The Nature of Xunzi: Comparison between Mencius and Xunzi on the nature of human essence

Xunzi, as a prominent Confucianist thinker in the period of Warring States, has a very distinct point of view on how to interpret and practice Confucianism from that of Menzi. The core difference in their philosophies is the different understanding of human nature. Mencius argues that human nature is good; Xunzi holds an opposite point that human nature is bad. This divergence leads to the distinct interpretations of functions and practices of ritual which are emphasized by Kongzi. According to Mengzi, the ritual and standard of being righteousness originate from the good nature of people, and Xunzi does not believe that people could follow what is virtuous, “deliberate effort” which is the teaching and learning of rituals and standards of righteousness set up by sages is required to educate a person to become a gentleman.

This divergence between Mengzi and Xunzi leads to different ways of applying their philosophies to real politics. Xunzi’s theory, in the later time, contributes to the development of Legalism which is the fundamental ideology of the rulership in Qin. Comparing to Mengzi’s doctrine of good human nature, Xunzi’s theory seems to be more practical and welcomed by the ruling class, since it leaves more space for an external agency to intervene in people’s life. Soles differentiates these two by defining that Mengzi’s virtue-based theory is agent-centred and Xunzi’s theory is rule-based which makes it consequentialist. People do not have to have a good intention or motivation while practising good and righteous behaviours, if they follow certain rules, the result will be good. This good result is the harmonious social order.1 It seems that Mengzi holds a more idealistic philosophy, and Xunzi is more practical, since the effort of a government is valued, and the outcome of this external effort is a stable society longed for by every ruler.

Despite Mengzi and Xunzi hold opposite opinions on the nature of human essence, and practices based on their philosophies differ in real life. They are not naturally in opposition to each other. Though Xunzi denies that human nature is good, he admits that there is an internal motivation of people to become good. In Chapter 23 of Xunzi: “People desire to become good because their nature is bad.” ((Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy 2nd Edition, pp298-310.)) He does not deny people’s instinct toward virtue, he only thinks that a normal person cannot learn the right concept of virtue without external help. So, Mengzi and Xunzi have the consensus that people possess the incipient power toward virtue. Instead of only mentioning the importance of external intervention, the system of Xunzi is consist of both people’s longing for becoming good and the teaching of sages.

Another similarity between Xunzi and Mengzi is that they are both Confucianists. Though Xunzi’s philosophy gives many inspirations to Hanfeizi and Lisi who are important figures in Legalism. The reason why Xunzi is still considered to be a Confucianist, like Mengzi and Kongzi, is that he believes that society operates in a harmonious way when people behave virtuously and morally which differentiate from Legalism that a prosperous country is based on laws and creeds. From this perspective, Xunzi and Mengzi’s theories are very similar to each other, people’s virtue can be improved by practising ritual and righteous behaviours to ultimately form a harmonious society. Even the core of their philosophies is ambiguously similar. It is sometimes hard to distinguish whether an action is out of good human nature or the intention of being good.

The subject described by their theory has nuance. The good nature possessed by people in the description made by Mengzi is towards the self-cultivation of a person, a person here is viewed as an independent individual. For Xunzi, the bad result of the society being chaotic and unstable is created by many people choosing to follow their instinct of self-profiting. If a person does not live in a society that requires them to live collaboratively, then human nature described by Xunzi is not evil. It is evil because it can cause social chaos, but when the concept of society is no longer included in the discussion, the judgement on people’s nature cannot be simply categorized as “bad”.

  1. Soles, David E. ‘The Nature and Grounds of Xunzi’s Disagreement with Mencius’. Asian Philosophy 9, no. 2 (1 July 1999), pp. 130-31. []