Some while ago (1999) I tried to argue that Mencius didn’t really believe in proactive moral cultivation because he thought of human nature as already possessing the directional force toward goodness. The only thing a ruler need do is to provide minimally stable political and economic conditions. Then, if people do not interfere with their own development or with the development of others, then everything will turn out fine, with mulberry trees growing in their seasons, the elderly not having to sweat in the fields, children being filial, etc. That puts Mencius more in line with the Daodejing’s political stance than people usually think, though of course he isn’t entirely for the rustic utopia the latter suggests.
Let me suggest here that if that isn’t Mencius’s view, then it is actually very difficult to justify Xunzi’s vehement opposition to Mencius. The view that most of us were taught to believe is that Mencius thinks humans have nascent capacity for goodness that then needs to be cultivated through education and moral training; then at the end of that process they may end up as good subjects, advisors, or the ruler. For convenience, let’s call that the “moral-training” reading of Mencius. The thing that strikes me as problematic here is that if this is indeed Mencius’s view, then there’s really no difference between it and Xunzi’s views of the matter. Or, perhaps I should say instead, either Mencius has a view that is different from Xunzi’s or Xunzi didn’t realize that his view doesn’t really differ from Mencius’s.
Here’s what I have in mind regarding Xunzi on capacities and cultivation. In the “Human Nature is Detestable” (xing e 性惡) chapter, Xunzi argues that anyone could (ke 可) become a sage like the sage-ruler Yu. But not everyone has the possessed ability (neng 能) to be a sage. As it turns out, everyone has the capacities to be ren 仁 and yi 義, benevolent and upright, but not everyone applies himself to the task of accumulating the effort and training to be good. Why is that any different from the view attributed to Mencius by the moral-training reading of him? If it isn’t different, then what is Xunzi’s beef with Mencius since they seem to hold the very same view?
Here’s some of the relevant Xunzi text (I’ve numbered the text so it’s convenient for us to talk about it; and I’ve typed in Watson’s translation):
- “塗之人可以為禹。”曷謂也？曰：凡禹之所以為禹者，以其為仁義法正也。然則仁義法正有可知可能之理。然而塗之人也，皆有可以知仁義法正之質，皆有可以能 仁義法正之具，然則其可以為禹 明矣。The man in the street can become a Yu. What does this mean? What made the sage emperor Yu a Yu, I would reply, was the fact that he practiced benevolence and righteousness and abided by the proper rules and standards. If this is so, then benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards must be based upon principles which can be known and practiced. Any man in the street has the essential faculties needed to understand benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards, and the potential ability to put them into practice. Therefore it is clear that he can become a Yu.
- 今以仁義法正為固無可知可能之理邪？然則唯禹不知仁義法正，不能仁義法正也。Would you maintain that benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards are not based upon any principles that can be known and practiced? If so, then even a Yu could not have understood or practiced them.
- 將使塗之人固無可以知仁義法正之質，而固無可以能仁義法正之具邪？然則 塗之人也，且內不可以知父子之義，外不可以知君臣之正。今不然。Or would you maintain that the man in the street does not have the essential faculties needed to understand them or the potential ability to put them into practice? If so, then you are saying that the man in the street in his family life cannot understand the duties required of a father or a son and in public life cannot comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. But in fact this is not true.
- 塗之人者，皆內可以知父子之義，外可以知君臣之正，然則其可以知之質，可以能之具，其在塗 之人明矣。今使塗之人者，以其可以知之質，可以能之具，本夫仁義法正之可知可能之理，可能之具，然則其可以為禹明矣。Any man in the street can understand the duties required of a father or a son and can comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. Therefore, it is obvious that the essential faculties needed to understand such ethical principles and the potential ability to put them into practice must be a part of his make-up. Now if he takes these faculties and abilities and applies them to the principles of benevolence and righteousness, which we have already shown to be knowable and practicable, then it is obvious that he can become a Yu.
- 今使塗之人伏術為學，專心一志，思索 孰察，加日縣久，積善而不息，則通於神明，參於天地矣。故聖人者，人之所積而致矣。If the man in the street applies himself to training and study, concentrates his mind and will, and considers and examines things carefully, continuing his efforts over a long period of time and accumulating good acts without stop, then he can achieve a godlike understanding and form a triad with Heaven and earth. The sage is a man who has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts.
As always, let me know what you think.