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. []

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. []

Xunzi’s Take on Human Nature

As one of the few debates all humans can contribute to, the argument over the basic tendency of human nature towards good or bad appears across  philosophical communities, cultures, and time periods. Confucian culture is no different with two of its most recognized sages representing opposing sides of the debate. Arguing for human nature as good is Mengzi, a Confucian scholar, who is often called the ‘second Sage,’ after only Kongzi (Confucius) himself.1 In opposition to Mengzi is Xunzi, who claimed human nature was at its core bad. Though who was, or rather is, correct continues to be discussed to the present day, Xunzi’s central claim contains a major flaw that could be used to finally settle the debate within the Confucian context.

In the Xunzi, a collection of dialogues authored by the man of the same name, the sage begins chapter twenty-three with a bold, fallible statement.

‘People’s nature is bad. Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort’.2

At first this appears as a fair argument that naturally opposes the claim that human nature is at its base good. If we do not begin with goodness in our nature, then it follows that we must acquire it somehow; to acquire most anything, an individual must deliberately seek it out, which implies a desire for change. However, Xunzi neglects to explain why human beings make this effort to change their nature. He simply claims that it is the influence of teachers and rituals that cause one’s nature to improve.3 This response only delays the need to find a root for humanity’s goodness because logically we must then ask where these edifying rituals come from.

Xunzi’s response in a similar fashion is not defensible. He claims that ‘ritual and the standards of righteousness…are produced from the deliberate efforts of the sage’.3 Yet if a sage is just another human, where did their ability to become good come from? Upon looking deeply, Xunzi argument points towards some people spontaneously acquiring a good nature and then working to teach others. As an explanation for the origin of all goodness in human nature, it is quite unsatisfactory.

What’s more is that in comparison to Mengzi’s argument, Xunzi’s is weaker and relies on similar paths to virtue. Mengzi’s essential claim is, as already mentioned, that ‘There is no human that does not tend toward goodness’.4 Mengzi rests this argument on the description of each of the virtues as sprouts that can be tended to through our actions. So unlike with Xunzi, there is an origin to goodness; we are born with the ability for it, given the proper effort and environment. This aspect of Mengzi’s philosophy also explains why humans try to be good—we have a natural tendency toward it. Which brings us to the similarity of the two paths to Confucian virtue. According to both Xunzi and Mengzi, achieving virtue is a matter of self-cultivation, meaning that it takes a deliberate effort. In either case, an individual chooses to become better, but in Mengzi’s explanation we find a reason for these efforts.

Though initially the two sides of the debate over human nature’s inherent tendency appear evenly matched, at least in the Confucian context, one side is clearly more justifiable than the other. If being good takes deliberate effort either way, then it there must be a cause and a reason for our ability to embody it. Xunzi’s claim does not provide sufficient justification for why human nature can shed its original evil nature. Beyond that, it is much more comforting to think of humanity as more caring and good, than self-serving and violent.


Ivanhoe, Philip J., and Van Norden, Bryan W., (Eds.) Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, (Cambridge 2005).

  1. Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 99. []
  2. Ivanhoe and Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 298. []
  3. Ibid., p. 300. [] []
  4. Ibid., p. 145 []

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