Written by: Jeffrey Richey
Mengzi developed a theory of human nature (renxing) that eventually was accepted by most Confucians, even though, according to the Lunyu, Kongzi had very little to say about the subject. Mengzi taught that "by fully developing one's mind, one knows one's nature, and by knowing one's nature, one knows Tian" (Mengzi 7A1). For Mengzi, the journey toward morality begins with birth as a being that naturally is oriented toward goodness (ren). One then proceeds toward maturity, guided by the examples of ancient sages and the ritual forms and texts they have left behind. Habitually doing what is right, one eventually uplifts oneself from the merely human to that which Tian intends for one, which is to become a sage. Nature is crucial to moral development, but so is nurture. Mengzi's model of moral psychology involves both discovery (human nature is good) and development (human nature can be made even better).
Although Mengzi's theory of human nature became the basis for most Confucian moral psychology, prior to the Han dynasty, it was the theory advocated by his opponent Xunzi that found most favor among Confucians. Xunzi was born in the state of Zhao during the late 4th century B.C.E., which means that he is unlikely to have met Mengzi. Like Mengzi, Xunzi apparently was employed by the state of Qi and also held office in the state of Chu. While Xunzi undoubtedly attracted many faithful Confucian disciples, it also seems that he taught Li Si (c. 280-208 B.C.E.), Han Fei (c. 280-233 B.C.E.), and other thinkers later associated with the anti-Confucian Qin dynasty, and he may even have lived to see the unification of China under the Qin regime. Other students of Xunzi's evidently supervised the preservation of the Western Zhou text known as the Shijing (Classic of Poetry), which helped transmit Xunzi's influence into the Han dynasty.
Xunzi questioned many of Mengzi's teachings, especially his claim that human beings are born with a predisposition toward ren. For Xunzi, human beings were born with a natural tendency toward selfishness and disorderly conduct, which had to be overcome through the corrective power of culture. Nonetheless, both Mengzi and Xunzi taught that human beings are capable of moral perfection and that cultural formation through ritual and textual education is the key to achieving this perfection. The idea that human beings are incapable of moral self-transformation is completely alien to both Mengzi and Xunzi as well as the teacher whom both revered, Kongzi. In this sense, Confucian thought has no concept analogous to the Christian notion of "original sin." This apparent optimism about human beings probably is the most significant view shared by Confucianism's founders.
1. What was Confucius' background?
2. What was Mengzi's understanding of human nature?
3. What was Xunzi's understanding of human nature?
4. How do Confucian and Christian understandings of human nature compare?