Xunzi and the Mohists on Natural Disasters

In a famous passage, Xúnzǐ argues that natural disasters lead to catastrophe only because of human failings: with the proper preparation, floods and droughts still occur, but do not devastate. I’m probably not the only friend of this blog who found special poignancy in this argument while lecturing on it in the aftermath of Katrina.

The news today has been good. Irene seems to have weakened unexpectedly. (I hope this hasn’t changed since last I saw good information.) Here in Philadelphia, it looks like we’ll get a category one hurricane, the equivalent (in Hong Kong terms) of a typhoon signal ten. I think there was just one of those in the ten years I lived in Hong Kong; we didn’t even lose internet. I’m preparing mostly by baking lots of bread and making lots of hummus. I’m still a bit nervous, because I don’t know what I can expect from local construction, and the American infrastructure is (understandably, to an extent) less robust than Hong Kong’s. And there are lots of people more vulnerable than I am, and lots of people who have been and are going to be hit harder. I’m glad that friends have evacuated the Jersey shore, and am proud of friends who are part of the preparations and will be part of the response.

In any case, it’s got me thinking about Xúnzǐ, and also about the Mohists, who would have interpreted a storm like Irene as a punishment from heaven.

We know a lot more than Xúnzǐ did about how human activity can affect the environment. It really is possible for devastating natural events to respond, in a way, to what we do.

But it is not just because we know a lot more that this seems like a gap in Xúnzǐ’s philosophy. It is essential to Xúnzǐ’s understanding of nature, including human nature, that nature be constant. In his philosophy, nature provides the context in which human societies achieve (or fail to achieve) order, and nature’s presumed constancy is essential to his faith in an unchallengeable and unchangeable human Way. To maintain this philosophy of nature, Xúnzǐ would have had to deny the possibility of climate change. And, of course, his supposedly constant nature was in part the result of the massive deforestation required for the sort of agriculture, indeed for the fauna, that he took for granted.

Xúnzǐ nonetheless had a lot right: preparedness and response make a huge difference, as (again) the aftermath of Katrina made obvious. I trust that the current American administration, though weak, will do a better job, and Irene is of course in a different category from Katrina. There are still nightmares on the horizon. Just today, someone many see as a credible candidate for president of the United States argued (in public!) that hurricanes do not call for national preparedness and response (citation).

The Mohists, of course, disagreed with Xúnzǐ. They thought that heaven used natural disasters to punish wicked rulers. However, it’s surprisingly difficult to say what exactly this meant in the context of their philosophy.

For the Mohists, a good ruler is one who secures order and prosperity for his people. (For the Mohists, a good ruler was certainly a he.) This means that the ruler’s policies must be adapted to the natural context. Admittedly, they are not as explicit about this as Xúnzǐ is. But they do, for example, take it for granted that good policies allow agriculture to proceed along with the seasons.

This means that good rule just is, for the Mohists, rule that secures benifits from nature. You might even try to interpret their tian 天 as nature rather than as heaven, and take them to be saying just that nature rewards those rulers whose policies are appropriately adapted to nature. Xiufen Lu defended something like this view in Asian Philosophy 16.2. I think this goes too far, but agree that it is essential to the Mohists that heaven rewards just those policies that would (as it were) be rewarded by nature, even if heaven paid no attention.

But then what makes the difference between the strictly natural outcomes of human policies, the ones that define what it is to rule well, and the rewards and punishments of heaven, which respond to good and bad rule? The Mohists portray heaven’s activities as intentional, and obviously that’s an important difference. But I’m not sure it’s really essential to Mohist philosophy. If you take heaven’s rewards and punishments away from the Mohists, you certainly lose a lot of haranguing, but you retain the main idea: good policies are rewarded because they are well adapted to nature (including again human nature).

What really matters for the Mohists is that natural disasters not be the result of fate: they must somehow result from what we do. To the extent that fate affects a ruler’s success and failure in achieving order and prosperity, the Mohist conception of good rule collapses. This, I think, is the deep reason they took fatalism so seriously.

I don’t think the Mohists ever really considered the possibility that random events might help shape the outcomes of a ruler’s actions. Apparently, the sage kings they idealised never had to deal with the unexpected. Here we want more of Xúnzǐ’s emphasis on the importance of preparedness and response, along with the Mohists conviction that, come what may, what people do does make a difference.

Irene, of course, is not a punishment. Whatever influence human activities have had on it, it will disproportionately affect people who are not importantly responsible for those activities. But we need, and do not have, a political class who agree with Xúnzǐ and the Mohists that our policies and practices have to be adapted to nature, who entirely abandon Xúnzǐ’s faith in the constancy of nature, and who agree with the Mohists that what happens is never simply up to fate.

(I may not be able to be as active as I’d like in the comment thread, at least in the short term. I’m expecting to lose electricity and internet at some point, and while I have them, I’ll mostly be worrying about looming deadlines and the upcoming term.)

2 replies on “Xunzi and the Mohists on Natural Disasters”

  1. Hey Dan! I wonder if the way we understand Xunzi and Mozi is affected by whether we talk of “nature” being constant or responsive, versus “heaven” being constant or responsive. Xunzi’s genius is to conceive of heaven without anthropomorphizing it. That’s lost a bit when we say that he thinks nature is constant, isn’t it? Could this tie into Xunzi’s ideas of political governance? Just as our own fates are determined by our responses to heaven (which couldn’t pay less attention to us) how we fare politically speaking is determined by our responses to governance, which, ideally speaking, is constant. So, there is less political paternalism in Xunzi than in, say, Mencius.

  2. Hi Manyul! How to handle “tian 天” in Xunzi—a tricky issue. I tend to think that one of the things going on is that “天” could serve as an abbreviation of “天地,” and Xunzi’s taking advantage of that a bit. Hard to capture that in translation.

    I actually see the political analogy you draw more strongly in the Mohists. Tian is the model of a good ruler, whereas fate is like a ruler who is entirely capricious. Right at the heart of their political theory (both promoting the worthy and conforming upwards) is the aim of making government respond according to how well or poorly people act, thus emulating heaven, which is both benevolent and all-seeing.

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