Teachings of Hsun-tzu and the Evils of Man

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  • 0:01 Disagreement in Confucianism
  • 1:26 Background
  • 4:02 Evil Nature
  • 5:23 Ritual & Li
  • 6:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on the teachings of Hsun-tzu. In doing so, it will explore how his philosophies on the nature of man differ from those of Confucius and Mencius. It will also highlight the concepts of Jen and Li.

Disagreement in Confucianism

Although most of us have never heard his name, Hsun-tzu is considered one of the most important architects of Confucianism. In fact, he's probably in line right behind Confucius and Mencius when it comes to the role he played in forming modern-day Confucian thought. Ironically however, his main views are diametrically opposed to those of both Confucius and Mencius, especially when it comes to the nature of man.

Before we dive into the philosophies of this lesser known man, we'll need to understand a bit about the origins of Confucianism. Also, since Hsun-tzu is always taught as the guy who disagreed with Confucius and Mencius, we'll need to know what these two believed in order to understand what Hsun-tzu disagreed with in the first place.

With all that being said, we also have to acknowledge that much of what is known about these three men is rather nebulous, with many historians disagreeing over dates, philosophies and even meanings. For this reason, we're going to keep things really simple and general. Since even scholars can't quite agree on the details, there is really just one main thing I want you to come away with in the end.

Here it is: unlike Confucius, and especially Mencius, Hsun-tzu thought the nature of man was inherently evil. If you can keep this in mind, you'll be in great shape. Now, on to some background information.

Background

For starters, being born sometime around the year 551 BCE, Confucius, the actual founder of Confucianism, lived in China during the decline of the feudal system, a system of power based on land ownership. This decline led to a period of great instability because feudal lords and the nobility were unable to protect themselves or the common man against invasion, and warring tribes began tearing apart the old established order of Chinese society.

Seeing the ills that had captured his society, Confucius, who although poor was rather well educated, longed for his lands to be restored. To Confucius, peace would only come when rulers longed for peace over power.

In short, he believed that in order for a society to succeed, it must be governed righteously. Rulers must live by a very strict moral code, holding tightly to the virtues of humility and benevolence. Adding to this, he believed that leaders were endowed with almost a supernatural power to be benevolent and good. They simply needed to use it. Known as Te, this moral power or the perfection of one's virtues came to shape much of Confucian thought.

When Mencius came along and began interpreting the Analects, or the teachings of Confucius, he picked up on the idea of moral goodness and began to add to it. Taking it a step further, Mencius, the most famous interpreter of Confucius' teachings, asserted that human nature was fundamentally good, not evil. Known as the idealized form of Confucianism, Mencius argued that there is inherent goodness in all people. In fact, most scholars believe it was actually Mencius, and not Confucius, who came up with Confucianism's central concept of Jen. Sometimes also spelled as Ren, Jen, simply stated, is the desire to seek the good of others.

Taking this belief in human goodness even a step further, Mencius believed that a heaven of sorts was present within every human's heart. To him, it was every person's job to grasp and understand this heaven living within them.

However, and quite unfortunately for both Confucius and Mencius, they lived and taught during a very turbulent era in China's history, a time when various war lords were fighting for power while the common man suffered. With this in mind, it's not hard to understand why many people found their belief in the inherent goodness of man a pretty hard pill to swallow.

Evil Nature

And this brings us to Hsun-tzu, probably one of the most famous guys who just couldn't swallow the whole 'humans are inherently good' idea. Like I said earlier, being born sometime between 310-220 BCE, Hsun-tzu is considered one of the most important framers of the Confucian faith. In fact, many scholars feel he did a better job of explaining and defending Confucianism than even Confucius or Mencius.

However, unlike these two, Hsun-tzu believed man was inherently evil. As some have put it, he believed that all of humanity lacked a moral compass and was, therefore, always in danger of spiraling into disorder, corruption and violence.

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