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Religion Library: Confucianism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Xunzi is famous for opposing Mengzi's claim about the original goodness of humanity. Whereas Mengzi claims that human beings are originally good but argues for the necessity of self-cultivation, Xunzi claims that human beings are originally bad but argues that they can be reformed, even perfected, through self-cultivation. Also like Mengzi, Xunzi sees li as the key to the cultivation of renxing. Although Xunzi condemns Mengzi' arguments in no uncertain terms, the two thinkers share many assumptions, including one that links each to Kongzi: the assumption that human beings can be transformed by participation in traditional aesthetic, moral, and social disciplines.

Xunzi: Public DomainLater thinkers such as Zhang Zai (1020-1077 C.E.), Zhu Xi, and Wang Yangming, while distinct from one another, agree on the primacy of Kongzi as the fountainhead of the Confucian tradition, share Mengzi's understanding of human beings as innately good, and revere the Wujing and Sishu associated with Kongzi as authoritative sources for standards of ritual, moral, and social propriety. These thinkers also display a bent toward the cosmological and metaphysical that distinguishes them from the Kongzi of the Lunyu, and betrays the influence of Buddhism and Taoism -- two movements with little or no popular following in Kongzi's or Mengzi's China -- on their thought. Zhang Zai's interest in qi as the unifier of all things surely must have been stimulated by Mengzi' theories, while Wang Yangming's search for li (cosmic principle) in the heart-mind evokes Mengzi 6A7: "What do all heart-minds have in common? Li [cosmic principle] and yi [righteousness]." 


Study Questions:
     1.     What was Confucius' view of human nature?
     2.     What was Mengzi's view of human nature?
     3.     What was Xunzi's view of human nature?
     4.     Which early Confucian views of human nature were most influential on later Confucian thought?

 

 

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