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The Chinese philosopher Hsün-tzu was born in 310 B.C.E. and died close to 100 years later. He was the most influential of the early "Confucian" philosophers in the early Empire. Opposed to all forms of superstition, he believed that the fundamental nature of human beings is not good, and needs to be controlled with laws.

Hsün-tzu has never been an "orthodox" philosopher, in any period. His pupils set up the first successful despotic imperial government in China, making heavy use of his legalist ideas. It is thought that his followers gained power by pushing aside an earlier theory of government that saw the ruler as mediating between the human and spirit worlds. Hsün-tzu and his followers were interested in practical techniques of government, which proved very attractive to the Qin rulers.

I have chosen a single excerpt, by no means the most famous. More will follow as I am able to give time to this project. The prose in this particular excerpt is extremely difficult to render because of its profound looseness. There is a fairly relaxed selection of excerpts translated by Burton Watson, and a much more sophisticated translation in 3 dense volumes by John Knoblock.


How can people know the Way?

     I say: by the mind.

How does the mind know?

     I say: it becomes still, having first become empty and single.


The mind has never failed to store things away; yet it has something that can be called emptiness.
The mind has never failed to be two-fold; yet it has something that can be called singlemindedness.
The mind has never failed to move; yet it has something that can be called stillness.


People have knowledge from birth and, having knowledge, they have ambition.

Now, ambition is storing things away; yet we have something that can be called emptiness. Not to let what has already been stored away affect what we are yet to receive - that is what we call emptiness.


Awareness exists as the mind comes into being, and with awareness there exist differences between things.

Now, differences mean that at the same instant you are aware of both things. If you are aware of both of them at the same instant, that means two-foldedness. Yet it has something that can be called singlemindedness: not letting this "one" affect that "one" - that is what we call singlemindedness.


The mind is like this:
     when you lie down, it dreams;
     when you are relaxed, it goes its own way;
     when you use it for something, it plans.

And so it has never failed to move, yet it has something that can be called stillness. Not to disrupt awareness because of dreams or day-dreams - that is what is what we call stillness.


Someone who seeks the Way before he has yet obtained it should take as the basic truth the saying "become quiet, having first become empty and single."

Someone who is going to pursue the Way will enter into it after becoming empty.

Someone who is going to serve the Way will fully attain it after becoming singleminded.

Someone who is going to contemplate the Way will perceive it after becoming still.


          from Ch. 21, "Easing Blindness"

A refutation of Hsün Tzu's essay "Man's Nature is Evil".

Hsün Tzu's arguments in the essay "Man's Nature is Evil" are established upon false pretenses. The definitions of good and evil given by Hsün Tzu are synonymous with the definitions of order and chaos with no apparent relation to good or evil. He makes claims with no warrants to back them up, and he seems to contradict himself in his own writings. Hsün Tzu draws a connection between unlawfulness and strife, and he labels that connection "evil". This seems to any reasonable person to be an improper definition of evil, and as such, the premises of good and evil purported by Hsün Tzu aren't really substantial.

In the first paragraph, Hsün Tzu states that man is born with a fondness for profit, and the indulgence of this desire leads to wrangling and strife. I would question whether or not man is born with the instinctive desire for profit, and in any case, this fondness for profit need not necessarily lead down a path of hardship and selfishness. There are many wealthy people in the world who are not evil men.

Hsün Tzu claims that all men are born with feelings of envy and hate. This is absurd. If men are born with an innate sense of envy and hate, then they are also born with equal capacities for love and admiration. In an evolutionary sense, it makes no sense that people would be born with feelings of hate and envy, since these feelings would be detrimental to the viability of the species.

If man is innately evil, why is it that, if left to his own devices and separated from society with so social constructs to dictate his behavior, he will still put the life of his offspring above his own? Why would he make sacrifices in order to care for the sick or infirm members of his family?

The next claim made by Hsün Tzu is that all men are born with a fondness for that which is beautiful, and if he indulges in these tastes, it will lead to license and wantonness, which will break down law and order. According to him, this is evil. He offers no examples, no proofs, no evidence to back up this statement. He simply puts it out there. It's not easy to refute an idea that has nothing backing it up. This goes back to the fundamental notion of Hsün Tzu that the nature of evil is that which is unlawful and un-orderly. An example of a massively evil entity would be the Third Reich, which was profoundly orderly and lawful, with much ritual and ceremony.

Hsün Tzu states that man must be transformed by a teacher in order to become versed in ceremony and order. If man's innate nature is evil, what makes the nature of the teacher less so? Is the teacher somehow above all of mankind? Wouldn't the teacher be teaching ritual imposed by yet more evil men, thus perpetuating the cycle of evil that we are all born into?

Hsün Tzu continuously make allusion to ceremony and ritual, and cites them as an example of what it means to be good. The rituals he mentions really have no bearing in today's society, and they probably wouldn't even be considered "good" things to do. While the nature of man is fundamental and permanent, Hsün Tzu makes his arguments with points that are fleeting. This isn't a sound foundation for proving that man is evil based on the rituals it takes to make him "good".

In modern society, we have seen the ceremonies of man lead to evil, and we have seen lawful and orderly states commit the most evil atrocities imaginable. We have a broader perspective compared to Hsün Tzu. While his views may make perfect sense to him, and they might seem totally reasonable during the period in which he lived, they seem absurd today.

Hsün Tzu's entire argument hinges on the notion that law and order are the most intrinsically good things in humanity. All of his arguments follow that idea. His entire set of propositions can be dismissed if one can prove that goodness can come from disorder and that evil can come from lawfulness and ritual. To say that all those that do not conform to the social constructs of society would be absurd. If that were the case, you would be condemning the likes of Picasso, Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Paul Gauguin, Siddhārtha Gautama (the founder of Buddhism), and many others like them, to a life of evil. Most would agree: that's totally absurd. One need not look far to find examples of evil that carry with them the upmost ceremony and order. The Ku Klux Klan, various fascist organizations, governments that practice ethnic cleansing... all these are lawful and orderly, with a rigorous set of guidelines that dictate behavior. Now that we have established that it's not necessary to be lawful in order to be good, and that it's quite possible to be lawful and still be evil, the entire foundation of Hsün Tzu's argument is shaken.

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