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Religion Library: Confucianism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Mengzi says nothing about acting on this automatic affective-cognitive response to suffering that he ascribes to the bystanders at the well. It is merely the feeling that counts.  Going further and appealing to reason, Mengzi argues:

Judging by this, without a heart-mind that sympathizes one is not human; without a heart-mind aware of shame, one is not human; without a heart-mind that defers to others, one is not human; and without a heart-mind that approves and condemns, one is not human (Mengzi 2A6).

Thus, Mengzi makes an assertion about human beings -- all have a heart-mind that feels for others -- and qualifies his assertion with appeals to common experience and logical argument. Mengzi goes further and identifies the four basic qualities of the heart-mind (sympathy, shame, deference, judgment) not only as distinguishing characteristics of human beings -- what makes a human being really "human" -- but also as the "sprouts" (duan) of the four cardinal virtues:

A heart-mind that sympathizes is the sprout of co-humanity [ren]; a heart-mind that is aware of shame is the sprout of rightness [yi]; a heart-mind that defers to others is the sprout of ritual propriety [li]; a heart-mind that approves and condemns is the sprout of wisdom [zhi].... If anyone having the four sprouts within himself knows how to develop them to the full, it is like fire catching alight, or a spring as it first bursts through. If able to develop them, he is able to protect the entire world; if unable, he is unable to serve even his parents (Mengzi 2A6).

For Mengzi, what makes us human is our feelings of commiseration for others' suffering; what makes us virtuous -- or, in Confucian terms, junzi -- is our development of this inner potential. There is no sharp conflict between "nature" and "nurture" in Mengzi's vision of humanity; biology and culture are co-dependent upon one another in the development of the virtues. If our sprouts are left untended, we can be no more than merely human -- feeling sorrow at the suffering of another, but unable or unwilling to do anything about it.  If we tend our sprouts assiduously -- through education in the classical texts, formation by ritual propriety, fulfillment of social norms, etc. -- we can not only avert the suffering of a few children in some wells, but also bring about peace and justice in the entire world. This is the basis of Mengzi' appeal to King Hui of Liang (r. 370-319 BCE):

[The king] asked abruptly, "How shall the world be settled?"

"It will be settled by unification," [Mengzi] answered.

"Who will be able to unify it?"

"Someone without a taste for killing will be able to unify it.... Has Your Majesty noticed rice shoots? If there is drought during the seventh and eighth months, the shoots wither, but if dense clouds gather in the sky and a torrent of rain falls, the shoots suddenly revive. When that happens, who could stop it? ... Should there be one without a taste for killing, the people will crane their necks looking out for him. If that does happen, the people will go over to him as water tends downwards, in a torrent -- who could stop it? (Mengzi 1A6)

 

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