The Confucian Xunzi (Hsün Tzu, c. 310-c. 220 B.C.E.) wrote of Zhuangzi that he knew a great deal about Heaven, but little about humanity; he was a “nook and cranny scholar”, as the Tiantai chapter of the Zhuangzi would have it. He, on the other hand, dismissed Heaven as irrelevant given our not knowing anything about it, and believed he understood humanity well enough to prescribe a cure for its ailments. What he did not understand of Zhuangzi, however, is that for him Heaven represents our omnipresent not-knowing which militates against all definitive prescriptions.

Xunzi took the opposite track of Mencius; he held that human nature tends toward disharmony and chaos. Though admitted as overly simplistic, these two are often juxtaposed as one declaring human nature good and the other as declaring it evil.

Philosophers enjoy Xunzi because he is among the first to actually attempt a systematic presentation of his philosophy. I like him for his clear antithesis to Daoist sensibilities and his wonderfully outrageous statements, one of which I paraphrase here: “Humans are by nature warped and must be straightened by use of straightening boards.” Thank you, Xunzi!

Thus, whereas Mencius was able, in agreement with Daoist thinking, to advocate for a return to our most essential selves, Xunzi advocated for external restraints—laws, punishment and rewards, and totalitarian government (beneficent, of course!).

In terms of an assessment of the moral character of human nature, I lean more to the side of Xunzi. I’m rather pessimistic about the ability of humanity to behave “humanely” and intelligently. I offer history and our present circumstances as my only “proofs”. (My belief in my own essential goodness I will keep to myself since it is likely shared by most others but nevertheless does not appear to radically affect the prevailing mayhem except perhaps as a limiting factor.) Unlike Xunzi, however, and thanks to Zhuangzi, this does not lead me to similar practical solutions.

Zhuangzi invites us to consider humanity as we would any other natural phenomenon. Is the Universe wonderful, or is it not? If chaos, impermanence, death and apparent meaninglessness are evil, then the Universe is evil and so is everything within it. If it is wonderful, then so also is all that happens within it. Such a happy saying. Such an impossibly hard saying. If we can break upon this moral stumbling-block, however, we can still return to our concern for our individual and collective flourishing without that requiring a mortifying fear of the “warped”.

Affirming apparent reality requires a suspension of moral discrimination. Nature is not moral. This does not mean that we should not be moral, but only that our moral concerns can be understood in a wider context. To be released from the bondage of this addiction only means that we can now better enjoy and make better use of that to which we were previously addicted.

2 thoughts on “HUMAN NATURE IV”

  1. To say “Nature is not moral”, isn’t that a statement of moral discrimination? By who’s standard and measuring stick is it that comes to this conclusion that nature is not moral? Man or nature?

    1. Good question. To say that Nature is either moral or immoral would certainly be to make a moral judgement. But is it a moral judgement to say it is beyond such discrimination? I don’t think so.

      My comments at the end of this post are more open to epistemological problems, I think. How do I know that Nature is not moral? How do I know that the Universe is wonderful? I ran out of space to answer these and will try and address them in the next post. The short answer to the first question is that it seems to be so. “Heaven is not humane”–as Laozi said, seems self-evident. The short answer to the second question is something like: because I think my life good, everything else must be good. This isn’t a reasonable/logical answer, but a phenomenological one–this is how I experience life.

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