Xunzi and the Aesthetic-Moral Value Fusion

So, among other things, I’m working on a longish paper on aesthetic value and its fusion in early China with what we would consider to be moral value.  There are portions of this I’ll be presenting in Hong Kong next week (“Aesthetic Pleasure as Early Confucian Happiness”) and at the end of March at the Pacific APA meeting in San Francisco (“Gentlemen Prefer Bronze: Aesthetic Sensibility as Moral Sense in the Analects“). This is part of my discussion on Xunzi (which I will not be presenting anywhere), that aims for an aesthetic-value consequentialism reading:

What ties together much of Xunzi’s work is his emphasis on the transformative effects of education and self-cultivation, largely through the poetry, music, and rituals of Confucian life, incorporating traditional texts, forms, and activities. This is the backbone of Xunzi’s thought. In education and self-cultivation, it is the refined and noble quality of a person’s demeanor, inner psychological state, and activity that justifies the program of education and regimen of self-cultivation. The knowledge contained in the Zhou-derived rituals, music, odes, historical documents and records, according to Xunzi, enters the heart, disperses throughout the body, and is manifested both in activity and in rest (Xunzi 1).

In books 19 and 20, Xunzi argues that both at the individual level and at the social level, the transformative effects of music and ritual are not only desirable but also absolutely necessary for social life. They are needed in order to turn potential, individual psychological turmoil as well as public, social chaos into something orderly, effective, and refined.

What it is that makes the refinement and nobility of the educated and self-cultivated gentleman desirable, reveals the underpinning of Xunzi’s views. There is a deeply aesthetic sensibility underlying Xunzi’s theory of value, not unlike the one that often surfaces in Aristotle’s—and the ancient Greeks’ more generally—view of what is good: the fine or beautiful (kalon). This is most evident in Xunzi’s discussions of human nature in book 23. The nature (xing) of humans is bad (e), according to Xunzi. A more accurate rendering of e translates to the view that human nature is “ugly” or “repulsive.” This rendering is borne out by Xunzi’s analysis. The reason that human nature is bad is because natural human tendencies are driven by desires that, if indulged, would cause complete chaos (luan). They would do so because they are, in their untutored state, blind to important social distinctions that divide objects of desire into categories of acceptable and unacceptable, and into ranked orderings of distribution based on seniority of honor and age. Much as in Hobbesian moral theory, the “state of nature” for Xunzi is one that is fearful, and more importantly, disorderly. According to Xunzi, from the ancients to his own day what everyone has called good is what is upright, patterned, peaceful, and regimented (23.3).

I’m interested in what you think. I think I know what Dan Robins thinks, at least in his Xunzi entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

In early Chinese philosophy, conseqentialist arguments typically appeal to the material well-being of a state’s people, as well as to sociopolitical order (zhi) more generally. This is certainly true of Xunzi, as we see in his complaints that a lack of ritual leads to contention, disorder, and poverty. It remains an important question how much he builds into his conception of order, and of the good more generally.

It is actually quite surprising how little Xunzi builds into his conception of the good, at least in these normative arguments. The Mohist argument against music, sketched above, assumes that the enjoyment produced by music does not count as a good, and we naturally expect Xunzi to reject this assumption. But he does not reject it; indeed, he treats enjoyment as a possible source of disorder, and defends music on the grounds that it helps avert that disorder. Similarly, we might expect Xunzi to appeal to the aesthetic properties of music, which the Mohists simply ignored, as a source of value. But he does no such thing. His arguments imply that music’s aesthetic properties have value only insofar as they contribute to its non-aesthetic effects. (The same is true in his defence of ritual: though there are passages that make it clear that Xunzi had a profound aesthetic appreciation for ritual, this plays no role in his normative arguments.) In these arguments, Xunzi rejects the Mohists’ arguments, but does not dispute the rather narrow conception of the good that they are based on; he implicitly agrees that music (and ritual) should be judged solely on the basis of its practical consequences.

Your thoughts and questions are welcome.

7 replies on “Xunzi and the Aesthetic-Moral Value Fusion”

  1. Manyul, you and Dan may both be right. Dan gives a correct account (here and in “The Mohists and the Gentlemen of the World”) of the explicit normative arguments presented in the Xúnzǐ 荀子. But I agree (and Dan also observes) that there seems to be an implicit aesthetic sensibility in Xúnzǐ that helps to explain why the text insists on the positions it does, even though overt appeals to aesthetic concepts don’t figure in the normative arguments.

    The issue underscores how the concept of 禮 (ritual propriety), or XZ’s compound notion of lǐ yì 禮義 (propriety and duty), fuses morality with etiquette or propriety. Xúnzǐ’s ethics is one in which we sometimes act in a certain way not because to do so is right or permitted, but because it is cultured or refined. Ritual propriety is a notion with significant aesthetic content.

    A central question really is how much the Xúnzǐ builds into its conception of “order” (zhì 治), which ultimately justifies the system of ritual propriety and duty. Zhì generally is not an aesthetic concept. But XZ’s conception of it may well have an aesthetic dimension, which helps explain his particular attachment to the trappings of Zhōu culture.

    I suspect that explicitly articulating this covert aesthetic dimension might not really strengthen XZ’s normative arguments, however. For probably an opponent could offer a counterargument that XZ’s aesthetic standards are indefensibly parochial.

  2. Picking up on Manyul’s thread, I agree that there is a significant aesthetic dimension expressed when XZ says that the sages “hated” the chaos that emerges if joy takes shape and yet does not accord with the way (opening of ch. 20; cp. also opening of ch. 19). Indeed, I find it hard to read “order” in the context of ch. 20 as merely sociopolitical order, devoid of connections to beauty, harmony, joy, etc. The unity described is manifestly the unity of an orchestra — and this is what Mozi failed to understand. I wonder if a problem, perhaps lurking behind some of Dan’s and Chris’s readings of the allegedly stark normative arguments, is too readily dichotomizing aesthetic and moral/political value? Finally, apropos Chris’s last point, XZ’s aesthetic standards may indeed be parochial, but the larger argument — that the capacity of humans to form harmonious, pattered, ordered society depends on “deliberate effort” toward the development of ritual and music — can retain its significance even if XZ’s specific version fails to convince.

    • Steve, I meant to reply to this earlier but have been busy with a conference and grading. The first half of what you say I think largely agrees with my earlier comment. As to your closing suggestion, I did indeed mean to question the broader Xunzian claims that a well-ordered society requires some specific ritual-aesthetic patterning and that this patterning requires Xunzian effort. My point wasn’t that XZ’s standards of what counts as good music might be parochial; it was that his standards of what counts as good order are. I suspect that “social order” cannot be aestheticized without thereby rendering its content parochial. It would be difficult or impossible to justify forcing people to comply with such a conception of order — as Xunzi would have us do, and as I think is implied by the idea of exerting “deliberate effort” toward such an end.

      I don’t mean to suggest that ritual and music have no role in constituting the de facto social order that obtains in a particular community at a particular time. (Shared work and leisure activities also have a role.) But I don’t see the need for “deliberate effort,” unless activities such as singing campfire songs count as “effortful” (I don’t think they do). It’s just a sociological-anthropological fact that human social groups invent and find satisfaction in ritual activities, some of which are musical.

      I think perhaps the deepest insight on the role of ritual and music in early Chinese sources is expressed in the Zhuāngzǐ story in which Zigong is horrified to find Sanghu’s friends spontaneously singing a song by his unburied corpse. Zigong admonishes them, asking whether such conduct is 禮 (ritually proper). They reply, “What does this guy know about the point of ?”

  3. To return to Manyul’s original topic, briefly: Grant that XZ’s conception of moral-political “order” (zhì) has an aesthetic dimension, and that it’s interesting to see how this compares with the role of to kalon in Greek thought.

    Then let me offer two bits of food for thought. One is: When early Chinese texts mention “order,” they are usually (not always) referring to a feature of societies and social interaction. Is to kalon, by contrast, primarily a feature of individuals? Might there be an interesting communitarian vs. individualist contrast here?

    The other is: One way to approach the proposed “aesthetic-moral” fusion is by investigating the notion of an aesthetic-value consequentialism, as Manyul proposes. But it might be equally or more instructive to work from the other direction. Besides noting that XZ has what seems to us an aestheticized conception of moral or political value, we might equally well question whether he has a concept of aesthetic value as such. Someone might argue that his understanding of the aesthetic is so deeply infused with moral and political value that it is not really “aesthetic,” as we normally understand the term. (The role of the word měi 美 [beautiful] in XZ is interesting in this regard. Good topic for a master’s thesis.)

    This second point ties back to what Dan is getting at in the paragraph Manyul quoted. The Mohists present compelling arguments against the practice of taxing the poor to pay for extravagant musical entertainment for the elite. (They mention the aesthetic value of music, but contend that it’s trumped by the need to ensure material welfare for all.) Unfortunately, their conclusion — a wholesale condemnation of “making music” — goes beyond what their arguments can support. We contemporary music-lovers tend to want to reply that the aesthetic value of music is more significant than the Mohists allow, and so the appropriate response to the problems they identify isn’t to condemn all music, but to find some economical way to provide for the poor while also allowing widespread appreciation of music. A striking aspect of Xunzi’s response to the Mohists is that he never pursues this line of argument. Instead, he subordinates the value of music to that of “order.”

  4. Hey Chris,

    Some great questions and suggestions. I think kalon tends to be used of individuals, or groups of individuals — “kalloi” — because one of its principal senses is “handsome.” The comparison term in Chinese, I expect, is měi 美, beautiful.

    The comparison with “order” (zhì 治), should probably be with “kosmos” and terms that include it (e.g. “kosmopolis,” the ordered state), which functions much more like zhi. So, I’m not sure there’s a strong communitarian/individualist contrast.

    I like your comments about how to understand what I’m pursuing as the “aesthetic-moral” fusion. It’s actually difficult to say whether anyone had the concept of aesthetic value as such until it was really discussed as a potentially different sort of value from the moral. Even in the west, though Plato discusses — nay, is often fixated on — the concept of Beauty, or “the Beautiful,” it’s unclear from a couple of perspectives whether it is different from the Good more generally. Likewise, from an epistemological point of view, philosophers tend nearly unanimously in the West to consider Reason to be the faculty that understands and appreciates Beauty up until the idea of Taste as being a faculty separate from Reason comes into play in the 18th century (Hutcheson, Hume, Kant). Or, at least, this seems to me to be a pretty convincing history of things.

    So, the question about whether in China the concept of the aesthetic as such exists is a fascinating question for me, since there isn’t an obvious rationalistic tradition (a la Plato and onward) of Beauty appreciation in China, either metaphysically or epistemologically. What we do have is appreciation of what seem to be Beauty concepts that is “fused” in ways that are hard to disentangle with appreciation of what seem to be moral or political concepts. So, for the present, I’m going with the fusion hypothesis. That may prove implausible upon further research. Maybe that helps lay out what I’m up to in this current project?

    • On the concept of the aesthetic as such, I do think we find a discrete conception of beauty qua beauty in, for instance, the Mòzǐ (e.g., first paragraph of book 32) and Zhuāngzǐ (passim). Insofar as these texts do not build what they consider beautiful into their ethical and political ideals, they have a concept of the aesthetic as distinct from other types of good.

  5. Manyul, on reading your comments, it occurred to me that such a fusion may be simply an instance, or expression, of a certain brand of premodern political and ethical perfectionism. If a thinker endorses perfectionist ethical and political ideals such as those of Plato, Xunzi, or many other ancients, then for that thinker there may be no conceptual need to distinguish the aesthetic from the ethical and political. It all fuses into a unified, comprehensive notion of the good.

    If that hypothesis is correct, then we might expect a parallel between the emergence of liberal political philosophy and an emerging sense of the aesthetic as distinct from the ethical-political. I don’t know enough about the history of aesthetics to judge whether such a parallel exists, but it seems a plausible suggestion, given the emergence of a concept of taste in Hume and Kant.

    A further observation about Xunzi: Xunzi famously criticizes Mozi for knowing of “utility” but not “pattern” (wén 文). One might think that XZ is here contrasting prudential value with aesthetic value. But in light of his criticisms of MZ elsewhere, I think his point is instead that “pattern” and “utility” are inseparable. He believes the sort of useful consequences the Mohists aim for, such as “order,” can be achieved only by realizing the right sorts of “pattern.” (For example, the sovereign’s political power can be properly maintained only through its appropriate ritual display.) On my interpretation, this passage actually underscores the fusion of the aesthetic and the ethical-political.

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