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