commentary on xunzi's "discourse on heaven"
good government, ill omens, ritual and human power
One of the key contrasts between the various classical Chinese thinkers is what to make of Heaven (天).
For Confucius, Heaven is the source of moral virtue and an ideal to emulate in human conduct. By and large, he concerns himself with human affairs: self-cultivation, education, and good rule. But Heaven has a will on Earth, personality and intent, and what is good in men flows down from Heaven. As the Master says, "How great was Yao as a ruler! So majestic! It is Heaven that is great, and it was Yao who modeled himself upon it" (Analects 8.19). Mengzi takes this even further, arguing that humans are born with an inherently good nature, that was endowed to them by Heaven, and that deprivation and mistreatment are the sole source of evil of the heart1.
For the Daoists, on the other hand, Heaven is an impersonal and unknowable force, an intrinsic part of the Way (道). The Way is beyond human morality and operates on its own rules and principles. It is the inherent flow of the universe. The crux of Daoism is accepting this state and learning to flow with it, to not resist it, and instead embrace non-action (無為).
Xunzi, in what is to me one of his most noteworthy breaks from Confucius, subscribes to the Daoist idea of the nature of Heaven. But while the Daoists believe one must surrender to it, Xunzi believes it is simply separate from the human realm. Heaven and Earth have their Way, but humans have their own. Morality and order are human constructs, human rationality and agency are the forces that can change the world for the benefit of humanity. Ritual, education, and good government are the tools by which man protects his own kind and helps forge our collective destiny. The affairs of Heaven are for Heaven to work out.
This is the crux of "Discourse on Heaven," one of my favorite essays by Master Xun.
There is a constancy to the activities of Heaven. They do not persist because of Yao. They do not perish because of Jie. If you respond to them with order, then you will have good fortune. If you respond to them with chaos, then you will have misfortune (17.1).
Xunzi opens "Discourse on Heaven" with the idea that the actions of Heaven cannot be changed by humans. You will have droughts and you will have floods, and neither a sage-king such as Yao nor a tyrant such as Jie can prevent this. What you can do, however, is practice good governance. Supporting industry and moderating expenditures can preserve the finances of the state, grain stockpiles and timely response to disasters can prevent famines. "You must not complain against Heaven; its way is simply thus" (17.23).
"Heaven has its proper seasons, Earth has its proper resources, and humankind has its proper order" (17.34). Xunzi calls this a "triad"—three realms of activity, only one of which we have control over. To wish that this were not so, and that the activities of Heaven and Earth were also in the realm of humankind, is a state of confusion. "Only the sage does not seek to understand Heaven" (17.48).
Xunzi does not mean we shouldn't control the effects of Heaven or Earth with technology where we can. As he says in "The Rule of a True King," "The work of the Director of Public Works is to [build and operate waterworks] so that even if the year is poor due to flooding or drought, the farmers still to have something to reap" (9.389).
In developing a modern Xunism, there are principles of human behavior and proper order that we want to preserve, but especially when it comes to science and technology, we must adapt to the spirit of the message, given our looser constraints. We can predict the weather to some extent, and we're beginning to gain the ability to control it. The sage does not try to understand what he cannot understand. But because there are new things we can understand, and can even control, then we have moved those concerns into the realm of human affairs.
And Xunzi says much the same: "Are order and disorder due to Earth? I say: If one gains use of the land, one will live, and if one loses use of the land, one will die" (17.98).
The movements of the planets, the four seasons, and the land itself were the same for Yu the Great and the Tyrant Jie. But one brought order, and the other disorder. Thus, order and disorder result from human action, not from Heaven or Earth.
This is prelude to one of the key pivots of this essay: karma and caste are not real, omens are not real. Heaven is not trying to communicate through a symbol-language with humanity. It does not mark out the virtuous with splendor or wrack the Earth with disaster to protest misrule. Things simply occur.
This is quite modern, and quite out of step with many of his contemporaries, who looked constantly to Heaven for guidance. Xunzi's essential message is that instead you must look into yourself:
Heaven does not stop producing winter because humans dislike cold, Earth does not stop being broad because humans dislike huge distances, and the gentleman does not cease his conduct because of the chatter of petty men. Heaven has a constant way, Earth has a constant measure, and the gentleman has a constant substance (17.108).
If the king of Chu has a thousand chariots following behind him, this is not because he is wise. If the gentleman eats only crude greens and drinks only plain water, this is not because he is foolish. It is just because of the circumstances. What is up to me is to cultivate my heart and thoughts, to make my virtue and good conduct abundant, to make my understanding and deliberations enlightened, and to live in the present age but focus my intentions on the ancients (17.118).
He says here and elsewhere that a difference between the gentleman and the petty man is that one cultivates himself regardless of his situation, whereas the other fixates on earning reward or on winning the favor of Heaven. Mohists may believe that poverty is a mark of virtue, and Calvinists may believe that wealth is a mark of virtue. But these are just the circumstances.
Xunzi goes on to attack the idea of omens:
If stars fall or trees groan, the people of the state are filled with fear and say, “What is this?” I say: it is nothing. These are simply rarely occurring things among the changes in Heaven and Earth and the transformations of yin and yang. To marvel at them is permissible, but to fear them is wrong. Eclipses of sun and moon, unseasonable winds and rain, unexpected appearances of strange stars—there is no age in which such things do not occur (17.136).
Strange celestial events occur, disasters may happen, but they mean nothing. This point does not go against the idea of the Mandate, however. It was not flooding or banditry that ended the Yuan Dynasty and caused the myriad peoples to rise up. It was the fact that the state could not control these things. The people should not care that they happen if they do not suffer the ill effects of them. To protect the people from calamity is within the realm of human activity.
As he goes on to say, while the ill omens of Heaven are not to be feared, the human ill omens are "worth marveling at, and also worth fearing" (17.169).
When the fields are harmed by poor plowing, poor weeding. When government is unstable, planting does not happen, the people starve, and corpses line the roads. When government edicts are unclear or unsound, when policies are untimely. When families distrust each other, when superiors and subordinates desert each other, when bandits roam the countryside. "These are called human ill omens. Ill omens thus arise from disorder. [...] The explanations for these things are very close at hand" (17.165).
What he means by "close at hand" is that, in contrast to falling stars and groaning trees, these things are within our control.
This dichotomy of control is one of those ideas that fascinates me as a general heuristic for behavior because you see it crop up in so many places. In popular imagination, it's probably best known in the form of the serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Likewise, it is a core idea in Stoicism, especially for Epictetus.
As I've written before, I puzzled over this idea for a long time, because it is clearly true, but felt wrong. The solution I arrived at is one of scope. For the Stoics, all you can really control is your own internal state, and everything external to you must be ceded and endured. But this is a philosophy of the powerless and utterly unsuitable for a ruling ideology. In this regard, I arrived at the same conclusion as Master Xun: control is a spectrum, not a binary state. If you can influence or command men, then the realm of human affairs is within your grasp.
One performs the rain sacrifice and it rains. Why? I say: there is no special reason why. It is the same as when one does not perform the rain sacrifice and it rains anyway. [...] When Heaven sends drought, one performs the rain sacrifice. One performs divination and only then decides on important affairs. But this is not to be regarded as bringing one what one seeks, but rather is done to give things proper form. Thus, the gentleman regards this as proper form, but the common people regard it as connecting with spirits (17.176).
Xunzi's point about "proper form" is a subtle one, and one I'll explore in depth in the future. But the essence of his view is that ritual exists as a way to give form and expressions to human emotions. You celebrate marriage with rituals meant to heighten and make explicit your joy, and you mourn death with rituals meant to deepen and give shape to your sorrow. The outward forms are a means to guide your inner feelings and allow healthy expression of human emotions without cutting them short or dragging them out.
In this way, the rain sacrifice gives form to the longing for rain, and divination gives form to the hope for clear direction. The people may regard these as magical formulae, though the sage knows they're merely expressions of a desire. But—and this is an important point—the sage does them anyway. And not as a cynical performance to appease the masses, or a begrudging exercise in conformity to tradition. The sage knows that these rituals mean something to the human heart, even to his own, even if they mean nothing to Heaven.
One of the key reasons to promote a modern Xunism to me is this. While Xunzi is focused on the principles of good governance and orderly society, he also understands the essential needs of the human heart. Just as the people need grain and craftwares, just as they need family and safety, they too need ritual. And the sage is of the people, just as the emperor is, just as anyone is! Society must have distinctions and differences, though they should be meritocratic, but the needs of the heart are just as real as the needs of the gut, and just as universal.
Among the features of Heaven, none are more dazzling than the sun and moon. Among the features of Earth, none are more dazzling than water and fire. Among things, none are more dazzling than pearls and jade. Among human beings, nothing is more dazzling than ritual and yi (義) (17.187).
The text continues with what I consider to be a quite inspiring passage, almost a psalm to good governance and human agency, which I will reproduce in full:
To exalt Heaven and long for it— How can this compare to nourishing things and overseeing them? To obey Heaven and praise it— How can this compare to overseeing what Heaven has mandated and using it? To observe the seasons and wait upon them— How can this compare to responding to the seasons and employing them? To follow along with things and increase them— How can this compare to developing their powers and transforming them? To long for things and appraise them— How can this compare to ordering things and never losing them? To desire that from which things arise— How can this compare to taking hold of that by which things are completed?
Xunzi ends the essay with one of the two quotes I find most crucial in adapting him for a modern context:
Those who cross waters mark out the deep places, but if the markers are not clear, people will fall in. Those who order the people mark out the Way, but if the markers are not clear, there will be chaos. The rituals are those markers. To reject ritual is to bemuddle the world, and to bemuddle the world is to create great chaos. And so, when the Way is in no part unclear, and that which is within the bounds and that which is outside the bounds have different markers, and that which is inglorious and that which is illustrious have constant measures, then the pitfalls of the people will be eliminated (17.238).
In this passage, Master Xun gives us an essential command: if the rituals do not exist in our time, we must create them. Confucius lived in a time when the state of Lu preserved the rites of Zhou intact. "The Zhou gazes down upon the two dynasties that preceded it. How brilliant in culture it is! I follow the Zhou" (Analects 3.14). But Xunzi lived in a more benighted age, where ritual had been lost. Thus, he admits the possibility of the creation of new ritual to serve the purposes it is needed for.
It is the task of those who cross waters to mark out the deep places. If we are to reinvigorate our society, then an essential task—beyond the mundane, such as competent bureaucracy and sound policy—is to give proper form to things, so that the people feel sated by their place and role in it.
The other crucial quote, from "Discourse on Ritual," explains the purpose of ritual: "Overall, ritual works to ornament happiness when serving the living, to ornament sorrow when sending off the dead, to ornament respect when conducting sacrifices, and to ornament awe-inspiring power when engaged in military affairs" (19.418). The full scope of ritual will be explored in a future commentary on that essay.
For an overview of Xunzi and why I think his writing is a valuable starting point for a modern governing ideology, see:
I expect to write several more commentaries on Xunzi essays besides this one, and would also like to write about later thinkers and scholar-bureaucrats in his mold, depending on what I can find in English translation.
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Later commentators latch onto this particular difference with Xunzi, who believes goodness is instead the result of deliberate cultivation, but in this regard I believe Xunzi is more in line with the Analects. The Master says, "At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning; at thirty, I took my place in society; at forty, I became free of doubts; at fifty, I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty, my ear was attuned; and at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desires without overstepping the bounds of propriety" (Analects 2.4). Even Confucius was not born knowing the Way; he had to cultivate it. Indeed, as Huang Kan states: "By age seventy, Confucius reached a point where training and inborn nature were perfectly meshed, 'like a raspberry vine growing among hemp, naturally standing upright without the need for support,'" quoting for support Xunzi's "An Exhortation to Learning."