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 ren into practice; all human beings potentially may become junzi. The character for ren is 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).

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)

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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