the wisdom of Xún Zǐ

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.

two quotations on the shape of lives

The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.

— Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations

We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.

— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd. ed.

I find it amusing to reflect on the idea that mankind may sometime soon grow tired of reading and that writers will do so too, that the scholar will one day direct in his last will and testament that his corpse shall be buried surrounded by his books and especially by his own writings. And if it is true that the forests are going to get thinner and thinner, may the time not come one day when the libraries should be used for timber, straw and brushwood? Since most books are born out of smoke and vapour of the brain, they ought to return to smoke and vapour. And if they have no fire of their own in them, fire should punish them for it.

Nietzsche, “Schopenhauer as Educator”

The education of German youth, however, proceeds from precisely this false and unfruitful conception ofculture: its goal, viewed in its essence, is not at all the  free cultivated man but the scholar, the man of science, and indeed the most speedily employable man of science, who stands aside from life so as to know it unobstructedly; its result, observed empirically, is the historical-aesthetic cultural philistine, the pre­cocious and up-to-the-minute babbler about state, church and art, the man who appreciates everything, the insatiable stomach which nonetheless does not know what honest hunger and thirst are. That an education with this goal and this result is an anti-natural one is apprehensible only to one who has not yet been fully processed by it; it is apprehensible only to the instinct of youth, for youth still possesses that instinct of nature which remains intact until artificially and forcibly shattered by this education.

— Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”

Code Fetishists vs. Antinomians

Charles Taylor explains many (most?) internet debates — and a great many others from the past two hundred years. If you ever wonder why people on Twitter (serious people, not mere trolls) can get so extreme in their policing of deviations from approved behavior, see “The Perils of Moralism,” in Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (emphases mine):

Modern liberal society tends toward a kind of “code fetishism,” or nomolatry. It tends to forget the background which makes sense of any code — the variety of goods which rules and norms are meant to realize — as well as the vertical dimension which arises above all these.

We can see this above in relation to contemporary Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy, as well as in the drive to codification in liberal society. But the sources go back deeper in our culture. I want to argue that it was a turn in Latin Christendom which sent us down this road. This was the drive to reform in its various stages and variants — not just the Protestant Reformation, but a series of moves on both sides of the confessional divide. The attempt was always to make people over as more perfect practicing Christians, through articulating codes and inculcating disciplines. Until the Christian life became more and more identified with these codes and disciplines.

In other words, this code-centrism came about as the by-product of an attempt to make over the lives of Christians, and their social order, so as to make them conform thoroughly to the demands of the Gospel. I am talking not of a particular, revolutionary moment, but of a long, ascending series of attempts to establish a Christian order, of which the Reformation is a key phase…. (351)

Code fetishism means that the entire spiritual dimension of human life is captured in a moral code. Kant proposes perhaps the most moving form of this (but perhaps the capture wasn’t complete in his case). His followers today, be they Rawls or Habermas or others again, carry on this reduction (although Habermas seems to have had recent second thoughts).

Modern culture is marked by a series of revolts against this moralism, in both its Christian and non-Christian forms. Think of the great late nineteenth-century reaction in England against evangelical “puritanism” that we associate with names as diverse as Arnold, Wilde, and later Bloomsbury; or think of Ibsen; or of Nietzsche and all those who follow him, including those rebelling against the various disciplines that have helped constitute this modern moralization, such as our contemporary, Michel Foucault.

But these reactions start earlier. The code-centered notion of order and its attendant disciplines begin to generate negative reactions from the eighteenth century on. These form, for instance, the central themes of the Romantic period. Many people found it hard to believe, even preposterous, that the achievement of this code-bound life should exhaust the significance of human existence. It’s almost as though each form of protest were adding its own verse to the famous Peggy Lee song: “Is that all there is?” (353)

One can, of course, and perhaps even should, question Rorty’s account of the various ways in which people are socialized into assuming the existence of non-contingent patterns. After all, it is also possible for one’s socialization to pull the other way – away from a recognition of pattern rather than towards it. I know of no more powerful illustration of this point than the concluding pages of V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a memoir of his first visit to his ancestral homeland. “The world is illusion, the Hindus say,” and Naipaul reflects that while he was in India he had come close to the “total Indian negation”: during the year that he lived on the subcontinent it had very nearly “become the basis of thought and feeling.” But, back in Europe, he can no longer find that “basis,” no longer share that “negation” – yet he is not sure whether he has recovered the proper orientation to his life or lost it: “And already … in a world where illusion could only be a concept and not something felt in the bones, it was slipping away from me. I felt it as something true which I could never adequately express and never seize again.” The possibility that people born and educated in the West in our time might be culturally formed in such a way that contingency is what they “feel in their bones” — so that a belief in the world as illusion, or in the providence of a just God, is at most a mere “concept” — is one that people like Rorty never take seriously, even if their theory obliges them to an acknowledgment of it.

— That’s me, from Looking Before and After. For some reason I’ve been thinking lately about this issue.

The engagement of understanding is, then, a continuous, self-moved, critical enterprise of theorising. Its principle is: Never ask the end. Of the paths it may follow, some (we may suppose) will soon exhaust their promise. It is an engagement of arrivals and departures. Temporary platforms of conditional understanding are always being reached, and the theorist may turn aside to explore them. But each is an arrival, an enlightenment, and a point of departure. The notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but it has no part in the adventure…

Here, theorizing has revealed itself to be an unconditional adventure in which every achievement of understanding is an invitation to investigate itself and where the reports a theorist makes to himself are interim triumphs of temerity over scruple. And for a theorist not to respond to this invitation cannot be on account of his never having received it. It does not reach him from afar and by special messenger; it is implicit in every engagement to understand and is delivered to him whenever he reflects. The irony of all theorizing is its propensity to generate, not an understanding, but a not-yet-understood.

— Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (1975);  cited here as a possible, rare instance of an ‘absolute secularity’, incorruptible by revelation, only for a commenter to point out at once how similar it is to both some kinds of reading and some kinds of religious belief. (via unapologetic-book)

The other thing for which I am grateful to philosophy is that, at least in the world in which I first sought to make a name for myself, one was required to write clearly, concisely, and logically. Wittgenstein said that whatever can be said can be said clearly, and that became something of a mantra for my generation. At one time, the British journal Analysis sponsored regular competitions: some senior philosopher propounded a problem, which one was required to solve in 600 words or less, the winner receiving as a prize a year’s subscription to the magazine. Here is an example of the kind of problem, propounded by J. L. Austin, that engaged Analysis’s subscribers: “What kind of ‘if ’ is the ‘if ’ in ‘I can if I choose?’ ” (Hint: it cannot be the truth-conditional “if ” of material implication, as in, “If p, then q.”)

I tried answering all the problems, and never won a prize. But the exercise taught me how to write. The great virtues of clarity, concision, and coherence, insisted upon throughout the Anglo-American philosophical community, have immunized the profession against the stylistic barbarity of Continental philosophy, which, taken up as it has been since the early 1970s by the humanistic disciplines—by literary theory, anthropology, art history, and many others—has had a disastrous effect, especially on academic culture, severely limiting the ability of those with advanced education to contribute to the intellectual needs of our society. It is true that analytical philosophers, reinforced by the demands of their profession to work within their constricting horizons, have not directly served society by applying their tools to the densely knotted problems of men, to use Dewey’s term for where the energies of philosophy should be directed. At one point it became recognized that “clarity is not enough.” It is not enough. But the fact that it remains a stylistic imperative in most Anglo-American philosophy departments means that these virtues are being kept alive against the time when the humanities need to recover them.

— Arthur C. Danto (available to subscribers only, I think)

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