Xun Zi: On Human Nature

To Xun Zi, human nature is evil, and that goodness springs from conscious activity.

This is akin to a potter who is not by nature a potter, but rather learns it by practice, by habit (Mencius 4). Xun Zi also proves that the human nature is not good by comparing man to a warped wood. The warped wood needs to be steamed, laid straight in an ironing board, and pressed to make it straight as a person, because his nature is evil is to be taught by sages (2).He disagrees with Mencius, another learned man at the time, that human nature is innately good because man is proven capable of learning. He further adds that nature is not “learned,” as Mencius puts it. Nature is given by “Heaven,” Xun Zi argues. He also said that if man’s nature is good, then there is no point in seeking goodness, as a straight wood does not need to be straightened (3). Likewise, if human nature is good, man does not need to be taught by the sages in order for them to be good.

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However, Xun Zi is not discouraged about man’s capability to be good. He only believes that it has to be a conscious activity, and that is must be learned, and transformed into a habit. In fact, he believes that even those who are poor can be good as well: “The man in the street can be a Yu” (5). By practice, even the poor man can be a sage, because to Xun Zi, a sage is a sage by accumulating good acts. The only requirement to be good is to allow the sage to teach goodness, and to practice this goodness as a ritual.

Xun Zi’s belief that it is education that can make good persons is akin to Plato’s very notion in “The Republic.” To Plato, education is needed in order to make good citizens. Xun Zi’s arguments are persuasive, but the writer thinks that there is a surfacing theme in the reading that Xun Zi does not really mean man as evil in nature, and simply classifies the rational part (conscious activity) and the appetitive part of man.Work CitedXunzi. Human Nature is Evil. Sources of Chinese Tradition 2 (1); 179-183.

Compiled Theodore de Bary & Irene Bloom. New York: Colombia University Press.1999 

Author: Faith Holland


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