Xunzi

Home Up

Authors born between 400 and 200 BCE

Chuang Tzu ] Mencius ] Bhagavad Gita ] Epicurus ] Asoka ] Euclid ] [ Xunzi ] Han FeiTzu ] Koheleth ] Polybius ]

Click Up For A  Summary Of Each Author

 

 

Contents

Introduction

Inner Power

Definitions

Education

The Gentleman

The Scholar

Courage

Consequences

Dangerous Words

Source

 

 

Introduction

 

Xunzi (active 298-238 BCE), or Hsün-tzu, developed a new version of Confucianism which can be contrasted with that of the other great follower of Confucius, Mencius, who saw people as inherently good and governed by a moral sense. Active in the time of instability and disruption in Chinese history known as the Warring States, Xunzi saw people as having an inherently evil nature that required control by education, ritual and custom. His pupil, Han Fei Tzu developed this philosophy further by elevating law to a position of supreme importance in governing human affairs. Han Fei’s presumed influence on the Emperor Ch’in (in such activities as cruel punishments and the attempt to destroy China’s past by the burning of books) gave him a notoriety that reflected back on his teacher. As a result, the work of Mencius for many centuries received much more attention than that of Xunzi.

 

Xunzi, a native of Zhao (Chao), became a well-recognized scholar and rose to official posts, including that of magistrate. In spite of his gloomy view of humanity’s original nature, Xunzi saw people as perfectible through education and through application of the proper rules of conduct. People were born with a conflicting mixture of desires that if allowed unfettered reign would lead to disaster. It was the role of society, through its culture (including music) to impose order onto the chaos of desires and channel them into constructive, rather than destructive, effort. He held that human intelligence created social organizations in order to bring divergent human impulses into harmony. To this end, Xunzi stressed not only the importance of education but also the correct use of words, often providing extensive lists of definitions. He is also noteworthy in his view that heaven is not the realm of mystical forces embodying ethical principles (Mencius’ view) but is part of the realm of nature, indifferent to humans.

 

Xunzi developed his theories in a logical manner in a book of some 32 chapters. These might be regarded as the first collection of philosophical essays in China—as distinct from fragments (analects) or records of conversations. The extracts given here are taken from the first six chapters (or books, as they are called).

 

 

Inner Power

 

1     There must be some beginning for every type of phenomenon that occurs. The coming of honor or disgrace must be a reflection of one's inner power.

 

        From rotting meat come maggots;

        decaying wood produces woodworms.

 

An insolent disregard for one's own person creates therewith calamity and misfortune. The rigid cause themselves to be broken; the pliable cause themselves to be bound. Those whose character is mean and vicious will rouse others to animosity against them.

 

2     The gentleman, knowing well that learning that is incomplete and impure does not deserve to be called fine, recites and enumerates his studies that he will be familiar with them, ponders over them and searches into them that he will fully penetrate their meaning, acts in his person that they will come to dwell within him, and eliminates what is harmful within him that he will hold on to them and be nourished by them. Thereby he causes his eye to be unwilling to see what is contrary to it, his ear unwilling to hear what is contrary to it, his mouth unwilling to speak anything contrary to it, and his mind unwilling to contemplate anything contrary to it. When he has reached the limit of such perfection, he finds delight in it. His eye then finds greater enjoyment in the five colors, his ear in the five sounds, his mouth in the five tastes, and his mind benefits from possessing all that is in the world.

        Therefore, the exigencies of time and place and considerations of personal profit cannot influence him, cliques and coteries cannot sway him, and the whole world cannot deter him. He was born to follow it, and he will die following it: truly this can be called "being resolute from inner power." Keep resolute from inner power because only then can you be firm of purpose. Be firm of purpose because only then can you be responsive to all. One who can be both firm of purpose and responsive to all is truly to be called the "perfected man." Just as the value of Heaven is to be seen in its brilliance and that of Earth in its vast expanses, so the gentleman is to be valued for his completeness.

 

 

Definitions

 

3     To lead others with what is good is called "education." To agree with others for the sake of what is good is called "concord." To lead others with what is not good is called "flattery." To agree with others in the interests of what is not good is called "toadying." To recognize as right what is right and as wrong what is wrong is called "wisdom." To regard as wrong what is right and as right what is wrong is called "stupidity." "Slander" is doing injury to an honorable man; "malefaction" is doing him harm. "Straightforwardness" is calling right what is right and wrong what is wrong. "Robbery" is stealing property; "deceit" is concealing conduct; and "boasting" is treating words lightly. One whose inclinations and aversions are unsettled is called "inconstant." One who protects personal profit at the expense of abandoning his moral duty is called "utterly malicious." One who has heard much is "broad"; one who has heard little is "shallow." One who has seen much is "cultivated''; one who has seen little is "provincial." He who has difficulty obtaining advancement in office is "dilatory"; and he who easily forgets is "oblivious." One who, though he does only a few things, obeys natural principles in organizing what he does is "well ordered"; one who, though he does many things, lacks any principle of organization in what he does is "bewildered."

 

 

Education

 

4     If the blood humor is too strong and robust, calm it with balance and harmony. If knowledge and foresight are too penetrating and deep, unify them with ease and sincerity. If the impulse to daring and bravery is too fierce and violent, stay it with guidance and instruction. If the quickness of the mind and the fluency of the tongue are too punctilious and sharp, moderate them in your activity and rest. What is so narrow and restricted that it has become mean and petty, broaden with liberality and magnanimity. What is base and low from greed for selfish gain, lift up with a sense of high purpose. What is common and mediocre, worthless and undisciplined, overcome with the help of teachers and friends. What is negligent and self-indulgent, frivolous and heedless, warn against with omens and portents. What is simpleminded but sincere, upright and diligent, consolidate with ritual and music. [What is... ], make comprehensive with thought and inquiry. In summary, of all the methods of controlling the vital breath and nourishing the mind, none is more direct than proceeding according to ritual principles, none more essential than obtaining a good teacher, and none more intelligent than unifying one's likes. Truly this procedure may properly be called "the method of controlling the vital breath and nourishing the mind."

 

 

The Gentleman

 

5     The gentleman is easy to come to know, but difficult to be familiar with. He is easily made apprehensive but is difficult to intimidate. He dreads suffering but will not avoid what is required by his moral duty, even at the risk of death. He desires what is beneficial but will not do what is wrong. In his personal relations he is considerate but not partial. His discussions are in the form of discriminations but are not disordered formulations. How magnificently he possesses all that differentiates him from the vulgar world about him!

 

6     Whether the gentleman is capable or not, he is loved all the same; conversely the petty man is loathed all the same. If the gentleman has ability, he is magnanimous, generous, tolerant, and straightforward, through which he opens the way to instruct others. If he is incapable, he is respectful, reverent, moderate, and modest, through which, being awe-inspired, he undertakes to serve others.

        If the petty man is capable, he is rude and arrogant, perverted and depraved, so that he is filled with an overweening pride around others. If he has no ability, he is envious, jealous, resentful, and given to backbiting, so that he subverts and undermines others. Accordingly, it is said:

 

If the gentleman is capable, others will consider it an honor to learn from him, and if he lacks ability, they will be pleased to inform him about things. If the petty man has ability, others will consider it contemptible to learn from him, and if he is capable, they will be ashamed to inform him about things.

This constitutes the distinction between the gentleman and the petty man.

 

7     The gentleman is magnanimous, but not to the point of being remiss. He is scrupulous, but not to the point of inflicting suffering. He engages in argumentation, but not to the point of causing a quarrel. He is critical, but not to the point of provoking others. When he upholds an upright position, he is not merely interested in victory. When hard and strong, he is not haughty. When flexible and tractable, he does not merely drift with the demands of the occasion. He is respectful, reverent, attentive, and cautious, but still remains inwardly at ease. Truly this may be called the "perfection of good form."

An Ode says:

 

Mildly gentle and respectful men,

only they are the foundation for inner power.

This expresses my meaning.

 

8     In natural talent, inborn nature, awareness, and capability, the gentleman and the petty man are one. In cherishing honor and detesting disgrace, in loving benefit and hating harm, the gentleman and the petty man are the same. Rather, it appears that the way they employ to make their choices produces the difference. The petty man is eager to make boasts, yet desires that others should believe in him. He enthusiastically engages in deception, yet wants others to have affection for him. He conducts himself like an animal, yet wants others to think well of him. When he reflects on something, it is understood only with difficulty. When he acts in regard to something, it is difficult for him to make it secure. When he tries to sustain something, he has difficulty establishing it. In the end, he is certain to fail to obtain what he loves and sure to encounter what he hates.

        Accordingly, the gentleman is trustworthy and so desires that other men should trust him as well. He is loyal and so wants other men to have affection for him. He cultivates rectitude and makes orderly his management of situations, and so desires that others should think well of him. When he reflects on something, it is easily understood. When he acts, it is easy for him to make it secure. When he tries to sustain something, it is easily established. In the end, he is certain to obtain what he loves and sure not to encounter what he hates. For these reasons, when he is unsuccessful in seeking office, he will not live in obscurity; when he is successful, he will become greatly illustrious; and when he dies, his reputation will be still more extensively declared.

 

 

The Scholar

 

9     There are successful scholars, public-spirited scholars, upright scholars, cautious scholars, and those who are merely petty men. Only one who can honor his lord and love the people, who can respond to things whenever they come and manage situations as they turn up, is properly called a "successful scholar."

        Only one who does not form cliques with his inferiors to deceive his superiors, who does not conform to the opinions of his superiors out of envy of those in lower positions, who settles disputes with fairness and does not bring harm to others by acting out of considerations of private ends, is properly called a "public-spirited scholar."

        Only one who does not harbor resentments against his lord when superiors do not recognize his good personal qualities and who does not accept rewards when superiors are unaware of his shortcomings, who neither shows off his good qualities nor glosses over his faults but uses the true circumstances to recommend himself, is properly termed an "upright scholar."

        Only one who is certain to be honest in ordinary speech and prudent in ordinary behavior, who is awe-inspired by the model and goes along with popular customs, and does not presume to consider what is unique to himself as correct, is properly termed a "cautious scholar."

        Only one who is inconstantly honest in his speech and inconstantly correct in his conduct, who is partial to whatever involves profit to himself to the exclusion of all else, is properly considered a "petty man."

 

 

Courage

 

10     There is the bravery of the dog and boar and that of the peddler and robber. There is the courage of the petty man and that of the scholar and gentleman. Quarreling over food and drink, having neither scruples nor shame, not knowing right from wrong, not trying to avoid death or injury, not fearful of greater strength or of greater numbers, greedily aware only of food and drink—such is the bravery of the dog and boar. Dealing in transactions of profit, quarreling over goods and valuables, having no concern for polite refusals or for yielding precedence, being audacious and daring, given to temerity and effrontery, greedily aware only of profit—such is the bravery of peddlers and robbers. Scorning death when filled with passionate intensity, [... ]—such is the courage of the petty man. Staying with what is just, not swayed by the exigencies of the moment, not given to looking after his own benefit, elevating the interests of the whole state and assisting in realizing them, not acting to change his point of view, weighing the threat of death but upholding his moral duty and not backing away from it—such is the courage of the scholar and gentleman.

 

 

Consequences

 

11     When a man sees something desirable, he must reflect on the fact that with time it could come to involve what is detestable. When he sees something that is beneficial, he should reflect that sooner or later it, too, could come to involve harm. Only after weighing the total of the one against that of the other and maturely calculating should he determine the relative merits of choosing or refusing his desires and aversions. In this fashion, he will regularly avoid failure and being ensnared by what he has chosen. In general, the calamities that beset mankind are the result of prejudices and the damage they cause. If, when a man sees something desirable, he does not reflect that it may come to be detestable and, something beneficial, that it could come to be harmful, then it is inevitable that his movements will ensnare him and his actions will bring disgrace. Just this constitutes the calamity of prejudice and the damages that result from it.

 

 

Dangerous Words

 

12     Pride and excess bring disaster for man. Respectfulness and moderation ward off the five weapons, for although the lance and spear are piercing, they are not so sharp as respectfulness and moderation. Hence words of praise for another are warmer than clothing of linen and silk. The wound caused by words is deeper than that of spears and halberds. Thus, that one can find no place to walk through the breadth of the earth is not because the earth is not tranquil but because the danger to every step of the traveler lies generally with words. When the roadway is broad, people yield the way; when the roadway is narrow, they are crowded together. Although they have no desire to be heedful, it is as if circumstances forced them to move thusly.

 

 

Source

 

Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, Volume I, Books 1-6, by John Knoblock. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1988. Copyright 1988 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

A translation into Basque by Jennifer Indurayne is to be found here.

 

Introduction and Selection © Copyright Rex Pay 2001