On his blog this morning, Rod Dreher publishes a fascinating letter from a reader in China, who suggests that the work of Xún Zǐ might be a good entryway into Chinese culture.
As it happens, I wrote about Xún Zǐ in my book on original sin. I introduce him after briefly describing the thought of Confucius’s disciple Mencius, who believed that human beings are intrinsically good. Here’s the relevant passage:
But some generations later there came along another great sage, one who also considered himself a faithful disciple of Confucius, who believed that Mencius had gotten it all wrong. His name was Xún Zǐ (310-237 BCE), and it is probably not coincidental that he lived in what has long been called the Warring States Period, when the unifying power of the Zhou dynasty was weakening and the social order crumbling. “The nature of man is evil,” Xún Zǐ wrote; “man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If this tendency is followed, strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear. By inborn nature one is envious and hates others. If these tendencies are followed, injury and destruction result and loyalty and faithfulness disappear.” If we feel a pang of compassion or anxiety for a child falling into a well, that is because the life or death of that child does not affect our interests — we do not gain by it. If we knew that we would gain by that child’s death, then not only would we feel no anxiety, we’d give the kid a good push.
But then, someone might say, people often, or at least sometimes, do virtuous deeds. If our nature is evil, where does goodness come from? Xún Zǐ has a ready reply: “I answer that all propriety and righteousness are results of the activity” — this word carries connotations of creativity and artifice — “of sages and not originally produced from man’s nature…. The sages gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles, and thus produced propriety and righteousness and instituted laws and systems.”
So it would seem that the news from Xún Zǐ is not so bad after all, and not so different from the model of Mencius. Yes, we have an innately evil nature, and come into this world predisposed to greed and strife; however, these tendencies are correctable by the judicious enforcement of well-made laws. The one thing needful is that the sages, who have “gathered together their ideas and thoughts and became familiar with activity, facts, and principles,” are the ones given charge of “laws and systems.” Philosophers rule — or should.
So for Xún Zǐ inborn evil is not so much a curse as an annoyance. Thanks to basic human intelligence, which allows us to see when things aren’t working properly and then take the necessary steps to address the problems, we can find sages (“sage-kings,” he later says) to establish laws and social structures that mitigate evil and build up good. And, not incidentally, Xún Zǐ believes that “Every man in the street possesses the faculty to know [humanity, righteousness, laws, and correct principles] and the capacity to practice them.” Therefore, almost anyone can become a sage; there is no reason why there should ever be a shortage of them.
It’s Xún Zǐ’s matter-of-factness that’s noteworthy here, and really rather attractive. What his philosophy indicates is that one can have a very low view of human nature without being what William James, in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) calls a “sick soul”: a person tormented by consciousness of sin and helpless in the face of temptation. James spoke of such people as “these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth,” and it was almost axiomatic to him that their personality is antithetical to the confidence and assurance and warmth of what he calls “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” But Xún Zǐ, for all his insistence on the depths of our innate sinfulness, seems the very embodiment of healthy-mindedness. How is this possible? It turns out that what matters more than your view of “human nature” is your view of the relative importance of nature and nurture. For Xún Zǐ human nature is evil, but nature is also easily controllable and eminently improvable. All you have to do is put the philosophers in charge.