Zhuangzi was in no way a systematic philosopher. “Vague! Ambiguous!” (33; Ziporyn). He did not definitively weigh in on any cosmological or ethical issues. This was by design, and leaves his readers to come to their own conclusions. Thus, “The guidelines within them [his writings] are undepletable, giving forth new meanings without shedding the old ones” (33; Ziporyn).

We cannot therefore make definitive statements regarding his position vis-à-vis the character of human nature. We can only deduce a position after considering his larger concerns and advocacy. But even here we must remember that he wished to go beyond the need for any such declarations. We want it to all fit together and make good sense. We want a system, and he suggests we free ourselves from this need. We want a moral system, and he tells us that this stands in the way of our being truly moral. A prescriptive morality is an oppressive morality. And counter-productive. Witness the desire of the religious to impose their values on others despite the harmlessness of the behaviors in question.

On my reading, Zhuangzi suggests we reconnect with our most immediate and unmediated self-experience. Life does not ask Why? It simply lives. So, live. Life is its own enjoyment. So, enjoy. On this basis we can assume that Zhuangzi believes that human nature is “good” in a non-ethical sense. Whether we do “good” or “evil” is of only secondary importance. We do best when we trust Nature as it arises. Questions regarding the ethical belong to an altogether different sphere (road). As some Zennist has said, concern for morality simply evinces a continued bondage to morality.

But we want to know that this all leads to moral behavior. Like a scratched record, we inevitably fall back into the same groove. So here’s the song in my groove: Zhuangzi suggests we become sages—is a sage an immoral person? Perhaps Zhuangzi’s Daoism should come with a warning: Performed by a sage—do not try this at home. In other words, don’t put the cart before the horse. Let your amorality arise from your growth in non-dependent sagacity. My guess is that that will make you very moral in the eyes of the world.


Before giving a brief summary in the post to follow of what I believe Zhuangzi’s position on the character of human nature is, it might be helpful to suggest what it is not, whatever its character. “Human nature” does not mean “innate nature” (hsing/xing), a term that is not found in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi or the Laozi, and only appears in the 3rd Century BCE. The difference is that the former speaks phenomenologically—it is descriptive of the human expression—the latter is essentialist—it reifies the human self-experience, makes it a something, and gives us something to believe in.

Does this matter practically? Perhaps not; but since I personally understand Zhuangzi’s entire vision as pivoting on radical non-dependence on any fixed reality or idea, this belief, should it become the object of self-cultivation—an attempt to discover or realize one’s “true nature”—then it can only serve to hinder his appeal to complete openness (=emptiness).

Human nature is how we behave, not what we essentially “are”.


Zhuangzi’s rebuttal to Xunzi’s assertion that the former knew much about Heaven but little about humanity would likely be something like: Yea rather my brother, what I know from Heaven is that I do not know, and knowing that we do not know is the most important thing we can know about being human. (Some sticklers on the nature of Zhuangzi’s skepticism would add that he does not know whether he knows or not.) This leads to an altogether different approach to the improvement of our admittedly dysfunctional individual and societal circumstances.

For Zhuangzi, as for most Chinese philosophers of his time, Heaven is essentially equivalent to Nature; it is not an active agent at work in the world, but simply represents the seemingly necessary larger context for apparent reality. Nature does not only refer to what “is”, but to what lies behind its isness. The Laozi’s assertion that “Dao does nothing, yet nothing is left undone” puts this succinctly, albeit somewhat paradoxically.

In the previous post I declared that “Nature is not moral” and was subsequently asked if this was not itself a moral judgement. There is no lack of Daoist “authority” on this issue (Laozi 5: “Heaven and earth are not humane; they treat the things of the world as straw dogs. The sage is not humane; he treats the people as straw dogs.”), but I do not wish to rely on authority. My reply was that the vulnerability of this statement resides more in the epistemological realm than the ethical. Declaring Nature to be amoral is quite different than declaring it to be moral or immoral. But still, how do I know this?

I do not. The best I can do is to say that it seems so. Nature does not appear to have any concern with moral issues and thus cannot be taken as lending any moral guidance to humanity. It is this last that was the real issue for Zhuangzi—our moral judgements, whatever their value to humanity, do not objectively derive from Heaven and thus no appeal can be made to Divine authority or to any fixed and sure standard. Our moral judgements are species, culturally, and individually relative. (So let’s loosen up on things upon which we do not have near universal agreement.) This is important to Zhuangzi primarily in that it can help release us into non-dependence and free and carefree wandering. The world could go to hell in a handbasket and the sage along with it, but still her joy would not be diminished even as she works to avoid such an end.

In the end, declaring Heaven to be moral or immoral would be “adding to the process of life” and fleeing “the illumination of the obvious”. Understanding Heaven to be amoral is equivalent to admitting that one does not know anything beyond the seemingly obvious, which is a purely practical kind of knowledge.


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.


Mencius (c. 372-289 BCE), the first great interpreter of Confucius, had a relatively optimistic view of human nature. Yes, humanity has made a mess of things, but despite our inclinations toward disharmony, we remain good at the core. Humaneness—empathy and fellow-feeling—is naturally embedded in the human heart. Anyone seeing a child about to fall into a well, he argues, will immediately jump to prevent it from happening. Our spontaneous caring reveals our true nature.

Unfortunately, society has developed in such a way as to distance us from our inner humanity. We have learned to value individual wealth, well-being and fame above our communal flourishing. It’s very much like a nearby mountain, he says. It was once covered with a beautiful forest, but over the years it has been so exploited by logging and goat herding that it is now a wasteland. Given time, the seeds of its goodness would sprout again and it would again flourish. Only, as soon as these sprouts arise, they are once again foraged by goats.

The answer to this disharmony is education as a form of moral cultivation. People can be taught to let their natural humanity predominate once again. I am not familiar enough with Mencius or Confucianism generally to say what formal structure this education was intended to take, but it seems enough to know what humanness is and to cultivate it in one’s daily interactions with others.

This self-cultivation, because it looks within and attempts to reconnect with the inner self, lends itself to a form of mysticism. We experience ourselves through a release into ourselves beyond words. It also follows that if human nature is good then Nature (Heaven, Everything) as a whole is also good. Reconnecting with our unmediated self-experience organically reconnects us with the Totality. It gives one a sense of joyous oneness. This is likely what Mencius experienced when he spoke of being overwhelmed by “flood-like qi” (vital energy).

We will continue this discussion of Mencius, especially as he might be compared to Zhuangzi, in the next post. In closing here, I would like to point out the simplicity of this model. Releasing into yourself you release into Everything. What could be more natural? What does one need to “know”?


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.