Confucius inspired a humanistic and ethical outlook that was developed further by prime disciples Mencius and Xunzi. This development took place amidst the background of arguments against other thinkers or in response to their criticisms of Confucianism. However, there was a disagreement within the Confucian school, as well, as shown by Xunzi’s critique of Mencius. It may be perceived that Mencius has the dominant position in the Confucian tradition as Mencius’s belief that human nature is originally good has often been interpreted into certain sayings of Confucius. Additionally, Xunzi’s claim that human nature is “evil” and that people can be transformed to become good may be inconsistent, ...view middle of the document...
If man were not innately good, Mencius argued, how could he possibly learn to be a good citizen? (De Bary 142) Mencius nevertheless maintained that the individual must cultivate and the state must nurture, guide, and help maintain his goodness (De Bary 123). For Mencius, the “great person is one who does not lose the child’s mind” (De Bary 141). Thus, in order to be a worthy nobleman, man should carry his childlike innocence and simplicity into his adulthood. Mencius believes that in the original nature of man there are tendencies that would prompt him to act in a moral way:
The goodness of human nature is like the downward course of water. There is no human being lacking in the tendency to do good, just as there is no water lacking in the tendency to flow downward. Now by striking water and splashing it, you may cause it to go over your head, and by damming and channeling it, you can force it to flow uphill…It is the force that makes this happen. While people can be made to do what is not good, what happens to their nature is like this (De Bary 147).
The trees on Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But being situated on the outskirts of a large state, the trees are hewn down by axes. Could they remain beautiful? Seeing this barrenness, people suppose that the mountain was never wooded. But how could this be the nature of the mountain? So it is also, with what is preserved in a human being: could it be that anyone should lack the mind of humaneness and rightness?
These passages establish that Mencius regards human nature as innately good. To say that human nature is good; however, is not to say that all people behave well. To guide human beings toward goodness is like guiding a stream of water to flow downward. Just as the natural tendency of water is to flow downward, so the natural tendency of human beings is to be benevolent and good. Indeed Mencius agreed that he lived in decadent times rife with evil as various states competed violently against one another for mastery of China, however, the question is not whether evil flourishes; it is whether evil is “natural” or a perversion.
Xunzi was a skeptical thinker; known for his theory that human nature tends toward evil, he argued forcefully for the importance of ritual and education. Although Xunzi’s theory seems to directly contrast Mencius’s, they had much more in common than their differences. Xunzi’s most famous essay begins as follows:
Human nature is evil; goodness derives from conscious activity. Now it is human nature to be born with a fondness for profit…[o]ne is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft, so that the sense of loyalty and good faith with which one was born disappears. One is born with the desires of the ears and eyes and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds, and, by indulging these, one is led to licentiousness and chaos, so that the sense of ritual, rightness, refinement, and...