Monday, June 30, 2014

Xunzi presages our world

Xunzi, in the second century B.C., looked at the chaos and disorder of China and observed,


Now, let someone try doing away with the authority of the ruler, ignoring the transforming power of ritual principles, rejecting the order that comes from laws and standards, and dispensing with the restrictive power of punishments, and then watch and see how the people of the world treat each other. He will find that the powerful impose upon the weak and rob them, the many terrorize the few and extort from them, and in no time the whole world will be given up to chaos and mutual destruction.

Does this reality sound familiar?

Two things become obvious upon reflection: 1) The troubles of our time are nothing new in the course of human history, and 2) Confucian philosophy should be investigated more fully by those wishing to make positive changes in the world.

While the second point may not seem obvious, consider that Confucian philosophy was born out of a desire to return to order and away from chaos. In short: to bring about conservative reforms which would return stability and harmony to society.

Xunzi goes on to say,


It is obvious from this, then, that man's nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.


A thorough overview of Xunzi's philosophy is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that Xunzi believed that men needed to constantly work to better themselves lest they fall into the bad habits that come from following one's emotional nature. Looking around the world, I know of no better or more relevant philosophy for us to study and use as a tool for self-improvement and improvement of society.

Obviously, Stoicism is also relevant, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from studying its thinking. After all, I've been studying stoic philosophy for years and have written my own book on it. However, one thing which stoicism doesn't full address is how man fits into his family and society. In truth, my stoic views and writings are eclectic and impart a lot of Confucian thinking, though perhaps unconsciously. It is all well and good to learn to go forward through the struggle of life, as Stoicism teaches us, yet how do we go about changing not only ourselves, but our world?
Confucianism addresses these issues more fully, and I suspect because changing the world for the better was one of its primary aims. While Stoicism, of the strictest sense, seems to be primarily inward looking, Confucianism looks outward to society as much as it looks inward.
This isn't to say anything negative about Stoicism, mind you. There is great overlap between the two philosophies, and stoic practice is worthwhile for a multitude of reasons. I bring up this contrast because I have recognized that my own brand of Stoicism is largely imbued with Confucianism and that the latter's focus on family and building a better society are of chief importance. It's not that stoic writers have entirely neglected issues of family and society, it's just that they mostly have.
Certainly, there are many other philosophies which one might contrast with Confucianism, yet I find no other philosophy which has as much overlap. And since Stoicism is the philosophy du jour, it is important to point towards a philosophical discipline which has much in common with it, predates it and overlaps it.
In the West, we can certainly learn from Confucian philosophy, and we have no better example to follow if we truly want to change our circumstances.
The quotes above come from: Watson, Burton (1963). Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press.
For more on Xunzi, here are three pieces:
1) Wisdom of Wunzi Part One
2) Wisdom of Xunzi Part Two
3) Wisdom of Xunzi Part Three