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Video transcript

(intro music) Hello! I'm David Wong, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, and I'm going to talk about Xunzi, an early Chinese philosopher who lived during the fourth and third century BCE. He was a follower of Confucius and is best known for his view that human nature is bad. He explicitly criticized another Confucian named Mengzi, or, as he came to be known in the West, "Mencius," for holding that human nature is good. I recommend, if you haven't seen it already, a very clear Wireless introduction to Mengzi by Matthew Walker. In saying that human nature is good, Mengzi means that human beings have inborn dispositions that can grow into full-blown goodness. He sometimes likened these dispositions to sprouts. Sprouts have a natural direction of growth, if nurtured by water, sun, fertile soil, and human effort. If we are raised in a secure environment where we do not have to constantly worry about our survival, if we are given ethical education, and if we make the personal effort to develop what is good in ourselves, we can grow our sprout-like compassion into healthy plants of goodness. Xunzi places himself in diametrical opposition to Mengzi. He believed that human beings are born with a fondness for profit, with hatred and dislike of others, and desires for sensual pleasure. If we follow our natures, Xunzi argued, we will engage in continued destructive conflict with each other. That is what he meant by saying "human nature is bad." Fortunately, we human beings also have the capacity to think and to approve or disapprove of where our natural feelings and desires leader us. Xunzi believed that through our intelligence, human beings could turn our naturally ugly tendencies towards chaos and conflict into lives of harmony and beauty. In the ancient past, Xunzi believed, the most farseeing of human beings, the sages, realized that acting naturally is the surest path to self-destruction. The sages created ideas of right and wrong to curb the unrestrained pursuit of satisfying our own desires, and to require consideration of others. The sages created customs called "rituals" that train us to respect others and to be grateful for what they give us. One ritual Xunzi discussed was the village drinking ceremony. Everyone gathers for a toast, but only one cup is used, from which everyone drinks in order of seniority. The order of drinking teaches the younger to defer to the older, and drinking from one cup teaches them that they are one village and that they depend on each other. Xunzi also placed special importance on the rituals of mourning and burial of deceased parents. Because parents have given us the gift of our lives and had nurtured us, we must express our deepest gratitudes and feelings of loss. Xunzi used a metaphor for the human path to goodness that is very different from Mengzi's sprouts going into healthy plants. He thought of human beings as craftsmen, who fashion themselves into something beautiful that we would never become naturally. We are like potters who take the lumpy clay of our natures and turn them into beautiful vessels. The sages gave us the instruments for crafting ourselves, ideas of right and wrong, and rituals. But this belief in the transforming power of ritual poses a problem for Xunzi. How can we become so good when we begin as bad creatures with a desire for profit, hate and dislike of others, and desires for sensual pleasure? Xunzi's answer is that there are some natural impulses that are strengthened when we express them through ritual. He says that all creatures of blood and breath, not just humans, love members have their own kind. They will grieve over the loss of their mates. His example was of the behavior of birds, but today we might think of the behavior of elephants, who seem to grieve for dead members of their family and who have been known to stay beside the bodies of their deceased friends for three days without moving from the spot. Thus, in the end, Xunzi might have recognized that, along with all the bad motivations that get us into trouble, we have impulses that tie us to each other and that can be strengthened by rituals, such as the village drinking ceremony and rituals of mourning and burial of those to whom we are grateful. We human animals are complicated and conflicted in our motivations, and Xunzi might be right in holding that we must craft ourselves to restrain the motivations that get us into trouble and to strengthen the motivations that allow us to harmonize with each other. Subtitles by the Amara.org community