Xunzi and Human Nature: The Political Implications

“Now without teachers or proper models for people, they will be deviant, dangerous, and incorrect in their behaviour. Without ritual and the standards of righteousness, they will be unruly, chaotic, and not well ordered.”1

Xunzi, a third-century Confucianist philosopher argues within his writings that “people’s nature is bad”2 , and that they must ultimately make a deliberate effort to do good, through actions such as rituals and self-cultivation. Yet, as seen above, another way that Xunzi argues that humans can deliberately better themselves is by being taught and led to do good by their superiors, or as Xunzi states, ‘proper models’.

This piece argues that Xunzi’s statement above provides a theoretical platform for authoritarian rule of law in political spheres. The main reason behind this is that fundamentally if Xunzi’s moral philosophy is that humans possess an evil nature and that violence and chaos are the natural progressions, and thus the best way to avoid this is through specific social norms of righteousness and ritual, it is logical to argue that the state should also invoke such standards. Essentially, Xunzi’s authoritarian models of moral education can easily translate to authoritarian views in a political context. Eric Shwitzgebel corroborates this when focusing on the difference between Mengzi and Xunzi regarding their political philosophy, with Xunzi likely to have a more authoritative political philosophy.3   

This is evidenced as early as the 17th century when assessing the views set out by the Japanese Confucian scholar, Ogyu Sorai. who played an influential role in convincing the Shogunate to reform towards Confucian principles; ultimately being appointed the private secretary to Premier Yanagisawa.

As highlighted by Arthur Tiedemann, Sorai, upholding Xunzi as a philosophical and moral guide, prompted numerous legal and political changes, all driven by the idea that humans are inherently evil and can only improve through the means mentioned above.4 

This is evidenced when examining the political actions undertaken during Surai’s reform programme. Within this, Sorai recommended that free movement should be curtailed, as well as the fact that all people should be registered into ‘census registers’.5 

When reverting to the primary source above, the danger of Xunzi’s views on human nature is clear when putting it into the political context. By separating ‘proper models’ and the other (the rest of humanity) per se, Xunzi prompts a theoretical situation where a political system of authoritarian rule is validated.

This has been evidently shown when assessing the role of Sorai and his reform programme. Thus the argument is clear that there is an inherent interaction between Xunzi’s philosophical view on human nature and its role in indirectly promoting the political philosophy of authoritarianism.

  1. P.J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, Readings in classical Chinese philosophy, (Indianapolis, 2005), pg. 299. []
  2. Ibid, pg. 298 []
  3. Eric Schwitzgebel, ‘Human Nature and Moral Education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rosseau’, History of Philosophy Quarterly, 24:2 (2007), pg.15 []
  4. Arthur Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, (New York, 2005),  p.219. []
  5. ‘Ogyū Sorai: Confucian Conservative Reformer: From Journey to Kai to Discourse on Government’, in Huang C., Tucker J. (eds), Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, (Dordrecht, 2014), p.173. []

Lost in translation: Implications of Ogyu Sorai’s Rejection of the Wakun Method for Modern Readers

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) is perhaps best known for his political writings, yet his attitude towards language and the reading of Chinese texts is arguably of equal importance to any reader. As Thomas Kasulis outlines, the predominant way of reading classical Chinese literature in Japanese was the wakun method, in which a Chinese text was read with Japanese sentence structure and grammar. In doing so, this created what Sorai called a ‘bizarre and contrived hybrid” of both Chinese and Japanese1 . This simple description neatly gets to the heart of one of the greatest barriers of learning and interpretation of any reader: that of translation. In order to truly learn and understand classical Chinese texts, Sorai argued for learning the Chinese readings first, thus becoming familiar with the syntax and flow of spoken Chinese, and only then could one begin to translate it into more understandable Japanese.

Sorai argued that this ‘Japanification’ of Chinese readings and forcibly altered sentence structure led to an overcomplication and loss of information. Furthermore, he argued that since this translation itself came from the Heian era, it was by the time of the Tokogawa Shogunate some several hundred years out of date, and therefore written in an antiquated, archaic style that most ordinary Japanese readers would find it difficult to understand anyway2 .

His solution was to learn the original language before one can truly begin to understand its meaning. However, this is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, Kasulis points out that Sorai had the benefit of a classical education under the Hayashi family, and had the ‘rare skill’ of being able to read and understand both Classical and modern forms. He was then able to set up his own school in order to teach this new method, dubbed Nagasaki after the area with the highest bilingual population at the time3 .

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this approach has major implications for the modern reader. Learning a language outside of state-mandated education is often time-consuming and can be prohibitively expensive, whether engaging a private tutor or using some other form, such as an online service. Thirdly, there is the issue of breadth. Sorai, being first and foremost a Confucian scholar, had only to learn Classical and modern Chinese. A difficult task, perhaps, but a singular one to which he devoted himself. For those whose interests are not quite so narrowed, it could easily leave one overwhelmed, thinking that all languages of interest must be mastered before one could even attempt to study anything of note.

Fourthly, there is the simple question of whether Sorai was right at all. The Nagasaki method came under criticism even in his own lifetime, notably from another Confucian Scholar, Arai Hakuseki, who pointed out the illogicality of the method in general, since the bilingual residents, being predominantly fisherman, had learnt Chinese from sailors and so could hardly be placed in the same linguistic realm as the Sage Kings of old4 .Taking this criticism, it would seem to rather invalidate Sorai somewhat.

The final conclusion then, would seem to be a balance between Sorai and a more favourable attitude towards translation. By all means, learning and immersing oneself in a chosen language is desirable for life-long study, or even if one simply has a great love of a particular culture. However, to enforce learning and total understanding before even attempting to study a piece of literature outside of one’s native language is simply not possible in the modern world. A better way, therefore, would be to find our own Sorai, someone who has already done the difficult task of translation, and use that instead as the basis for study. Naturally there will be errors, and one may have to change or alter a sentence to fit with the individual demands and peculiarities of a different language, but this is inevitable. To reverse the well-known saying, its not the way that you say it, but what you say that is most important.

  1. Thomas P. Kasulis. Engaging Japanese Philosophy : A Short History. (University of Hawaii Press, 2018), p. 347 []
  2. Ibid, pp. 348 []
  3. bid, p. 349 []
  4. Ibid, p. 349 []

Human Nature: How Perception of Human Tendencies Alters the Definition of Confucianism

The influence of Confucianism in Chinese culture and throughout the world is undeniable, but Confucianism itself is difficult to define, both because it is rooted in deeply philosophical, existential questions, but also because it has been interpreted and redefined by so many generations of thinkers.  One critical aspect which differentiates different schools of Confucianism is how one answers the question of whether human nature is inherently good or inherently evil.  Even just a hundred years after the death of Confucius, his disciple Mencius redefined his teachings by basing Confucian philosophy on the principle that human nature is inherently good.  This so changed the foundation of Confucian belief that the new school came to be known as Neo-Confucianism.  On the opposite side of the spectrum are thinkers like Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, who base their philosophical interpretations on the idea that humans are naturally inclined towards evil.  Although they all claim to be following and expanding on the teachings of Confucius, their approaches to Confucian teachings lead them in entirely different directions.

Daniel Gardner in his book, Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, argues that the Neo-Confucian views of Mencius had a greater impact on Chinese education from 1300 to 1900 than almost any other figure, apart from Confucius himself.[1]  Mencius famously argues that “all men have a mind-and-heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others: Today, no matter the person, if he suddenly comes upon a young child about to fall into a well, his mind-and-heart fills with alarm and is moved to compassion.”[2]  This belief in an innate sense of compassion influences his entire philosophy and it is the foundation of his belief that it is our duty to cultivate this compassion through self-reflection.  Gardner argues that it was required of anyone wishing to enter government service to internalise this philosophy of self-cultivation.  As a result, Confucianism, and its practice by those in official government positions, was a highly individualistic philosophy which recommended that the best way to serve others was by turning inward and through the perfection of oneself one could become an example for others.

Ogyu Sorai argued for the opposite approach.  He agrees with Xunzi that  humans are predisposed towards evil, claiming that “men are not sages, and that evil inevitably abounds while good is scarcely to be seen.”[3]  This pessimistic view of human nature leads him to the conclusion that humans cannot attain moral perfection on their own.  Arthur Tiedemann’s analysis of Sorai’s writings in Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600-2000 argues that Sorai was convinced that traditional schools of Confucianism like Zhu Xi and Ito Jinsai, “had failed to fufill the basic aim of scholarship: to provide for the needs of the people and the general social welfare. The NeoConfucians were too preoccupied with metaphysics, philosophical idealism, and personal cultivation.”[4]  Other schools relied on the inner good nature of the individual to eventually lead them towards goodness and virtue, but Sorai thought this perspective was unrealistic because it placed too much pressure on the individual.  He argues that without established social and political structures to guide and support people, their material welfare would be neglected and as a result, the evil tendencies of human nature would be manifested.

The real opposition in these views lies in the contrasting ideas the true nature of human beings.  If, as Mencius claims, humans must look within themselves to find good, then Confucianism is a philosophy which focuses predominantly on the individual and encourages an almost religious approach to personal perfection through self-reflection and self-cultivation.  In this form of Confucianism, laws and government authority have little effect because one is expected to govern oneself and set an example for others.  But, if one takes Sorai’s view that humans possess a natural evil which they must overcome, it is necessary to look outside oneself, to social and political institutions to correct this inherent flaw.  In this sense, Confucianism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of community and advocates for the structure and support which rituals and laws provide to keep individuals in check.  These contradictory views both claim to be “fulfilling the Confucian teaching, not breaking with it,” but their social and political implications are vastly different.[5]  The way in which Confucianism is interpreted in this case determines whether it is defined as a religion or as a political ideology.

[1] Gardner, Daniel K., Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, (Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/st-andrews/detail.action?docID=1118881, p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. 65.

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., (Columbia University Press, 2005), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/st-andrews/detail.action?docID=908716, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 218.

[5] Ibid., p. 219.

Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, Exploring Bad Human Nature as a Justification for Authoritarianism

Xunzi (310BC – 235BC) was a Confucian scholar who wrote in the warring states period most noted for his disagreement with Mengzi (372BC – 289BC) over the question of whether human nature was fundamentally good or bad. In Chapter 23 of the Xunzi he argues that everything humans do that is good is a matter of deliberative effort.[1] The most important contribution of the Sage Kings was to creates rites, rituals and standards of righteousness so that people could act properly despite their nature. Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) was a Japanese Confucian scholar who sought to influence the Shogunate to reform along Confucian principles. Sorai generally aligned with Xunzi on the question of human nature, believing that the only way to correct people’s nature was through sagely social institutions.[2] As a result, Sorai’s conception of the way (Dao) was more materialist, rooted in the rites, rituals and standards of righteousness that Xunzi claimed the Sage Kings invented to correct people’s natural inclinations to evil action. Mengzi’s conception of the way was more loose, emphasizing virtue in a more vague sense although rites and rituals were still important.[3] It is not hard to see how Xunzi’s negative view of human nature could be used as a theoretical foundation for authoritarian governance. Sorai’s reform programme was top-down in every sense of the phrase, for example, he recommended that all people be registered in ‘census registers’ and everyone should be under strict control so that free movement is curtailed.[4] If your political philosophy is that people are naturally evil and chaos is the natural way of things, and the best if not only solution is to have people adhere to specific social mores and standards of righteousness, the logical step of arguing that the state should enforce these standards of righteousness is not hard to make. Xunzi in his writing evoked a distinctly ‘Hobbesian’ view of society when imagining that the power of rulers was abolished writing “Now suppose one were to try doing away with the power of rulers and superiors… Then stand aside and observe how all the people of the world would treat each other… then the strong would harm the weak and take from them.”[5] It might be argued that what characterizes authoritarian rule most distinctly is its arbitrariness. For Xunzi, rule must be strict but it must not be arbitrary, it must strictly adhere to the rituals of the sages. However, it is not as if an authoritarian ruler would described their governance as arbitrary, they would defend themselves by arguing that their strict rule adheres to some sort of supposedly inviolable ideal, which in a Confucian society would be the way of the Sage Kings. This observation certainly does not imply that Confucian societies are by nature more authoritarian but it does align with the fact that late Qing and early 20th century radical reformers in China saw adherence to Confucianism as one of the key enemies of progress.

[1] Ivanhoe, P. J., and Bryan W. Van Norden. 2005. Readings in classical Chinese philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. P.298

[2] Tiedemann, Arthur. Sources of Japanese Tradition : 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., Columbia University Press, 2005. p.219

[3] Ibid. p.219

[4] Lidin O.G. (2014) Ogyū Sorai: Confucian Conservative Reformer: From Journey to Kai to Discourse on Government. In: Huang C., Tucker J. (eds) Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht p.173

[5] Ivanhoe and Norden. Readings p.302

Ogyu Sorai and the Recurring Motif of the Debasement of the Ruling Class

Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) was a Japanese Confucian scholar influential in the Tokugawa period. His most influential work, Discourses on Government (Seidan), laid out a vision for reform of the government along Confucian principles. Sorai’s impetus for writing Discourses on Government was a growing sense of Japan’s moral degradation. According to Sorai, the natural hierarchy of Japanese society was being flipped on its head with the merchant class getting richer than the Samurai and Daimyo.[1]  Sorai observed that the Daimyo had become moral debased, corrupted by luxury and decadence. The Daimyo had become sedentary in Edo and started to expect the state to pay for their decadent lifestyles. Sorai observed that this occurred because there were not institutions (seido) regarding clothes, housing and food, so there was no established way to suppress luxury.[2] The situation was doubly tragic according to Sorai since the lifestyle of the Daimyo became a financial burden for the Shogunate and, by becoming accustomed to luxury, the morally debased Daimyo were not less efficient rulers of their territories. In fact, Sorai recommended that people from the lower classes, who had endured many hardships should regularly be rotated into bureaucratic roles. He wrote “Why is that during a period of prolonged peace, men of ability are found only in the lower classes, while men of the upper class grow increasingly stupid? As far as I can see, men’s abilities are developed only through hardship and tribulation.”[3]  In my opinion there is a clear aspect to which Sorai’s language is gendered. With the trend of Daimyo marrying women from the Kyoto court nobility, they had adopted feminine luxury, and had become emasculated by the now more economically successful merchants. I’ve noticed that there is a recurring motif not just in the history of the Sino sphere, but world history, that of the upper/ruling class becoming gradually, over generations, accustomed to foreign luxuries, becoming morally/sexually debased as a result, and then the state, which was founded on according to high moral principles, inevitably collapses. This motif most strikingly appears in explanations for the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was founded on such pure virtues like the rule of law and equality between citizens. Once the empire stopped expanding, military and political rules became sedentary accustomed to Persian luxury goods and lost their civic and military virtue. In Chinese dynastic history a recurring motif is that of the early rulers of a dynasty winning the mandate of heaven due to their pure morals and sagely ways. However, over generations, the emperors become sedentary, become sexually deviant, and lose the mandate of heaven because of their lax morals. Until modern Western enlightenment political theory, I believe it was taken for granted by most that the state was at its core a moral entity, and the health of the state was a matter of adhering to rule that was morally virtuous (however defined). I believe Sorai wrote the Discourses on Government with a sense of urgency for this reason, that he did not want to he the Tokugawa Shogunate descend into unrecoverable moral chaos and collapse.

[1] Lidin O.G. (2014) Ogyū Sorai: Confucian Conservative Reformer: From Journey to Kai to Discourse on Government. In: Huang C., Tucker J. (eds) Dao Companion to Japanese Confucian Philosophy. Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht p.178

[2] Ibid. p.175

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur. Sources of Japanese Tradition : 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., Columbia University Press, 2005. p.236

Ogyū Sorai’s Paradoxes

Confucian philosophy cannot be disentangled from politics. The thinkers we have studied this week, Kongzi (孔子), Mengzi (孟子), Xunzi (荀子), and Ogyū Sorai (荻生 徂徠), all centred their works on trying to define the ‘right’ way to organise and run a society.  In asking these philosophical questions, we can infer that these thinkers were responding to what they perceived to be the decay of society, government – political instability, in short. Indeed, all the authors mention rather explicitly in all of their texts that following their thought will lead to the prosperity and success of their home states.1 In light of this dynamic between philosophy and politics, I think it makes sense to explore how Confucian thinkers tried to turn their philosophical ideas into a practical political policy. In particular, I will focus on the difficulties that come with trying to put ideas into action and will reference Ogyū Sorai as a case study to explore this.

I find Sorai to be an interesting case study because his thought is littered with paradoxes. ‘Paradox’, for my purposes, refers to an inconsistency between a thinker’s philosophical ideals and the actual political policies they promote. I will demonstrate this with reference to one of many paradoxes in Sorai’s thought: his argument for social equality.

‘In formulating the Way, the early kings focused on the problem of bringing peace and security to all-under-Heaven and posterity … Therefore, the early kings followed the mind of all people to love, nourish, support, and perfect one another.2

This extract shows us that social equality is an important part of Sorai’s thought. In arguing that ‘all-under-Heaven’ ought to experience peace and security, Sorai argues that it is the King’s ultimate duty to provide peace and stability to all of his people, irrespective of class. In order to do this, Sorai suggests that the King ought to help ‘all people … nourish, support, and perfect one another’. The King should give everyone a means of satisfying their basic needs, and also a way for them to attain some kind of virtue and act in good ways. Overall, Sorai appears to be using the Confucian belief in equality to argue for the creation of a society that works to benefit all individuals instead the very few.

However, we see this point turned on its head in another part of Sorai’s thought:

‘If the members of the military class lived in the country, they would not incur any expenses in providing themselves with food, clothing, and shelter, and for this reason their financial condition would be much improved … At present, the merchants are in the dominant position, and the military class is in the subordinate position because the military class lives as though they were at an inn where they cannot do without money and must sell their rice in exchange for money with which to buy their daily necessities from the merchants3

Here, we see Sorai contradict himself. He argues that the Samurai and military class ought to be privileged over the merchant class. Sorai argues that the Samurai ought to provide for themselves, not ‘live in an inn’ (i.e. travel around and live off of their income), so that they can reclaim the ‘dominant position’ in society over the merchants. In referring to ‘dominant’ and ‘subordinate’ positions in society, Sorai is telling us that power within a society ought to be hierarchical, not equal, which thus contradicts the sentiments Sorai expresses in the first extract and generates a paradox.

What are the implications that we can draw out from this analysis? One natural thought might be to say that Sorai was generally unsuccessful in turning his ideals into actual political thought. However, I do not think this thought is particularly charitable to Sorai. In this entry, I have only covered one aspect of his thought. Evaluating him, as a whole, would require a detailed analysis of all aspects of his thought. Instead, I think Sorai’s paradoxes demonstrate that philosophical ideas can become muddled when translated into political policy or put into action. This point, I am sure, will become especially salient in weeks to come when we begin to explore Confucian thought historically, analysing the way it influences and is used in historical events.

  1. See Kongzi 2.1, Mengzi 1A7, and Xunzi Chapter 23 in P.J. Ivanhoe; B. W. Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, Hackett, 2005. For Ogyū Sorai, see W. T. De Bary; C. Gluck; A. E. Tiedemann; A. Barshey; W. M. Bodiford, ‘Ogyū Sorai and the return to Classics’, Sources of Japanese Tradition: Vol. 2: 1600 to 2000, Columbia University Press, 2010 []
  2. Ogyū Sorai, ‘The Sage: Benmei (Distinguishing Terms)’ in W. T. De Bary; C. Gluck; A. E. Tiedemann; A. Barshey; W. M. Bodiford, Sources of Japanese Tradition: Vol. 2: 1600 to 2000, Columbia University Press, 2010, p. 290 []
  3. Ogyū Sorai, ‘The Sage: Benmei (Distinguishing Terms)’ in W. T. De Bary; C. Gluck; A. E. Tiedemann; A. Barshey; W. M. Bodiford, Sources of Japanese Tradition: Vol. 2: 1600 to 2000, Columbia University Press, 2010, pp. 297, 298 []