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Long Tradition of East Asian Political ThoughtResearch Paper

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Explain the East Asian conception of human nature

East Asian political thought had been based on the concept that human nature is fundamentally and innately positive, naturally tending toward goodness. However, Xun-Zi expanded upon what Confucius and Mencius had written and diverged from their optimistic viewpoints. During the Warring States period, it became especially important to investigate human nature, because understanding human nature might lend insight into how to create order and justice in a chaotic world. Thus, human nature is understood as having both a metaphysical dimension and a political one, in addition to having the practical and pragmatic dimensions that impact daily life.

Confucius's view of human nature was in fact pragmatic in nature. There is an essential core to human nature that remains constant in all people, and that core is relatively neutral if not veering slightly towards goodness. More specifically, Confucius saw human nature as "an endowment that can be developed through the course of a life," (Lecture Notes 1). Confucius does distinguish between the types of motives for cultivating goodness, though. There are self-serving motives and there are more lofty motives. Confucius does not believe that it is necessarily bad to cultivate an ethical character for profit or self-seeking motives. A wise person knows how to harness the best of human nature, and can profit by it even without understanding it, according to the philosopher. However, Confucius also believed that it is far better to understand human nature on a deeper level, and not only to profit from it. Confucius recognized the existence of a "deep human morality," which requires effort to cultivate (Lecture Notes 1). Therefore, Confucius allows for a degree of selfishness in human nature that is neither good nor bad, but simply innate and acceptable. It is not necessarily wrong to be selfish or profit-minded, but it is better to also seek deeper understanding. Even when a person acts in his or her best interests, the character of the person, community, and society can still be considered good.

Mencius was even more interested in the original function of human nature and its metaphysical dimension than Confucius was. "Mencius' views of the divine, political organization, human nature, and the path toward personal development all start and end in the heart-mind," (Richey, n.d.). The heart-mind is linked to the concept of qi, or life-force. Like Confucius, Mencius believed that human nature is innate, and not changeable in essence but only in application (Lecture Notes). This means that there is a neutral power that only takes on moral characteristics when it is applied in action, much like atomic energy. Qi is a life force that can be channeled to maximize human nature. In fact, Mencius believes that in order to reach the maximum potential of human greatness, the qi must be understood and harnessed through the disciplined application of will. When a person has an "unmoved mind," the person can harness qi for maximum goodness (cited by de Bary, 1999, p. 127).

The analogy of the child falling down the well becomes a central concept in Mencius's philosophy of human nature. When a person sees a child fall down a well, the person cannot help but to stop and save the child. It is not a matter of "ingratiating himself with the child's parents," performing the act because of the expectation of a reward (Mencius, cited by de Bary, 1999, p. 129). Nor is it fear of punishment. Mencius does not believe that goodness at the most basic level can be learned; it is something already there. It would be inhuman to not feel compassion toward a child. According to Mencius, "All human beings have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others," (cited by de Bary, 1999, p. 129). Later, Xun-Zi disagreed with Mencius. Although Xun-Zi did not use the analogy of the child and the well, it is presumed that Xun-Zi does not believe that all people would stop to save the child. There would be many people who helped the child because they felt that they had to in order to conform to social norms. Human nature is "morally blind" and must be taught the parameters of good vs. bad behaviors (Elstein, n.d., p. 1).

There is also a core political dimension to human nature, because social and political issues are often what bring questions about human nature to light. Corruption, depravity, and misanthropy are explained as failures to develop one's innate goodness. Xun-Zi believed that unethical behaviors are as natural or as likely as ethical behaviors because human nature is self-seeking and potentially negative. If a child has to be taught to do something, then that learning shows that human nature is much baser than Mencius believed. However, even Xun-Zi does not believe people are evil. The philosopher only believed that people are innately neutral and blind. Conflict occurs because "they don't know any better, not because they enjoy conflict," (Elstein, n.d., p. 1). Therefore, no East Asian theorist during the Warring States period believed that human nature was evil or malicious. All believed that human nature was malleable, and needs to be harnessed through personal discipline and social laws.

The East Asian conception of human nature has pragmatic, political, and metaphysical components. Mencius became deeply interested in how one's will and life force can be directed towards the maximization of goodness in human nature. Confucius, Mencius, and also Xun-Zi, saw human nature as "an endowment that can be developed through the course of a life," (Lecture Notes 1). It is a moral responsibility to develop human nature, especially for political leaders. Developing human nature to its fullest potential can be referred to as "delighting" in human nature, to become a fully realized being (Lecture Notes, p. 2). Therefore, it is within the province of human nature to be happy.

Conflict and pain are results of the improper channeling of human nature into ethical activities that bring about maximum social order and harmony. For Confucius and Xun-Zi, this meant following rules and rituals that promote the well-being of society. For Mencius, channeling human nature begins with developing and disciplining the mind. Channeling human nature for political goals is one of the most important things a leader can learn. "What is born in the mind does damage to the government," (Mencius, cited by de Bary, 1999, p. 128). The East Asian concept of human nature evolved as Mencius built upon and expanded Confucius's ideas to show that human nature can be carefully cultivated and channeled in ways that serve not only the best interests of the individual but also the community. Mencius refers to the process of channeling qi "nourishing his valor," (cited by de Bary, 1999, p. 126).

The notion of "flourishing" is central to the conception of human nature in ancient China (Lecture Notes, p. 3). Just as human nature has personal and political dimensions, so too does the concept of flourishing. Flourishing can refer to the flourishing of the individual mind, or the flourishing of society. When one reaches his or her highest potential via the cultivation of qi and mental discipline, it is possible also to contribute to the flourishing of human society. Rules and norms extend from the disciplined application of wisdom. Human nature needs to be harnessed. Like a rider on a horse, the ruler or sage can help other people channel their energy towards maximizing human potential. Good leaders must inspire people, or else it becomes too easy for both the leader and the people to stray from goodness. Human nature needs discipline, lest it revert to a potentially destructive state. This is especially true in the absence of rule of law in the society. Mencius adds a significant political dimension to his discussion on human nature, too, when the philosopher points out the importance of having one's basic needs be met. Rulers who exploit the people are stripping away the potential of the people to reaching their highest potential. People who are starving will not have the ability to cultivate the best in human nature, because they are consumed by the need to feed themselves and their family (De Bary, 1999).

The corpus of East Asian philosophical writings present a conception of human nature that avows the importance of discipline, law, and order. Human nature is basically a neutral force. Even if Mencius believes that human nature has an innate moral character that would never permit a child to suffer, Mencius also believes that one's innate goodness can become corrupt when it is channeled improperly. Thus, even Mencius might note that a man can stray so far from his human nature that it becomes possible to walk away from the well. This would make the man lose his essential nature, and deny himself the possibility of flourishing as a human being. It is somewhat unnatural to allow human nature to be squandered in this way, which is why all of the Warring States era philosophers stress the relevance of discipline.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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