Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Confucian scholars have long debated essential human nature without reaching agreement as to its fundamental characteristics. Most agree, however, that the purpose of existence is to reach one's highest potential as a human being. Through a rigorous process of self-cultivation that lasts a lifetime, one may eventually become a "perfected person." 

Rendering of Lunyu (Analects) 1:3: Public DomainThe dependence of Tian upon human agents to put its will into practice helps account for Confucians' insistence on moral, political, and social activism. The relentless quest for virtue begins with the most basic human activities, such as mindful direction of one's sight, hearing, speech, and action:

Do not look at, do not listen to, do not speak of, do not do whatever is contrary to ritual propriety (Lunyu 12:1).

In the Lunyu, two types of persons are opposed to one another -- not in terms of basic potential (for, in 17:2, Kongzi says all human beings are alike at birth), but in terms of developed potential. These are the junzi (literally, "lord's son" or "gentleman," but often translated as "profound person") and the xiaoren ("small person"):

The profound person understands what is moral. The small person understands what is profitable (Lunyu 4:16).

The junzi is the person who always manifests the quality of ren (co-humanity) in his person and the displays the quality of yi (righteousness) in his actions (Lunyu 4:5). A xiaoren, then, is merely a human being who has not learned to put reninto practice; all human beings potentially may become junzi.The character forrenis composed of two graphic elements, one representing a human being and the other representing the number two. One may think of ren as meaning "how two people should treat one another." Yet, while the Lunyu talks a great deal about ren, it never uses the term renxing (human nature), which became a major concern of the Confucian tradition beginning with the work of Mengzi, whose interpretation of Kongzi's thought -- especially after the ascendancy of Zhu Xi's brand of Confucianism in the 12th century C.E. -- became the basis of Confucian orthodoxy.

Taiji (Great Ultimate) cosmological diagram: Public DomainMengzi is famous for claiming that human nature (renxing) is good. For Mengzi, renxing (human nature) is congenitally disposed toward ren, but requires cultivation through li (ritual) as well as yoga-like disciplines related to one's qi (vital energy), and may be stunted (although never destroyed) through neglect or negative environmental influence. Mengzi's basic assertion is that "everyone has a heart-mind which feels for others" (Mengzi 2A6). As evidence, he makes two appeals: to experience and to reason. Appealing to experience, he says:

Supposing people see a child fall into a well -- they all have a heart-mind that is shocked and sympathetic. It is not for the sake of being on good terms with the child's parents, and it is not for the sake of winning praise for neighbors and friends, nor is it because they dislike the child's noisy cry (Mengzi 2A6).

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).

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