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. []