Xunzi (fl. 295–238 BCE)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

(fl. 295238 BCE)

Among the classical Confucian thinkers of the Warring States period (Zhanguo 475221 BCE), Xunzi plays a commanding role in the systematic development and defense of Confucian Tradition. Xunzi's teachings are contained in the Xunzi, compiled by Liu Xiang of the Former Han (206 BCE8 CE). Although some scholars have questioned the authenticity of some of the essays, this work shows remarkable coherent and reasoned statements of the central aspects of the Confucian ethical and political vision of a harmonious and well-ordered society. Moreover, especially impressive is Xunzi's wide-ranging interest in such timeless issues as the ideal of the good human life, relation between morality and human nature, the nature of deliberation, ethical discourse and argumentation, moral agency and moral knowledge, the ethical significance of honor and shame, ethical uses of historical knowledge, moral education, and personal cultivation. Because of the comprehensive and systematic character of his philosophical concerns, Xunzi is sometimes compared to Aristotle.

Whereas both Mencius and Xunzi are exponents and defenders of Confucius's ideal of well-ordered society, traditional Chinese scholars often distinguish their thought by the contrast between government by ren or benevolence and government by li (rites, rules of proper conduct). However, for both, the key concepts are ren, yi (righteousness, rightness, fittingness), and li. Xunzi writes:

The dao (Way) of former kings consists of exaltation of ren and acting in accord with the Mean. What is meant by the Mean? I answer that: "li and yi." Dao is not the dao of Heaven, nor is it the dao of the Earth. It is the dao that guides humanity, the dao embodied in the lives of the paradigmatic individuals. (ruxiao pian, ch. 8)

Unlike Mencius, Xunzi was a forceful advocate of abolition of hereditary titles. Even more important, an enlightened ruler will enrich the state and its people with ample surplus to cope with untoward circumstances, protect the country with strong military defense measures in the spirit of ren, and promulgate and efficiently administer ethically legitimate laws and institutions. Thus an enlightened ruler is one who is good at organizing the people in society in accordance with the requirements expressed in ren, yi, and li. Some key aspects of Xunzi's philosophy are highlighted below.

Xunzi is best known for his thesis that human nature (or xing ) is bad (e ), and that any goodness man experiences is a direct result of activity that is constructive and productive (wei ). Xunzi appeals to presumably established linguistic usages of shan and e : "All men in the world, past and present, agree in defining shan [goodness] as that which is upright, reasonable, and orderly, and e [badness] as that which is prejudiced, irresponsible, and chaotic." (xing 'e pian, ch. 23). Xunzi continued: "Now suppose man's nature was in fact intrinsically upright, reasonable, and orderlythen what need would there be for sage kings and li [rules of proper conduct] and yi [righteousness]?" (ruxiao pian, ch. 8).

In light of Xunzi's definitions of shan and e, it seems clear that these are evaluative terms based on his normative conception of moral and political order. The original human nature (xing ) is normatively neutral. It consists of feelings (qing ) such as "love, hate, joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure," and desires (yu ), which are responses to the arousal of feelings. What makes these feelings and desires problematic is that in the absence of the guidance of li and yi, humans tend to pursue their satisfaction without regard to other persons' needs and desires. And given human partiality and scarcity of resources, conflict is inevitable.

Li and yi are the products of the constructive activity (wei ) of the sages. Emphasis on li (ritual, rites, rules of proper conduct) is the hallmark of Xunzi's ethics. The li are formal prescriptions or rules of proper conduct. Although the li represent an established ethical tradition, they do not always provide adequate guidance in dealing with changing circumstances of human life. As markers of Dao (the Way), "the li provide models, but no explanations"; their primary function is regulation of conductdefining the boundaries for the pursuit of desires. Notably, Xunzi also stresses the supportive and ennobling functions. Ultimately, the li promote the ennoblement of human characters by investing them with qualities of ren (benevolence) and yi. For Xunzi, the ultimate end of learning is to become a sage that embodies Daothat is, ren, yi, and li. Ordinary humans are capable of becoming sages if they make efforts to understand the rationales and practice of these virtues.

Xunzi elaborates a complex theory concerning the capacity for knowing Dao and the significance of ethical commitment to the practice of Dao. Knowing Dao is the precondition to approving the Dao as the guide of human life. Xunzi is insistent that Dao is a whole consisting of many corners (yu ) or aspects. All humans are liable to bi (obscuration, blindness), the beclouding of mind that leads to construing one aspect and ignoring an equally important aspect. Philosophers are especially prone to be victims of bi. For example, Mozi was beset by preoccupation with utility and failed to understand the importance of the beauty of form; Zhuangzi was beset by preoccupation with heaven and failed to understand the importance of humanity. Xunzi admits that Dao is a proper subject of discourse, but contentious reasoning must be avoided. The participants in reasoned discourse must be benevolent (renxin ) and impartial (gongxin ), and have a learning or receptive attitude (xuexin ) toward competing views. For the telos in argumentation is to resolve problems of common concern in the light of Dao, not to win in disputation.

See also Confucius; Mencius.


Cua, Antonio S. Ethical Argumentation: A Study in Hsun Tzu's Moral Epistemology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

Cua, Antonio S. "Ethical Significance of Shame: Insights of Aristotle and Xunzi." Philosophy East and West 53 (2) (2003): 147202.

Cua, Antonio S. "The Ethical and the Religious Dimensions Li." Review of Metaphysics 55 (3) (2002): 501549.

Cua, Antonio S. Human Nature, Ritual, and History: Studies in Xunzi and Chinese Philosophy. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005.

Cua, Antonio S. "The Possibility of Ethical Knowledge: Reflections on a Theme in the Hsün Tzu." In Epistemological Issues in Ancient Chinese Philosophy, edited by Hans Lenk and Gregor Paul. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Dubs, H. H. Hsuntze: The Moulder of Ancient Confucianism. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1927.

Goldin, Paul R. Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1996.

Kline, T. C., and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000. Updated bibliography.

Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. 3 vols. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988, 1990, and 1994. Vols. 1 and 3 contain excellent bibliographies.

Lee, Janghee. Xunzi and Early Chinese Naturalism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Li, Disheng. Xunzi jishi (Xunzi: An Exegesis). Taipei: Xuesheng, 1979.

Machle, Edward J. Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Vittinghoff, Helmolt. "Recent Bibliography in Classical Chinese Philosophy." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 28 (1, 2) (2001): 1208.