taking a sober look at things as they manifest.

The classical Chinese philosophers found it necessary to objectively consider the character of human nature because they were most concerned with societal change. How can we best collectively flourish given human nature? What is human nature? These inquiries arose in the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) when things weren’t going so well. There was need for change, and the means to effect that change should be predicted on the essential character of humanity.

In this series I will be reflecting on the generalized responses of three philosophers (Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhuangzi) to this challenge. Mencius and Xunzi were Confucians and framed the question of human nature in moral terms. Are humans inherently good (harmonious with their collective flourishing) or evil (disharmonious)? They held to opposing views.

Zhuangzi did not think in terms of the moral character of humanity but rather thought that doing so was part of the problem. I will argue that his more “cosmic” perspective, his view from Dao, allowed him to approach the problem very much as we do when considering the behavior of mountain gorillas—phenomenologically.

Still, he was a human being and as such wished for the collective and individual flourishing of our species. He, too, was required to make assumptions about the ability of humanity to realize these ends, albeit in the light of a larger context which relativized the value of even that.

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