Monday, June 18, 2012

The wisdom of Xunzi, Part One


(Part Two Part Three)

Recently I've been reading quite a bit of Confucian philosophy, namely that of Xunzi. He's somewhat the polar opposite of Mencius, in that he believed that the nature of man is evil, while Mencius believed that the nature of man is good. Regardless of how literally one takes these positions, both philosophers have their place and elucidate many issues. For whatever reason, Xunzi resonates more with me, though I don't necessarily think that the nature of man is pure evil, per se. Perhaps  a better term would be undeveloped, or misguided. 

Either way you slice it up, his philosophy and thinking is as relevant to our times as it was relevant then. Just like Confucius himself, or Seneca, or a number of other writers and thinkers, when reading them we are confronted with the humbling fact that there truly is nothing new under the sun, and that we'd be hard-pressed to contribute anything as worthy as them. And indeed, there have always been serious problems in life, despite our temptation to think that we are the first to be burdened by them. We could all benefit from learning from the wisdom of men like Xunzi.

To begin with, here's a good introduction to part of Xunzi's thought that is particularly relevant to our times:
Much of Xunzi's philosophy is based upon a distinction between what is natural or spontaneous and what is a product of human effort. Xunzi conceived of nature—including human nature—as an unchanging context for human action and organization. In his view, human endeavors succeed or fail because of how they respond to this fixed context—not because of any natural advantages or disadvantages, and especially not because nature rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked. In particular, he believed that the stability of a society largely depends on its ability to respond to the fact that natural human desires outrun naturally available resources. Central to his defense of the Way that he advocated was the claim that it was uniquely capable of doing this, by strengthening and enriching the state, by providing social and political structures to regulate people's attempts to satisfy their desires, and by fundamentally transforming people's characters. [1]

It should be obvious that we as a society are failing in a number of domains. In particular, it is obvious that we have failed to deal properly with men's desire to profit and have more in the face of limited resources. A society that is so perversely top-heavy, meaning wealth and resources are concentrated at the top, a society in which the majority have no faith or trust in the leadership, is doomed to fail. Xunzi says,
Thus, a king enriches his people, a dictator enriches his soldiers, a state that is barely managing to survive enriches its high officers, and a doomed state enriches only its coffers and stuffs its storehouses. [2]

Sound familiar? He goes on to say,
But if its coffers are heaped up and its storehouses full, while its people are impoverished, this is what is called overflow at the top but dry up at the bottom. Such a state will be unable to protect itself at home and unable to fight its enemies abroad, and its downfall and destruction can be looked for at any moment. [2]

What downfall and destruction means specifically is of course, open to interpretation.

Xunzi believed that societies naturally needed hierarchy, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Though it's a nice idea to have everyone be on the same footing, it doesn't quite work well in reality. However, the difference between how Xunzi envisioned things working and how things work in our society, and in most workplaces, is the fact that the people at the bottom are generally unequal in several important ways. To sum it up, he says,
If a ruler...treats his inferiors and the common people with ordinary lenience and bounty, then he may dwell in safety. ... If a ruler is arrogant and cruel ...and his treatment of the common people is quick to exploit their strength and endanger their lives but slow to reward their labors and accomplishments ...then he will surely face destruction. [2]

It isn't necessary that everyone be equal in station, but treating everyone with dignity and respect leads to better things. Naturally, there are people who add little to society, and there are those who actively take away from it. Xunzi deals with them harshly, and I'll leave it to you to read his thoughts on that. I will continue in Part 2 on a different aspect of Xunzi, that of the development of the self. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow morning.

Stoic Living for the Modern Soul My book on stoicism.