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Mencius and Xunzi on Cultivation

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EALC 110 Professor Hayden Michael Day March 13, 2008 Cultivation and Transformation: Mencius and Xunzi on Human Nature Confucius inspired a humanistic and ethical outlook that was developed further by prime disciples Mencius and Xunzi. This development took place amidst the background of arguments against other thinkers or in response to their criticisms of Confucianism. However, there was a disagreement within the Confucian school, as well, as shown by Xunzi's critique of Mencius. It may be perceived that Mencius has the dominant position in the Confucian tradition as Mencius's belief that human nature is originally good has often been interpreted into certain sayings of Confucius. Additionally, Xunzi's claim that human nature is "evil" and that people can be transformed to become good may be inconsistent, as they imply Mencius's claim that human nature is inherently good. For this reason, it is crucial to analyze both thinkers separately as integration of one thinker's original thought to another may obscure the important aspects of the assimilated thinker's position. Secondly, this method of analysis will show that the debate is not one conducted from extreme opposites as it may seem at first sight, for both Mencius and Xunzi agreed that man must cultivate his goodness consciously regardless of whether he is born with it or acquires it from the state. ...read more.


I say this is not so; this comes of his having neither understood human nature nor perceived the distinction between the nature and conscious activity...[r]itual and rightness are created by sages: people learn them and are capable, through effort, of bringing them to completion. What cannot be learned or acquired by effort but is within us is called the nature. What can be learned and, through effort, brought to completion is called conscious activity" (De Bary 181). This passage holds the key to the disagreement between Mencius and Xunzi: they have different understandings of the general concept of nature. Mencius's understanding of the nature of anything is that it is innate and unique to that species. Thus, human nature also constitutes moral inclinations or "moral potentials inherent in each person" (De Bary 115). These moral potentials are classified as the "four beginnings" Mencius believes in the "four beginnings - natural tendencies within all human beings that, he believes, can be cultivated and developed into the capacities for humaneness, rightness, propriety, and wisdom" (De Bary 115). However, Xunzi defines the concept of nature as that which is innate and does not require effort to complete. For Xunzi, only innate and spontaneous developed traits can count as human nature, such as selfish and violent emotions rather than moral inclinations. ...read more.


These fragile moral capacities need considerable protection, attention and cultivation in order to mature to the point where they inform and direct a majority of our actions. According to Mencius, we begin life with a minute moral understanding. Xunzi disagrees with the ideology of the "sprout" and denies that we are endowed with a moral sense. Xunzi believes that individuals should follow the sages who discovered and developed the human culture and moral ways. Unlike the sages, most people, in Xunzi's opinion, would have to endure a transformation process such as learning. We do not know what morality is until we come to understand how we fit into the world at large. Such an understanding, according to Xunzi, is beyond our innate abilities; it is something we must acquire from tradition under the guidance of proper teachers. Regardless of Mencius's and Xunzi's contrasting views on human nature and individual betterment, they agree on many fundamental Confucian beliefs. Neither Mencius nor Xunzi endorsed the idea of a dominating government. A stable state was only possible as a reciprocal endeavor; the rulers provide the example to which the citizens respond positively by individual morality and good will. Amidst this great debate between Mencius and Xunzi on human nature, during the Warring States Period, the underlying goal was the restoration of a united China under a strong yet benevolent dynasty. ...read more.

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