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toward a system of neo-xunism
thoughts on the xunzi as the basis of a metarational ideology
It is my firm belief that we're living through our own Spring and Autumn.
The Spring and Autumn period was a time in Chinese history after the Zhou Dynasty lost the martial authority that would merit their titles as kings. It was a liminal period, where the old rules of courtly diplomacy and ritual warfare still held, but the central power could no longer enforce them.
The Zhou kings served a role similar to the medieval popes of certain periods: theoretically inviolable, militarily impotent. Sometimes grand persuaders, other times hapless bargaining chips, depending on the mettle of the man on the throne and the bravado of those they purported to command. The dukes and princes of the various states paid homage, and they obeyed the rules, for the most part. But they feared the consequences of crossing each other much more than their ostensible liege.
The central states had close links to the Zhou lineage and were consequently more inclined to conform. They were rich, but small, and unused to forms of power and war that weren't heavily mediated by ritual propriety. Soon, the outer states came to eclipse them.
The outer states had more land, more soldiers, and fewer dynastic ties that would obligate them to participate in the charade of feudal obligation. Often they came from barbarian lineages that had only half-assimilated to Chinese customs. Invariably, however, they understood better than their more civilized cousins what it means to rule.
Victors in war began to annex towns, rather than simply punish impropriety and withdraw, leaving borders unchanged. The Zhou kings granted especially powerful dukes the title of ba (霸), or hegemon, spending their own fading legitimacy to temporarily make a state primus inter pares and keep the system afloat.
But eventually, it degenerated, and wars of annexation became wars of conquest as the Spring and Autumn transitioned to the Warring States. Vast states grew lofty or crumbled and were extinguished on the basis of increasingly total warfare. The chariot was obsoleted by the horseman and the crossbow. The military was professionalized, and the shi (士) transitioned from a nobility of the sword into one of the pen, becoming the basis of the emerging scholar-bureaucracy. New philosophies were invented to reorganize state governments to more effectively use their resources in what became an existential struggle for control of all of China.
Eventually the state of Qin eclipsed its peers, in part due to Legalist reforms which made the entire state an instrument of power. Foreign policy for a time, for the other states, revolved entirely around uniting to oppose the Qin threat, or allying with it to hopefully coexist. And finally, Qin conquered all its neighbors and formed the first, brief, Chinese empire.
We live in an age where rulers forget the levers of power. Theories of moral, ideal governance have grown increasingly distant from the practical necessities of how to actually govern. Whatever you want to call it—the American Empire, the liberal international order, the "free world"—coasts on lip service to lofty ideals and spending down leftover wealth.
Bureaucracies stagnate and rulers falter as the old ways of doing things don't quite work with the ease and fluidity that they used to, and politicians and commentators are so distanced from or indifferent to the nature of of power that they can barely even articulate why.
Favored vassals are insulated from risk while those further on the periphery must contend with actual reality. And entities beyond that watch and wait and test the limits of what they can get away with, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. But the consensus erodes all the same.
In this light, to me, Xunzi is not just an especially interesting and erudite figure from the past. He's a potential guide through the future.
Xunzi is, firstly, clear-sighted about the nature of power and how it functions. In contrast to the Mohists, Daoists, and many earlier Confucians, he does not wish away practical problems by appealing to an idealized image of human nature. He can be quite idealistic about the rule of a true sage-king, but he recognizes this is something to aspire to, rather than a necessary condition for political order. He prescribes concrete solutions to improve society that can be implemented by the merely capable and upright, while still encouraging people to strive to be greater.
But despite his pragmatism, Xunzi is not, like the Legalists, a strict political realist, and he is absolutely not a cynic. Xunzi is deeply moral and fundamentally humanist. While he takes selfishness and competition over scarce resources for granted, he always believes that this is something that can be overcome through learning and self-cultivation. "People's nature is bad," his critics quote, eliding that he continues, "Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort."
Neither is he draconian like the Legalists. Unlike earlier Confucians, he understands the need for laws and punishments. But he regards them as a last resort, to be applied only to those totally unamenable to correction by other means. His critics in later centuries called him the philosophical father of the brutal Qin state, but he himself predicted Qin's inevitable downfall as their very brutality ravaged their ability to govern.
Xunzi is Confucian to his core: displaying virtue can inspire obedience and goodness in others, leadership is a responsibility to treat well those below you, learning and deliberate effort can overcome any amount of darkness in the human heart.
Xunzi is largely unspiritual, and instead believes to the utmost in human agency. Heaven and fate do not govern mortal affairs: it is man's choices that determine his outcomes. Language is a tool for shared understanding, ritual is a set of guideposts handed down by those who have gone before. None of these things precede human wishes and human desires, and they can be shaped and remade by humans to serve human ends.
And finally, Xunzi is eclectic. He lived in a time of great philosophical innovation, but also great confusion. The "purveyors of doctrine" as he calls them all draw their own incompatible conclusions and all insist on the rightness of their premises. While we are likely many decades away from anything similar to the Seven Warring States, we can already see a preview of the Hundred Schools of Thought.
The internet enables a proliferation of discourse, truth is beginning to fragment, and already we can see irreconcilable worldviews forming and hardening into doctrine. The 20th century was the era of the mass movement, but the 21st belongs to the cult.
Xunzi is at home in this kind of milieu and navigates it well. He's familiar with the other schools, has read their works, and clearly identifies their insufficiencies. Tantalizingly, he sometimes views their errors as not quite wrong per se, but overly fixated on one aspect of a broader whole, which makes them myopic when they ought to be broad. This ends up making Xunzi one of the great syncretists.
The philosophy of Confucius is rather uncompromising in its ideals. Confucius lived in an earlier time, in the Spring and Autumn, when the biggest problem seemed to be coordination failure. Everything would be fine if people started doing what they were supposed to again. So he laid out what they were supposed to do and was endlessly frustrated when they failed to do it.
Xunzi starts with the Confucian core of virtue, learning, ritual, and filiality. He strips away spiritual explanations and justifies his positions on consequentialist grounds. Confucius saw morality as an emanation of Heaven, whereas Xunzi sees it as a tool crafted by man to create human flourishing. And then he borrows the rationalism of the later Mohists, the practicality of the Legalists, and the flexibility and comfort with the ineffable of the Daoists.
This, I think, is what makes Xunzi especially interesting as a starting point for a contemporary school of thought. Unlike every Confucian before him, he isn't trapped in this one way of seeing things.
He has firm convictions but can inhabit alternate views. He can incorporate others' teachings without compromising the kernel of his morality. He can lay out a worldview in plain terms, from basic axioms. He doesn't take the axioms for granted.
In other words, I believe his philosophy can serve as the basis of a worldview that is capable of running society in line with the principles of nebulosity and pattern.
Aside from that, he provides an excellent basis for a technocratic ideology that doesn't fall into the trap of seeing like a state. He lionizes learning as the highest good, and demands a government that promotes the worthy on the basis of merit. He's a secularist, but he never succumbs to the nerdish tendency to reduce people to systems. The key role of ritual in his philosophy centralizes the need for the ruler to inspire and awe his people, not merely fill their bellies or busy them with commerce.
I am not an antiquarian. If anything, I'm a technologist first. I don't go to the ancients because they know "better" than us. Xunzi doesn't have all the answers to modern problems; indeed, he has almost none of them.
But I do think he provides a framework on which to build.
Xunzi offers a model of the world that is subtle, yet sophisticated. He lived in a time after decline, after the institutions and traditions of his forefathers had collapsed and given way to political turmoil, war, and an explosion of new philosophies trying to explain where to go next. And standing amidst chaos and confusion, he fashioned a system of meaning grounded in order and clarity.
To understand Xunzi's place in the classical Chinese canon, it helps to have a sense of that canon. I can't do other thinkers justice here: I've read many, but not studied them in close detail. Eventually I'd like to do some comparative studies, but for now, this insufficient summary will have to do.
Or the ru school, a term which means "scholar" or "refined man."
The key text is the Analects by Confucius, a compilation of aphorisms and anecdotes that lay out his philosophy. Confucius believed the keystone of an orderly society is for every individual in it to cultivate ren (仁, humaneness, virtue, humility) and yi (義, righteousness, propriety, justice).
Individuals are also meant to understand and follow li (禮, ritual) and behave appropriately to their roles in the five relationships: ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, friend and friend. "Ritual" is a weighty term in Confucianism, covering everything from the distinctions between the classes, to marriage and funeral practices, to politeness norms and filial pieties.
Society, for Confucius, was nothing more than the fractal pattern of these relations. One could view it top-down: the ruler displays his virtue and inspires his subordinates to be likewise, and this spreads downward through their relationships and into their very persons. Or one could view it bottom-up: orderly personal relationships combine to create orderly households, orderly populaces, orderly states, and an orderly kingdom. In an ideal society, nothing else would be required to ensure stability and harmony.
Confucius was a staunch antiquarian: he insisted that if people returned to the customs of the Zhou Dynasty, all the problems of his society would be solved. When asked why they should imitate the Zhou, rather than the even older Shang or Xia, he said he would actually prefer them, if enough were known to do them justice.
Confucius also believed that morality was an emanation of the will of Heaven, but otherwise had little to say on abstract metaphysical questions. Later disciples, particularly Zisi and Meng Ke (Mengzi/Mencius) would have much to say on this topic, and it would again be a major subject of debate among the Song Dynasty Neo-Confucian movement.
Or the fa school, which roughly means "law" but also includes "methods" or "means."
The Legalists advocated a staunchly authoritarian and deeply materialist worldview. Virtue, duty, ritual, and tradition mean nothing. In the words of Shen Buhai, the philosophical link between the better-known Shang Yang and Han Fei, "The sage ruler relies on standards and does not rely on wisdom; he relies on technique, not on persuasions."
The Legalists saw society as something like a machine that can be designed and tuned. Behavior is strictly causal, people follow incentives, and the only mechanisms needed to ensure compliance and good behavior of the people and officials are reward and punishment: the "two levers of power."
Han Fei's ideal ruler sits on his throne, defines the job descriptions of his subordinates, and rewards or punishes them based on their completion of their duties. The ruler should be a cipher: communicating any preferences beyond the tasks to complete creates opportunities for toadying. Subordinates who overstep their duties should be punished just as those who fail to fulfill them, because they go against the clean operation of the machine just the same.
While the Legalists were often brutal and uncompromising, they were also eminently fair, and equality under the law was a cherished principle of Shang Yang and Han Fei alike. The Legalist luminaries also tended, more often than not, to meet violent ends at the hands of their ambitious peers, foreshadowing the eventual downfall of the Qin. So it goes.
Mohism originated as the personal philosophy of Mo Di, who preached "universal love"—perhaps better rendered as "impartial caring"—arguing that it was wrong to privilege your family or countrymen over strangers.
Unlike the Confucians or Legalists, who thought a stratified society was necessary to apportion scarce resources to everyone, Mozi believed there was enough for everyone, so long as people were convinced to live like paupers. He was particularly criticized for his distaste for "wasteful" practices like funeral rites and joyful music, seeing no value in aesthetics or activities that gladden people's hearts but lack economic utility.
He was also an ardent pacifist, and many early Mohists were capable engineers of defensive fortifications. Mozi believed that by making aggressive warfare too costly and expensive to attempt, it could be eliminated, along similar logic as mutually assured destruction.
More interesting than Mozi himself are the later Mohists: the school splintered, and its descendants became central to pre-imperial thought in the natural sciences, mathematics, formal logic, and ethical rationalism.
The classical Daoists, notably Laozi and Zhuangzi, are the hardest to define clearly. They scorned strict categories and rational analysis for the insufficiency of models in depicting reality. They advocated wuwei (無爲, non-action), naturalness, and simplicity, believing that the main problem with people was excessive constraint and fixity. While Xunzi analogized human nature to rough wood in need of straightening, Zhuangzi believed its natural roughness was the way it was meant to be.
The Daoists are hard to talk about because of the way they played with language. They were slippery and difficult, and that quality wasn't just an affectation, but a key component of their actual philosophy. They're also hard to talk about because many of their ideas were syncretized into other philosophies: the Mohists, Legalists, and Xunzi all borrowed heavily.
It's easy, albeit unfair, to treat Daoism as a box of tools, a postmodern critique of rational analysis that can be reincorporated back into it, rather than a coherent philosophy in its own right. This is I think one of Xunzi's strengths, that he understands the Daoist position on the insufficiency and contingency of language and models, but firmly believes they can still be used to run society.
There's a stereotype of the Confucian scholar-bureaucrat who works his whole career adhering to the state orthodoxy, then retreats into the hills upon retirement to live as a free-wheeling Daoist sage. Xunzi doesn't quite adhere, and he doesn’t retreat.
Or the School of Names. The Logicians were a Mohist offshoot known for their logical puzzles and contradictions, for instance, "a white horse is not a horse," playing with ideas of strict equality vs class membership. One can imagine something like set theory emerging out of this type of thought, but they were disparaged by most of their contemporaries for their vexatiousness.
Or the School of Horizontal and Vertical Alliances. A Legalist offshoot that innovated in diplomacy and rhetoric, they were known for their cunning and shiftiness. Much of their commentary centered on the question of whether to unite against the heavyweight Qin state before it swallowed up the rest, or ally with it to try and coexist.
Xunzi is in my opinion best understood as an orthodox Confucian who systematically incorporated into it a comfort with nebulosity (via Daoism) and practical consequentialism (via Legalism). The core elements of his philosophy are as follows. All citations are essay and line numbers from the Hutton translation.
Human nature is bad, but humans may choose to be good.
People are selfish. They're born with hatred, envy, and fondness for profit in their hearts. They have a basically animal, even bestial, nature, and everyone is alike in this regard.
But people can cultivate themselves. Through learning, teachers, ritual, and yi, people can overcome their inborn dispositions and become good, even sagelike.
This applies to everyone equally: "Anyone on the streets can become a Yu [the Great]" (23.252), one of the famed sage-kings of old. He was not Yu because of anything in his inborn disposition; he was Yu because he cultivated himself, because he was ren, yi, lawful, and correct (仁義法正).
The difference between the gentleman and the petty man is because they choose to be the way they are: the gentleman refines himself, and the petty man does not.
If you accumulate soil, you will form a mountain. If you accumulate water, you will form a sea. [...] If ordinary men in the street and the common people accumulate goodness and make it whole and complete, they are called sages (8.490).
The sage is the product of accumulated effort.
Ritual exists because resources are scarce and people are selfish.
It is human nature to have desires and seek to satisfy them. But, if unchecked, people will accumulate as much as they can. They will come into conflict as a result, war and chaos will arise as they compete over limited resources, and the value they seek to monopolize will instead be destroyed.
The former kings kings established ritual and yi to "divide things among people, to nurture their desires, and to satisfy their seeking" (19.7). Society is necessarily stratified to establish order, and the different classes are distinguished from each other by their particular rights and responsibilities.
Ritual exists to create order, and order is a base condition necessary for society to function. "Putting a chaotic state in good order does not mean making use of the chaos to put it in order. One gets rid of the chaos and replaces it with order" (3.100).
Ritual is not "natural"—it is designed, by men, based on their experiences of what is necessary to preserve order and satisfy the needs of the people:
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 (17.238).
Ritual gives form to human emotions and allows its proper expression.
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).
Ritual is a means to express joy at marriage, sorrow over death, awe and grandeur in the face of military might and the power of the ruler. Beautiful or austere sights, uplifting or heartrending music, sumptuous or uncomfortable garments and decor, all these things combine to create a purity of expression for the most important human feelings.
Ritual practice also has a clear arc and definite ending point. It "cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short. It subtracts from what is excessive and adds to what is insufficient" (19.304). The funeral rites allow the dead to be distanced from the living. The mourning period is meant to give closure and terminate after the proper time.
And music is not to be given up, for it is one of the most important expressions of happiness and celebration. "Music is joy, an unavoidable human disposition. So, people cannot be without music; if they feel joy, they must express it in sound and give it shape in movement" (20.1).
Learning is the highest good, because it can remake man.
Because everyone is born petty, learning is essential, because it is the means to become a sage. Learning amplifies your power, gives you leverage over your surroundings. The gentleman's "grasp is quite restricted, but his deeds are quite grand" (3.169).
Learning is meant to be absorbed to improve your person, and used in the world to improve society. Only for the petty man does learning "enter through his ears and pass out his mouth" (1.148).
Surround yourself with good people, because teachers are better than ritual, although ritual is preferable to mere reading and study. You are what you "rub against," and if you learn from the worthy, "you will make daily progress toward ren and yi and you will not even realize it" (23.384).
In a similar vein, culture and profession are products of leaning. "Barbarian" cultures are different customs, not different peoples:
The children of the Han, Yue, Yi, and Mo peoples all cry with the same sound at birth, but when grown they have different customs, because teaching makes them thus (1.16).
Practice is all it takes to work in a profession:
If people accumulate experience in weeding and plowing, they become farmers. If they accumulate experience in chopping and carving, they become craftsmen (8.501).
And riches and good fortune are not rewards from Heaven marking the worthy
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 up to the circumstances (17.118).
People all have the same nature, and it is learning and practices that distinguish them.
Talent is orthogonal to virtue. Class is irrelevant to merit.
The gentleman and the petty man are distinguished by their virtue. A gentleman of talent leads and directs, whereas a gentleman who lacks talent obeys and serves humbly. Even if a petty man has talent, he ends up using his talents toward unfitting ends.
You want to attract the talented, to be sure, but in addition to that, you want the worthy. But everyone has their place in society as long as they cultivate themselves and behave with virtue.
Initiative and independent judgment should be valued highly. It is expected that a good minister argues with his lord when his lord is mistaken, and it is even permissible to disobey him, when the situation demands it. "People who engage in remonstrating, contesting, guiding, and restraining are true ministers of the altars of soil and grain, and treasures for the lord of a state" (13.80).
Government is to be meritocratic: the talented and learned must be employed, even if they are commoners, and the nobility should be demoted or excluded if they lack these skills. People should not have to "climb the ranks," and should be promoted immediately if found worthy. And the unworthy should not be allowed to retain their positions, but dismissed "without waiting for even a single moment" (9.3).
Men of talent and virtue want to be around others like them, so the best way to attract them to government is to govern well. Employ them where you can find them, reward them in line with their station, and give them freedom to exercise their talents:
Wherever the rivers and waterways are deep, fish and turtles will settle there. Wherever the mountains and forests are luxuriant, birds and beasts will settle there. Wherever punishments and government regulations are evenhanded, the common people will settle there. Wherever the practice of ritual and _yi_ is perfected, the gentleman will settle there (14.23).
The Way is multifarious. Systems may be useful but can at best serve as guides.
The various schools have their merits, but they err in applying one standard to all things. The world is vast and complex, trade-offs may be fundamental, and various ways of judging the circumstances may be necessary in various situations:
Mozi was fixated on the useful and did not understand the value of good form. Song Xing was fixated on having few desires and did not understand the value of achieving their objects. Shen Dao was fixated on laws and did not understand the value of having worthy people. Shen Buhai was fixated on power and did not understand the value of having wise people. Huizi was fixated on wording and did not understand the value of what is substantial. Zhuangzi was fixated on the Heavenly and did not understand the value of the human.
The man of comprehensive goodness adapts to situations as they arise and discerns the proper response (3.178). He bends with restrictive times and extends with expansive times (7.168). "The sage is the one who makes himself a measure" (5.148).
Xunzi has much to say on other topics, and his writings on practical governance, proper ritual, personal cultivation, and Heaven are quite interesting. He offers a complex perspective on managing society that wouldn't be too out of place if it were written in the contemporary era. But this encapsulates the core of his philosophy.
There's a lot more I'd like to write, but I hope this has been sufficient to pique interest. Particularly I'm considering close readings of individual essays, comparative analysis with the Analects and the Zhuangzi, thoughts on contemporary Xunzi scholarship, and historical analysis of how he fits into later Chinese history.
Xunzi was central to Confucianism as practiced by the Western Han, one of the great golden ages in the imperial era. And his denigration in the Southern Song by metaphysical Neo-Confucian scholarship parallels the marginalization of reformists who cared more about statecraft and good government than about questions of the nature of the heart. One wonders if the Song and Ming would have achieved greater things if not for their ruling philosophy's retreat from the weighty to the trivial.
We live in an unsteady time. Things are likely to get worse before they get better. And we'll have our own Hundred Schools, in time, to debate how we got there and what we must fix to get out. But it's good to keep our eye on what came before.
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 (17.121).
This expresses my meaning.
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