Date:March 31, 1992
Class:Moral Reasoning 40, Harvard University
Comments: One of my problems in writing acedemic stuff is that I tended to focus on the wrong idea for too long. In other words, I would have a good idea that really could be the whole paper, but I wouldn't develop the idea fully. Usually, the reason was I thought of the idea after having written most of the paper and didn't have the guts to scrap what I'd already written.
  In any case, the assignment in this case was to discuss how Confusianism viewed man's true nature. It's here only because it is one of few things I've written that deal with philosophy.
Hook: What I got into here were the definitions of things, which are really the only parts of the paper I really liked. Also, I got to quote Crowley.

“We’ll know for the first time
If we’re evil or divine,
We’re the last in line.”
   — Ronnie James Dio

“Every man who desires to do good does so precisely because his nature is evil…. Whatever a man lacks in himself he will seek outside.”
   — Hsün Tzu

“Every intentional act is a Magical act.”
   — Aleister Crowley


Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity. The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit.

With this statement, Hsün Tzu says that humanity is driven by instincts and emotions that, left unchecked, will bring ruin. On the surface, this seems a slap to the face of earlier Confucianism, which held more optimistic views of human nature. In actuality, these contradictory points of view are not, in fact, all that contradictory. They are dealing not so much with different definitions of human nature but with different ways of making such a definition in the first place; both speak of similar means to the same end.

Good and Evil

To fully understand Hsün Tzu’s statement, a definition of both ‘evil’ and ‘good’ must be found. Hsün Tzu provides this one: “All men in the world, past and present, agree in defining goodness as that which is upright, reasonable and orderly, and evil as that which is prejudiced, irresponsible, and chaotic.” (Hsün Tzu, 162) While the assertion that “all men” define good and evil this way may be in error, it is enough that Hsün Tzu himself used this definition. So by saying human nature is evil, Hsün Tzu said that humanity in general was prejudiced, irresponsible, chaotic and, taking the second line of his statement into account, driven by greed.

This is seemingly in direct conflict with Mencius’ view that human nature is good. He said: “Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards.” (Mencius, VI.A.2) Mencius felt that within every man are tendencies towards compassion, shame, courtesy, modesty and rightness. He illustrates this with a now classic example:

Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get into the good graces of the parents, nor because he wished to win the praise of fellow villagers or friends, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child. (Mencius, II.A.6)

Hsün Tzu disagrees, quite vehemently. “Mencius states that human nature is good,” he says, “but I say that this view is wrong.” (Hsün Tzu 162) He calls attention to the question if human nature is so wonderful, why is the world so messed up and how is improvement of it possible? Or, in his words: “Now suppose that man’s nature was in fact intrinsically upright, reasonable, and orderly—then what need would there be for sage kings and ritual principles? The existence of sage kings and ritual principles (li) could certainly add nothing to the situation. But…this is not so.” (Hsün Tzu 162) A man does not naturally to yield to another, nor put off eating for others when he is hungry, nor decline warmth when he is cold; “—acts such as these are all contrary to man’s nature and run counter to his emotions.” (Hsün Tzu, 160) If human nature is good, he submits, why, when all constraints are removed from humanity, do “the powerful impose upon the weak, the many terrorize the few” and soon give up the world to “chaos and mutual destruction”? (Hsün Tzu 162) It is because human nature is evil that this is so.

Given only this outlook, it would seem odd that Hsün Tzu is considered a part of Confucian theory at all, much less the major figure he is. He appears almost as a doomsday preacher, indicating decay and destruction for humanity regardless of their actions, saying “any man who who follows his nature and indulges in his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.” (Hsün Tzu 155) But the words which follow this statement give a more complete picture of Hsün Tzu’s thesis: “Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles, and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order.” (Hsün Tzu 155) It is this emphasis on education and the principle of li which make Hsün Tzu Confucian.

Ritual and Education

Li—defined variously as ‘ritual’, ‘propriety’, ‘proper social form’, ‘etiquette’ and ‘courtesy’—features prominently in Confucian Way, or Tao. “Li, for Confucius, is the explicit and detailed pattern of that great ceremony which is social intercourse, the human life.” (Fingarette 20) In practicing the Confucian project, you are on a path (Tao). It is how you walk on this path which is li. By way of analogy, if you seek to play a symphony, the symphony itself—the music—is the path, the Tao. Li would be the protocols which are followed in the playing of the symphony: the conductor’s arm movements, the way you sit to play your instrument, the positions of all the pieces in the orchestra, the tuning note at the start, even the applause the crowd gives the soloist as she walks on stage. All this is li. Confucius holds that only by knowing and practicing li can the Tao be realized. “Confucius taught that the ability to act according to li and the will to submit to li are essential to that perfect and peculiarly human virtue or power which can be man’s.” (Fingarette 6)

Fingarette uses the example of a handshake to illustrate li. The handshake is a social ritual—the intricacies of which are performed as second nature—which brings out the jen, the humanity, in the people involved. “These complex but familiar gestures are characteristic of human relationships at their most human: we are least like anything else in the world when we do not treat each other as physical objects….” (Fingarette 11) Volumes could be written on the connection between jen and li, but that is not the focus here. Suffice to say that it is the practice and respect of li which builds a man, be his nature evil or good, into a good, moral being.

Still, while many ritual actions seem second nature to us, Confucius warns of performing them heartlessly, on auto-pilot, for then they become empty and no longer develop jen. “What can I find worthy in a man who is lacking…in reverence when performing the rites?” (Confucius III:26) Just as a musician who merely goes through the motions instead of putting his heart into the symphony will likely produce mediocre music, a man who lacks heart in ritual will not improve himself.

But one must learn ritual first, one of the reasons Hsün Tzu encouraged education as well as cultivation of li. Hsün Tzu also encouraged “the fitness and harmony of music, the breadth of the Odes and Documents, [and] the subtlety of the Spring and Autumn Annals,” (Hsün Tzu 19) but advocated learning ritual as that which would focus a student on the Way. “To lay aside the rules of ritual and try to attain your objective with the Odes and Documents alone is like trying to measure the depth of a river with your finger, to pound a millet with a spear point or to eat a pot of stew with an awl.” (Hsün Tzu 21)

Confucius shared this emphasis on education saying that “the gentleman [the cultivated or profound man] can be described as eager to learn” (Confucius I:13) and postulating “if one thinks but does not learn from others, one will be in peril.” (Confucius II:15) He also cautioned against education with the wrong focus:

To love cleverness without loving learning is liable to lead to deviation from the right path. To love trustworthiness in word without loving learning is liable to lead to harmful behavior. To love forthrightness without loving learning is liable to lead to intolerance. To love courage without loving learning is liable to lead to insubordination. To love unbending strength without loving learning is liable to lead to indiscipline. (Confucius XVII:8)

The implication is that loving learning can help avoid all these problems—problems which fit into Hsün Tzu’s definition of evil. Thus, even though Hsün Tzu’s outlook of human nature seems to diverge from accepted Confucian norms, Hsün Tzu still possesses and essentially Confucian viewpoint towards how a man, good or evil, can go about improving himself.

Conscious action and the transformability of the human

With this Confucian outlook, Hsün Tzu is not stating that because men are intrinsically evil that they must always be so. He shared with Mencius and Confucius a faith that human beings could transform themselves. Their evilness does not prevent them from being sages (the goal of the Confucian project). It is their conscious actions, their work and dedication to learning and to following li, which allows them to transcend their evil nature.

Hence, today any man who takes to heart the instructions of his teacher, applies himself to his studies, and abides by ritual principles may become a gentleman (or Proper man), but anyone who gives free rein to his emotional nature, is content to indulge in his passions, and disregards ritual principles becomes a petty man. From this is is obvious, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

Someone may ask: if a man’s nature is evil, then where do ritual principles come from? I would reply: all ritual principles are produced by the conscious activity of the sages; essentially they are not products of man’s nature. A potter molds clay and makes a vessel, but the vessel is the product of the conscious activity of the potter, not essentially a product of his human nature. (Hsün Tzu, 160)

Because goodness requires conscious action, it is therefore not natural, not a part of human nature, a point illustrated by this analogy: “A straight piece of wood does not have to wait for the straightening board to become straight; it is straight by nature. But a warped piece of wood must wait until it has been forced into shape before it can become straight, because it’s nature is warped.” (Hsün Tzu 164)

This distinction between nature and conscious activity sheds some light onto the hidden similarity of Hsün Tzu’s and Mencius’ ideas. Hsün Tzu said “that part of man which cannot be learned or acquired by effort is called the nature; that part of him which can be acquired by learning and brought to completion by effort is called conscious activity.” (Hsün Tzu 158). He defined human nature as that part of the human being which cannot be separated from it. Saying that goodness requires conscious action, therefore, means that goodness is not part of human nature. It can and must be learned. Greed, self-interest, prejudice, and irresponsibility are the ingredients which all men are born with.

In contrast, Mencius defined human nature as the behavior in human beings distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom. “Whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human, whoever is devoid of the heart of shame is not human, whoever is devoid of the heart of courtesy and modesty is not human, and whoever is devoid of the heart of right and wrong is not human.” (Mencius II.A.6)

It is here that considering the two views on human nature as diametrically opposed becomes absurd. Even though one man says ‘human nature is good’ and the other says ‘human nature is evil’, there can be no direct opposition between the two views because the two have different—and equally valid—definitions of what the phrase ‘human nature’ means. The two ideas are different, but is the difference relevant? Mencius’ view holds that, because man is good, morality is a natural extension of humanity. Additionally, being a good man brings joy. “Both Confucius and Mencius repeatedly use the phrase ‘delighting in the Way.’” (Mencius 27) Hsün Tzu, on the other hand, feels that, because man is evil, morality is not a natural extension of humanity. It is a construct with which a man molds himself into a good man. D. C. Lau, in the introduction of his translation of Mencius states that this makes Hsün Tzu “not in the true tradition of Confucius,” (Mencius 27) saying that a constructed view of morality may “change a man to a moral automaton, but one cannot see how he can feel joy in pursuing an automatic activity.” (Mencius 27)

This seems both unfair and inaccurate. If both men advocate similar methods to morality, how can one lead to moral automation and the other not? If two men are educated successfully, in a Confucian sense, the reasoning which led to their education is irrelevant. Furthermore, if a man can gain joy by overcoming an obstacle in his Path, how can the experience of overcoming an evil internal nature be joyless? It cannot.

The difference between human nature as good or evil seems to be a merely arbitrary difference in how one looks at things, dealing more with why a person seeks to improve themselves than with a difference in outcome. Both ideas can lead to a ‘delighting in the Way,’ which brings up another of Hsün Tzu’s points.

Self Interest

The sentence “the nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit” has been alluded to above. Hsün Tzu, and Confucius and Mencius as well, advised against behavior motivated by profit, motivated by greed, motivated by self-interest. Confucius said “If one is guided by profit in one’s actions, one will incur much ill will” (Confucius IV:12) and “The gentleman [proper man] understands what is moral. The small man understands what is profitable.” (Confucius IV:16) Yet while Confucianism pulls one away from material self-interest, it seems to do so by using a more subtle spiritual self-interest.

Doing good is not spontaneously generated. While doing good in the Confucian sense generally yields very little in the way of material happiness, there is still motivation to do good, else why would good be done? This motivation must, therefore, be non-material. It is this: doing good makes oneself feel good, a sort of spiritual reward. You do not necessarily buy something for someone you care about because you want something in return, but because you know that the gift will make them feel good. And making another feel good makes you feel good. Do you provide a national service simply because you are a upright citizen, or does your uprightness exist because it makes you feel good to be upright?

This is what is meant by ‘taking delight in the Way.’ “Delight and joy are usually experienced when a man pursues natural activity unimpeded.” (Mencius 27) This pleasant feeling of doing good seems to be the unspoken motivation for why one would want to be a sage in the first place.

If this is true, perhaps Hsün Tzu does have a ‘more correct’ definition of human nature; however, if so, only the definition is different. The behaviors suggested and led to by Hsün Tzu’s definition of human nature are standard Confucian values.


Crowley, Aleister. Magick in Theory and Practice. Castle Books. 1991.

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Harper Torchbooks. 1972.

Lau, D. C. Confucius: The Analects. Penguin Books. 1979.

Lau, D. C. Mencius. Penguin Books. 1970.

Tu Wei-Ming. Centrality and Commonality. State University of New York Press. Albany, New York: 1989.

Watson, Burton. Hsün Tzu. Columbia University Press. 1964.

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