The Philosophy of Xunzi

Xunzi [Hsün Tzu] or Xun Kuang [Hsün K’uang], who lived between from about 310 to after 230 bce, made unique contributions to Chinese philosophy in several important areas: the role of music and ritual in government and society; the concept of Nature; the doctrine of the Mind; the theory of names; the argument concerning human nature; and the concept of society and the ideal of the sage.


Music and Ritual

An emphasis on li, ritual principles, characterizes Ru (Confucian) philosophers generally and Xunzi in particular. His distinctive emphasis on ritual principles is connected with his view of human nature. In his view, the Ancient Kings established the regulations for social and court rites and ceremonies specifically to apportion material goods and both to give expression to and to contain the emotions. In doing so, they followed certain ritual and moral principles which assured that men could satisfy their desires and express their emotions, that the social order would be protected, and that the material goods of society would be conserved. In economic terms, the essential principles of all ritual are: (1) that the desires should be controlled by nurturing and training; and (2) that goods should be unevenly distributed. Xunzi believed that the greatest threat to society was disorder arising out of poverty. To avoid this, the state must assure sufficient goods to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. Ritual principles guarantee this; thus, they are “the strength of the state” and the “Way by which the majestic sway of authority is created.” Equally important was the need for hierarchy in society. This was founded on the “universally recognized principle” that men of equal rank cannot serve each other. Distinctions of rank and title, disparities of privilege, and different modes of identification by sumptuary tokens contained in ritual principles represent “the highest expression of order and discrimination.” In man, frustration results when emotions are not given adequate expression. But allowing the emotions uncontrolled venting may damage life itself. The purpose of ritual forms is to provide adequate expression of joy and grief, but to prevent any excess that may interfere with social order or harm the individual.

When the emotions are stirred by sounds, the body spontaneously expresses them in gestures and facial expressions. This is both a necessary and an inescapable part of our inborn nature. Music gives form to this natural language of sound and movement. But the sounds of music are not sounds originating subjectively from our nature. The impetus for such sounds originates in our mind only when it is stirred by external things. This is part of the Way of Man. Our emotions provide the template for the sounds which give expression to them. When we hear music, our inner mind is directly affected. When the music is profoundly moving, our very character is altered. If goodness is the message of the music, good will be the response; but if it is evil, the response as well will be evil. Every kind of music is reflected exactly in its response.

The effect of music on the inner mind was responsible for the emphasis which Ru philosophers, and later Chinese aesthetes, place on the playing of the zither. The zither could be played in private and music improvised on it was often a vehicle for self-expression. Sensitivity to timbre meant that each note could convey a nuance of the inner mind, which the perceptive listener would notice. From the sage nothing could be hidden in the tone of the voice when one spoke or in the timbre of the music when one played. Musical tones, having their origins in the human mind, ultimately connect humans and the cosmos, just as the shape of a shadow derives from the plane of the three-dimensional object or an echo answers responsively to the uttered sound. Music is more profound than ritual, since it affects our inner states rather than our external conduct. One can force a man to smile, but not to feel joy. Ritual may cause us to act in a certain way, but it cannot cause us to feel in a way consonant with what we do. When music affects our mind, it causes us not only to move in a certain way, but to feel that way as well. The Ancient Kings understood this and placed their highest priority on music. Their concern was not to satisfy the eye and ear, but to influence the mind by regulating our likes and dislikes and by keeping them within set bounds.

View of Nature

Xunzi viewed Nature as the impartial and universal power which controls humans and the myriad things. In proposing a morally neutral Nature, Xunzi argues that natural calamities, unusual events, and “ill omens” are not the result of what men do, but are products of the normal operations of Nature. Because they are rare, it is permissible to marvel at them, but because they are part of the “normal” course of Nature, they should not be feared. Xunzi thus explicitly rejects the older notion that the majesty of Heaven/Nature should be feared. Xunzi, in agreement with most of his contemporaries, accepted that Heaven/ Nature “produces” (literally, “bears”), but he denied that Nature acts, seeks, distinguishes, organizes, or perfects what it has produced. These are the tasks allotted to human government headed by a gentleman or sage. While admitting that Nature has its course and its way, Xunzi rejects any notion that Nature engages in purposive action (wei) to seek anything. He thus denies to Nature the conscious intentions which the traditional view granted Heaven. Nature, in Xunzi’s view, is insensible and unknowing, neither loves good nor hates evil, does not manage, is without intelligence, and is not moved to respond by feelings or affections.

The Mind

It is a common human flaw to be obsessed by some aspect of the truth, to pursue double principles, to be of two minds, and to end in hesitation, suspicion, and delusion. For Xunzi, such blindness results from a universal flaw in the operation of the mind. Because the sage understands this flaw in the mind’s operations and perceives the misfortune of blindness and being closed to the truth, he weighs all things like a balance. His balance is the Way which the mind alone knows. The mind can know the Way because its inner states mirror the qualities of the Way. The mind is empty, unified, and still, and because of these qualities it can store up memories, consider different things at the same time, and never stop thinking. Emptiness allows entry, unity allows thoroughness, and stillness allows discernment of the Way. Emptiness leads to greatness, unity to purity, and stillness to brightness, which for Xunzi means “understanding” as well. Greatness encompasses all, purity puts everything into its proper place, and discernment enables one to penetrate everything. Thus, a mind of the Way can know the inner laws of order and disorder, can lay out the warp and woof of Heaven and Earth, can tailor the offices of the myriad things, can regulate and distinguish the Great Ordering Principle, and can encompass all that is within space and time.

Rectification of Names

Xunzi’s program of defining the correct use of names consists of several parts: (1) the names established by the Later Kings; (2) the names of the myriad of objects in the world; and (3) the technical terms of inquiry. The names established by the Later Kings consist of the terminology of criminal law and penal classification of the Shang dynasty, the titles of rank and dignity instituted by the founders of the Zhou dynasty, and the names for the various forms and implements of cultural life contained in the Rituals. The last element in Xunzi’s program of rectifying names is the definition of technical terms which are employed in analysis of problems of knowledge and value.

The first, and in many respects most important, definition is that of “human nature.” When he defines “nature” as “what is present from birth,” his definition is intuitively convincing because the concept of nature cannot be conceptually at variance with the concepts of “life” and “birth.” Xunzi expands this basic definition of “inborn nature” in several ways. First, he adds those characteristics that are potential but not actual from birth and that, in his description, are produced out of the harmony of inborn nature. Next, he adds those characteristics that involve the sensibilities of the organ responding to stimuli. Finally, the response of the senses to external stimuli is spontaneous, and Xunzi holds that what is done spontaneously, whether involving sense stimuli and responses or something else, is also characteristic of inborn nature. But in addition, he demands that this spontaneity not require any application to learn; this allows him to exclude those things we learn so well that they become second nature to us. Xunzi makes the point that acuity of hearing and clarity of vision cannot be improved by study. After the senses have received stimuli, they are distinguished into six emotional responses. Although the emotions are limitless, the mind by selecting or denying them can act. This process of selection Xunzi calls “thinking.”

Xunzi asserts that those qualities found in man that are obtained through learning or mastered through the application of effort are “acquired nature.” He distinguishes between inborn nature as “root and beginning, the raw material and original constitution,” and the nature we acquire by conscious exertion as “form and principle of order, the development and completion.” The process of thinking, which entails selecting among the feelings that Heaven/Nature has given us, is crucial to overcoming original, inborn nature. The application of thinking to human abilities so that they perform appropriate acts is defined as “conscious exertion.” “Conscious exertion” is the opposite of what is natural, in the sense of spontaneous actions a person performs without “deciding” or “willing” to do so. The product of “conscious exertion” is a second nature, an “acquired nature.” Xunzi distinguishes between two types of “conscious exertions”: utilitarian actions occasioned by “legitimate benefits,” which he calls “business”; and actions on behalf of the morally good, which he calls “conduct.”

Should a new king appear, Xunzi argues, he must generally reform the names. This would necessarily involve not only retaining some old names but also inventing new names. It is thus imperative that any future True King should understand the purpose for having names, the basis of distinguishing the similar from the different, and the crucial considerations for instituting names. A name is not properly assigned to a single reality, and this makes consideration of “logical category, class, kind” crucial. Thus, when we depend on the ear, eye, nose, and mouth, they determine things to be alike in some respects and different in others, so we pick out the most salient characteristics. For instance, when we refer to something as a “bird” we know that it has two feet and wings, and when we refer to something as an “animal” we know that it has four legs and fur.

Man’s Inborn Nature

Xunzi’s distinctive claim that human nature is “bad, ugly, evil” flows from his definition of “nature.” Xunzi argues that the inborn nature of man is evil on several generally accepted grounds: (1) a love of profit is inborn in man; (2) “dislikes and hatreds” are inborn in man; (3) the desires generated by the senses are inborn in man; and (4) ritual and moral principles were created by the sages; they must be learned and require effort to master. Xunzi also specifically refutes the claim that the fact that man can learn shows that his nature is good, and that the original simplicity and childhood naivete of men is good and that evil results because men lose this nature. “Good” refers to objectively determined relations between things. Following the desires causes “dissolute and disorderly behavior to result, and ritual principles and morality, precepts of good form, and the natural order of reason to perish.” “Following one’s desire” and “satisfying human needs” are not equivalent terms; thus, what is desirable is not necessarily what is good. Xunzi claims that the harmony produced by social organization enables men to live together and to obtain what they require. We transform ourselves by learning and by conscious exertion. The mind fixes its attention on some goal, devising ways and means to realize it, and effectuating it through the habituation of custom so that the inborn nature is transformed. The habituation of custom modifies the direction of will and, if continued for a long time, the very substance of one’s original inborn nature will be altered. Xunzi equates the profound changes that learning creates in our inborn natures to the changes of the butterfly in the chrysalis: “having undergone change, he emerges altered.”

The gentleman and the ordinary man share one and the same nature. Every man has the capacity to know and the ability to put what he knows into practice. But having the capacity is not necessarily to realize it. Man’s capacities are sufficient to know and act in terms of “humanity” and “morality.” If these capacities are used, and improved through practice, effort, and learning, then the “man in the street” can become a sage. But we must not confuse the capacity to know and the ability to act with what we do know and how we do act. It is the former that makes good possible, despite our evil natures; it is the latter that becomes the good we accomplish. Thus inborn nature is “the root and beginning and the raw material and original constitution.” Acquired nature is “the form and order, the development and the completion.” If there were no inborn nature, there would be nothing for conscious activity to improve; if there were no acquired nature, then inborn nature could not refine itself. It is the union of inborn and acquired nature that makes possible the perfection of man in the form of the sage and the perfection of social order in the unification of the whole world. It is a mistake to conclude that man’s inborn nature is good because through conscious exertion we can create an acquired nature that is good.

The Need for Society

Xunzi argues that by Nature things are inherently unequal. Even before man creates any social distinctions, from Nature there are such distinctions as primary and secondary, young and old, noble and base, male and female. Further, since a great variety of skills are necessary to supply the needs of even a single individual, the differences in the skills that characterize the various occupations naturally result in social differences. When society is built upon such distinctions, each individual recognizes that the “duties and responsibilities” of his “lot” in life are “just” because they are founded on “morality.” This accounts for everyone’s willingness to accept his position and for the general concord of societies founded on concepts of justice and morality. Such societies seem “good” even on utilitarian grounds, because where there is concord between classes, there is unity, which is the source of strength in a society. Where a society possesses strength, obstacles can be overcome by the unified effort of the society.

Desires, as well as the need to form societies, arise out of man’s inborn nature. When a man believes that the objects of his desire can be obtained, it is a necessary and inescapable part of his nature that he will pursue them. If men follow their desires, the inevitable result will be strife and rapacity, violence and predation, and dissolute and disorderly conduct. Thus, although society develops out of man’s nature, the result will be not order but disorder, not good but evil. Evil and disorder arise from several causes. Men differ in experience and wisdom and hence differ in regard to what they consider acceptable and moral. Second, the fact that desires are many while things are few means that scarcity occasions conflict over the goods that satisfy desires. Conflict itself exacerbates the problem of scarcity because people then live in alienation from each other and are unwilling to serve each other’s needs. Third, differences in strength and intelligence result in the strong coercing the weak and the intelligent intimidating the stupid. Finally, in the absence of rules governing the union of man and woman, there is conflict arising from sexual relations.

Our desires cannot be denied. They dictate that we shall act to obtain objects that will satisfy them, so it is idle to try to reduce the number of our desires. What we must do is guide and moderate them with our minds. What we obtain is never wholly what we desire, and what we avoid is never wholly what we dislike. Everything that we obtain or avoid is a mixture of some qualities we desire and some we dislike. Thus a fundamental role for the mind in pursuing a course of action is determining the relative balance between desirable and undesirable elements in a particular thing. Since a sense of what is right and moral is inborn in man, every man can use his mind to moderate the desires by deeming some things allowable and others not allowable. But, although all men have the same desires and seek the same things, they differ in awareness concerning them. Thus it is necessary for man’s original nature to undergo the transforming influence of a teacher and a model so that he will acquire a Way guided by moral principles.

The Sage

Xunzi believed that the essence of government was setting aright, rectifying, what was askew. This can be accomplished only by the sage. The sage accumulates moral authority, attracts others to him, and sets the pattern for others who imitate his example. The result is solidarity achieved by attracting others with moral authority and teaching them the proper moral pattern for human relations. Since people willingly imitate the conduct of the sage, the sage king can effect a fundamental change in society. The sage triumphs over his original inborn nature by imposing on it restraints that he then incorporates into ritual principles. This is the expression of his humanity. Others then turn to him as to their home, knowing that the humane man, in seeking to establish himself, seeks also to establish others.

It is not necessary that men be good, or that they display goodwill, or that they do anything other than be subject to the influences of their times. If their times are orderly thanks to a sage king, then they will acquire orderly customs and will be transformed almost immediately. If their times are chaotic, then they will acquire chaotic customs. History confirms this repeatedly. Sages like Yao and Shun could not get rid of men’s innate love of profit, but they taught men not to allow it to triumph over their sense of moral duty. Evil rulers like Jie and Zhou Xin could not get rid of men’s inborn sense of moral duty, but they caused men’s fondness for profit to overcome their love of morality.

Hsün-tzu: Basic Writings, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).
Xunzi, A Translation and Study, three volumes, trans. John Knoblock (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988–94).
Further reading
Cua, Antonio S.: Ethical Argumentation: A Study in Hsün-tzu’s Moral Epistemology (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985).
Knoblock, John: “The Chronology of Xunzi’s Works,” Early China, 8 (1982–3), 28–52. Köster, Hermann: Hsün-tzu (Kaldenkirchen: Steyler Verlag, 1967).
Machle, Edward J.: Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi (Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 1993).

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Philosophy

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