Hsun Tzu was a Confucian Chinese philosopher who lived approximately between 310 BC-219 BC. He is often portrayed as the antithesis of his contemporary philosopher Mencius. Hsun Tzu’s influence can be seen in the formation of the official state doctrine of the Han Dynasty however his influence waned in comparison to Mencius in the Dynasties that followed.1 In this exegesis essay I will be focus on two of Hsun Tzu’s philosophies; his theory on human nature and his theory concerning nature. I will also offer my personal objections to both these claims and examine if Hsun Tzu’s work is able to effectively stand up to them.
In his teachings, Hsun Tzu’s theory on human nature and morality differs quite substantially from other Confucian philosophers. Whereas other contemporaries of Hsun Tzu like Mencius believed human nature is originally good, Hsun Tzu maintains in his teachings that man from the outset is originally evil. Hsun Tzu states this theory quite explicitly in the following passage, “Now man’s inborn nature is to seek for gain. If these tendencies are followed strife and rapacity result and deference and compliance disappear… By inborn nature one possesses the desires of ear and eye and likes sound and beauty. If these tendencies are followed, lewdness will result …”2 It is easy to see how Hsun Tzu could have arrived at such a conclusion. We can see in our own everyday experience that these tendencies are a core part of ourselves. Many people seem to be driven by amassing wealth and social status (seek for gain) as well as indulgence of drugs, sex and food (desires of ear and eye). In order for humans to become good they must resist their original nature. “Therefore there must be the civilizing influence of teachers and laws and guidance of propriety and righteousness… From this point of view, it is clear that the nature of man is evil and that his goodness is the result of activity.”3 This quote is meant to show how humans can resist their original evil nature. The activity of humans, namely acting in according to civilization; laws; societal norms, for Hsun Tzu is a force that shapes man and by engaging in this activity (following rules, laws, societal norms) he is able to resist the urge to indulge in his basic nature. Hsun Tzu offers a metaphor to show how this activity shapes man “Crooked wood must be heated and bent before it becomes straight. Blunt metal must be ground and whetted before it becomes sharp.”4 This metaphor shows how the activity as a process shapes man’s nature in order for him to become good. Further it is because there is crooked wood and blunt steel that there exists means by which to straighten and sharpen them, it is because of man’s inherently evil nature that there exists the laws of propriety in order to promote goodness. Hsun Tzu in order to strengthen his point counters contemporary views that human nature is inherently good. What I believe to be his strongest counter-point is the following: If man’s nature is inherently good then he would not need the influence of propriety and righteousness. Yet if we were to take these influences from man we would see the strong take advantage of the weak and chaos and disorder would ensue.5 I think this is Hsun Tzu’s strongest argument because examples of just such occasions can be seen in the world today and throughout history of circumstances where man is left without propriety and righteousness and he succumbs to his basic evil nature. One such occasion is what came to be known as the American Wild West. In the Wild West there was very little in the way of law enforcement allowing outlaws and renegades to exploit innocent civilians. If man’s nature was inherently good and there was no need for propriety and righteousness then why would there be such rampant disorder and violence in the world. The fact that propriety and righteousness exist is because...
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