Human nature and Confucian optimism

Wednesday October 15, 2014: conference Human nature and Confucian optimism by Frédéric Wang, Professor at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (Inalco).

 Confucius never considered himself a source but as one who transmits. Indeed he is the one who compiled and ordered what will be the classic canons. The Odes contained three hundred poems, but Confucius compiled and transmitted them. Thanks to Sima Qian (145-86 BC), historian and annalist, who wrote a biography of Confucius, we know that he had a rather short political career but that he mainly taught and transmitted his knowledge to disciples of every social category (seventy-two great direct disciples).
The essential idea of ​​his teaching is a kind of ethics to be the good man, the noble man literally as well as figuratively (nobility of the heart). In his time, scholars also engaged militarily in the service of great dignitaries, ministers and princes.
The notion of the good man is opposed to the notion of the man of the few (in the moral sense of the term). Confucius teaches the qualities of the good man and the first is the notion of sharing and generosity, of the relation to others. Another quality is the study and knowledge of rites. There is a tendency to contrast the ritualism of Confucianism with Taoism, but the Taoist religion is also ritualistic.
Human nature has not been a fundamental issue in Confucius. In the Interviews, it is said in Chapter V: "Zigong says: Our Master's teaching initiates us into the arts and rituals, but his vision of Human Nature and the Heavenly Way remains inaccessible to us ”. For Confucius Human Nature is an abstract thing while his teaching is essentially based on concrete things. But Confucius also saidTwo only categories escape all change: the very wise and the very stupid". One can ask the question if for the Master, only the average category of people could evolve? A text excavated from a tomb considered to be from the XNUMXth century BC. J.-C. says: "In every man, even if he has a Nature, the heart does not have a determination, only by echoing objects the heart is moved, only by experiencing joy the heart is moved, only in practicing things learned the heart has a definite aspiration". Nature is linked to life but the heart is linked to learning and contact with the environment, and does not have a predetermination. Before Mencius (Meng Zi - 385 - 303/302 BC), the question of Human Nature remains fairly open.
This text has been compared with a text attributed to Zi Si (483? - 402? BC), the Zhong Yong (The Radiant Medium, the Invariable Medium or Regulation for ordinary use), which suggests that the excavated text is a more primitive form of what will become the Zhong Yong.
Le Zhong Yong is one of the four fundamental books of Confucianism with the Da Xue (The Great Study), the Mon Yu (Confucius Interviews) and the Meng Zi (the Mencius). The first two books are included in the Li Ji (the Book of Rites).
Le Zhong Yong says: "What is invested by Heaven is what is called nature (the nature of Man is always related to the Way of Heaven). Follow his nature is what is called Dao (It is not mentioned whether human nature is good or bad). Cultivate the Dao (the way) is what is called education».

 confucius.2  1024px-Analects

Confucius. Stamping a stele of Qufu

Lun Yu (Analects)

Mencius will treat the question of human nature fairly systematically and suggests that it is good. The fundamental goodness of Human Nature leads Mencius to say that any man can become like Yao and Shun, the mythical emperors to whom Confucius also refers. Mencius also says that "Shun, the wise emperor, was a man just like him". For Mencius «what differentiates man from animal is minute, the common people forsake him, the good man preserves him. Shun (The wise man) clearly understood the principles of all things and discerned the rules of human relations. It is enough to keep this tiny difference which differentiates man from animals to be a good man. Mencius also says: "  Every man possesses in him a feeling of commiseration towards others. The ancient kings possessed this feeling and consequently applied a policy of compassion. To govern the empire was as easy as to manipulate an object in the palm of their hand ... The one who does not worry is not a man, he who does not feel any disgust of the evil either, likewise that he who lacks modesty and humility or who is devoid of any spirit of discernment ... The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of benevolence, the feeling of disgust for evil is the beginning of the sense of duty, the sense of modesty and humility is the beginning of rites and the spirit of discernment is the beginning of wisdom. For the human being to have these four principles is like having his four limbs. Whoever possesses these four principles but is unable to implement them steals himself. Anyone who has these four principles must develop them and lead them to perfection". What is the foundation of the goodness of human nature is the goodness of the heart which is peculiar to man. Mencius differentiates the heart, which is the fundamental part of the body, ears, eyes, etc. considered minor parts. If the other organs can be deceived by external things, the heart has the function of thinking. In the good man, the connection between human nature and the heart is also formulated differently.The human nature of the good man is that benevolence inhabits him, the sense of duty and discernment are rooted in his heart. At the same time, this natural feeling which constitutes Human Nature is only a state of germ or beginning (one does not have to perfect his nature but man is perfectible in his becoming. We must fully develop the germ to reach fulfillment. Here Mencius joins Confucius: "it is in the practice that people diverge", it is the interior education that differentiates them. If good is an interior property, benevolence, the sense of duty, ritual and discernment are not welded in us from the outside, they are in us originally Evil comes from the minor parts of the body and the external environment.
Mencius reaffirms the common nature of the wise and the common men but recognizes a possible influence of the external conditions on the man: the heart of each one has the same dispositions at the beginning but can be submerged in the evil. "He who unfolds his heart knows his nature, he who knows his nature knows Heaven. To preserve one's heart and to nourish one's nature is to serve Heaven". The path of wisdom is introspective work, the intact preservation of the heart. The effort that man must make is not to correct his nature or to seek to improve it but simply to promote and develop to the end the positive potential that is in every man and that connects us to the world.
«Benevolence is the heart of man, a sense of duty is the way of man. To abandon his way without following it, to mislead his heart without seeking it, what sadness! The Path of Study is Nothing More Than Seeking the Lost Heart". One can afford mistakes or mistakes but go get his heart and keep it intact is to be in the path of wisdom.

 Mencius Mengzi-000 Xunzi-271x300


Le Mengzi


 Mencius's opponent is Xunzi (312-230 BC), who trained two leading jurists Li Si, Qin Shi Huangdi's prime minister and Han Fei zi who was a theoretician of the Legism.

Xunzi is the opposite of Mencius on the human nature which is fundamentally bad for him, but the love for profit and greed are, in his conception, peculiar to man.
"Human Nature is bad, what is good in it is made. In what innate human nature there is the love of profit. If man follows this slope, then appear covetousness and rivalry, disappear deference and modesty, in the innate there is hatred and jealousy. If this slope is followed, appear crime and infamy, disappear loyalty and trust. In the innate there are the desires of the ears and the eyes, there is the taste for the music and the sex. If this slope is followed, appear excess and disorder, disappear rites and morals. If, therefore, we let man's nature run free, if we follow the slope of its intrinsic characteristics, we can only begin with the struggle for goodness to follow in the opposite direction to the just distribution and to end in violence. It is therefore necessary to involve the transformation made by the Masters and the norms (as the man is bad it is the rites that allow to improve it and the Masters who allow the transmission of these norms) as well as the sense of rites and moral sense to be able to start with deference and modesty, go in the direction of culture and structure and end up in an orderly state. By considering things this way, it is clear that Human Nature is bad and what it can have good is made. There is an opposition between Human Nature and what is manufactured.
Xunzi, however, tries to conceive what is complementary between what is nature and what is made "Nature is the original root, the raw material, the manufactured is what is developed until the development by culture and rites. Without culture the manufactured would have no support to work, without the manufactured nature would have no way to improve. It is only when natural and fabricated that the wise man reaches a unique fame and the œworks of the entire universe are completed. This is why it is said that from the union of Heaven and Earth are born the ten thousand masters, the meeting of yin and yang ensure changes and transformations, from the combination of the natural and the manufactured, order in the world results. . " Xunzi's human nature is based on the notion of the Amoral Sky, but that does not prevent his optimistic vision of the future of man and that precisely thanks to the manufactured, which is the ritual and the model transmitted by the masters. " The rites are what one rectifies his person, the Master is the one who rectifies the rituals, without them how to make one's right? Without the Master, how do we know the accuracy of the rites? If we faithfully follow our feelings we will have peace. If one faithfully repeats what the Master says, then our knowledge equals his. If our feelings find peace in rites and our knowledge is worth the Master's, then we become wise. To oppose rites is to be outlawed. To oppose the Master is to deprive oneself of the model, to persist without Master or model resembles the perception of colors by a blind man, sounds by a deaf man, this is not what men do who abandon disorder and illusions. This is why the study consists in taking the rites as a model. The Master is the one who is right in his person and who puts his inner peace in the spotlight. It is said in the Odes that without trust in his own knowledge he follows the rules of the Supreme Sovereign. The man of the street who has accumulated qualities in him to perfection is called a wise man (here he joins Mencius despite their divergences: if nature is peculiar to each, the possibility of becoming is also peculiar to each). He first desired then realized, he first acted and then completed, he first accumulated his qualities then grew up, he reached completeness and then he became a Sage. That is why the Sage is the accumulation of human qualities ". The sage is an accumulation through study, experience or any other type of training that helps to make him become a man.
On becoming, the difference between Mencius and Xunzi disappears completely: being a man is both realized and from its own realization spread this value and make others realize. The essence of Confucianism is first to cultivate oneself and then to bring others to life.

Even a later thinker like Liu Zongzhou (1578-1645), minister of the last Ming emperor and who was Huang Zongxi's Master (1610-1695), pushed to the extreme a moral requirement and attached great importance to a notion that is related to Zhong Yong : alertness in solitude, self-cultivation that is really pushed to the end in an almost religious dimension. For him "A man, even if he commits a capital crime, his moral conscience is not extinguished, like that of a wise man". This innate goodness of Human Nature, taught by Mencius, will become a credo from the neo-Confucians of the Song, even if they consider two dimensions to explain the origin of evil: there is a nature of Heaven which is intrinsically good, but there is a physical, individualized nature. What marks the optimism of the neo-Confucians is that everyone has this ability to reach each individualized nature up to the nature of Heaven, that is to say to absolutely coincide its two distinct natures . Liu Zongzhou advocates asceticism, but at the same time, to find our humanity and live to reveal our ultimate goodness which is the foundation of our heart and which is equivalent to the summit of man: the supreme being of the universe can be married by the top of the man.

To conclude, in spite of different attitudes towards the Nature of Man, Confucians never lose this confidence in Man.


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