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Religion Library: Confucianism

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

In other words, Wu was morally justified in executing Zhou, because Zhou had proven himself to be unworthy of the throne through his offenses against ren and yi -- the very qualities associated with the Confucian exemplar (junzi) and his actions. While Mengzi endorses a "right of revolution," he is no democrat. His ideal ruler is the sage-king, such as the legendary Shun, on whose reign both divine sanction and popular approval conferred legitimacy:

When he was put in charge of sacrifices, the hundred gods delighted in them which is Tian accepting him. When he was put in charge of affairs, the affairs were in order and the people satisfied with him, which is the people accepting him. Tian gave it [the state] to him; human beings gave it to him. (Mengzi 5A5)

Mengzi is committed to a type of benevolent dictatorship, which puts moral value before pragmatic value and in this way seeks to benefit both ruler and subjects. The sage-kings of antiquity are a model, but one cannot simply adopt their customs and institutions and expect to govern effectively (Mengzi 4A1). Instead, one must emulate the sage-kings both in terms of outer structures (good laws, wise policies, correct rituals) and in terms of inner motivations (placing ren and yi first). Like Kongzi, Mengzi places an enormous amount of confidence in the capacity of the ordinary person to respond to an extraordinary ruler, so as to put the world in order. Almost all later Confucians share this view that successes (or failures) of human capacity and agency deserve the credit (or blame) for the moral state of our world. In this sense, for Confucian thinkers, evil has no existence or reality independent from goodness; it is defined as the absence of goodness, and more specifically, as the failure of human beings to cultivate their innate goodness and put it into practice in the world.

Study Questions:
     1.     Do Confucians believe that evil exists?
     2.     What kinds of suffering or evil are most troubling to Confucians?
     3.     What is the meaning of suffering for Confucians?



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