Regardless of its apparent simplicity, the concept of human nature is a multi-dimensional and ambiguous issue. It is a problem commonly reviewed by both Western and Eastern philosophers, and the differences in their stances reflect the differences between their perceptions of the world, a human, and the role of human in this world. The main question here is the following: what is human nature and how to define it? Due to the fact that understanding human nature is a philosophically urgent matter, it is one of the most popular issues of philosophical debate, which was addressed in Eastern and Western philosophers. The aim of this paper is to focus on investigating the stance of two Eastern philosophers – Mencius and Xunzi. Nevertheless, regardless of the similar background of the two philosophers – both Mencius and Xunzi were ancient Chinese philosophers – their perception of the human nature is impressively differing. In this way, the goal of the paper at hand is to understand what the similarities and differences between the stances of Mencius and Xunzi are and hypothesize on how they can be explained.
According to Bloom (1997), Mencian approach to understanding human nature is based on recognizing the similarities between human beings (p. 22). In this case, the stress is laid on the biological aspect of the human nature. In particular, the author argues that Mencius believes that the things that all people share – hearing sounds, seeing environments, and striving for food in the same way – are all natural. Because they derive from the biological needs of people, the human nature cannot but be determined as biological. However, the author stresses the biological thought affects the development of human nature due to the interdependence between the internal system – physiology – and the moral one. That is why the phenomenon cannot be static. From this perspective, the argument offered by Bloom (1997) centers on the belief that human nature is a biologically predetermined concept so that it is dynamic and can change over time. In this way, one person can be either good or bad based on the environment they live in and their response to this surrounding.
The belief in the dynamic human nature is supported by Ames (2002). The central argument is that human nature is a process (p. 76), which is affected by the response to specific events and developments in the human’s environment. In this way, the author claims that Mencian philosophy is built upon dualisms, and the major one of them is the inner-outer relation – the connection between the human and their environment. Other influential dualist concepts are body-soul, reason-experience, and fact-value. All of them are directly associated with the ability to impact the development of the human nature. However, their strength depends on the level of self-realization and self-governance.
Just like in case of Bloom (1997), Chen (2001) focuses on the belief that the foundation of the Mencian philosophy is the search for common features shared by all people (p. 18). The author lays stress on the emotional aspect of the human nature. In other words, a human can be both good and bad, but their nature depends upon the emotional response to their environment. Because the environment is constantly changing, the characteristics of the human nature can be accomplished and, at the same time, incipient. From this perspective, being evil is not determined before the beginning of the human life (by heaven), but is the human’s decision, which can change over time. Because the human nature is not imparted by heaven, the heart-mind relation is the central idea of the Mencian philosophy. Therefore, Chen (2001) claims that the concept of human nature is based on morality and emotions, ambivalent, and inegalitarian.
A similar approach to human nature is the one offered by Xunzi. It was as well the subject of an in-depth and comprehensive investigation. For instance, Chen (2001) believes that the main argument behind the Xunzi philosophy is that sage is predetermined by heaven before the birth of a human. In this way, the nature of the human is as well predetermined by heaven (p. 22). This egalitarian approach centers on the belief that human nature is evil, and acquired virtues cannot change what was imparted by heaven (p. 36). This standpoint is supported by Cua (2005), who claims that Xunzi’s philosophic stance regarding the bad human nature is connected to the inborn desire for gain, feelings of possession and hatred, and the priority of possession (p. 7). If all of these are followed, moral destruction is inevitable. That is why human nature is bad. Nevertheless, Cua (2005) stresses that it is the actualization of the feelings and desires that makes the human nature bad (p. 9). In other words, desires and feelings are the components of the human nature and they do not predetermine what the nature is. Instead, activities are the major determinants of either good or evil human nature.
The arguments of the four authors mentioned and described above center on two opposing beliefs: ‘human nature is good’ elaborated by Mencius and ‘human nature is bad’ offered by Xunzi. Regardless of focusing on two different approaches to human nature and the works of two different philosophers, the works of all four authors are similar in several aspects. For instance, all of the authors focus on the emotional aspect of the human nature and recognize that the role of feelings and emotions on determining whether human nature is good or bad is critical. Also, all four authors build their research on supporting the main arguments proposed by Mencius and Xunzi. Finally, the main goal of all four articles is to integrate the Eastern philosophic concepts into the Western philosophy by obtaining a better understanding of the central concepts and beliefs supported by the Eastern philosophers. Particularly, both Cua (2005) Chen (2001) claim that human nature is imparted by heaven. That is why it can be nothing but bad. On the other hand, Ames (2002), Bloom (1997), and Chen (2001) stress that human nature is dynamic, not static, and can change in response to environments and feelings invoked by these environments.
However, regardless of the similarities in arguments, there are several critical differences that should be considered. For instance, while Bloom (1997) claims that human nature is predetermined biologically, Chen (2001) stresses that emotions are also influential and they should be reviewed together with the biology. Also, regardless of supporting Chen’s claim on the significance of emotions (2001), Cua (2005) stresses that these are the actualizations of feelings that matter.
All in all, regardless of the contradictions between the author’s arguments, all of them have one feature in common – they are well-developed and built upon the readings of Xunzi, Mencius, and other outstanding philosophers. Any disagreements in the arguments may be connected to the differences in worldviews and understanding the philosophic stances. Just like Mencius and Xunzi adopt two opposing positions due to the surrounding they worked in and the specificities of the Chinese civilization development – the impact of external schools of thought, – the impact of the contemporary world and Western philosophic development can as well impact the elaboration of the arguments represented by the authors. That being said, all four articles are valuable for obtaining a better understanding of the philosophic stances on human nature developed by Mencius and Xunzi because they focus on different aspects of one school of thought, thus being overarching.
- Ames, R. A. (2002). Mencius and a process notion of human nature. In A. K. L. Chan (Ed.). Mencius: Contexts and interpretations (pp. 72-90). Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
- Bloom, I. (1997). Human nature and biological nature in Mencius. Philosophy East and West, 47(1), 21-32.
- Chen, N. (2001). The ideological background of the Mencian Discussion of human nature: A reexamination. In A. K. L. Chan (Ed.). Mencius: Contexts and interpretations (pp. 17-41). Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.
- Cua, A. S. (2005). Philosophy of human nature. Studies in Philosophy and History of Philosophy, 43, 3-38. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.