Confucianism – and Arminianism
1. Human nature
One of the most important areas in which Confucianism exerts an influence on the faith of Chinese Christians is anthropology – that is, what we believe about the nature of human beings.
Our anthropology is important because what we think is the nature of people influences all manner of things: it influences how we preach to people, how we do evangelism, how we believe people grow as believers. And so it’s important for us to get our anthropology right!
In this post we’re going to consider the anthropology of Confucianism. We’ll do this by firstly considering Confucius himself, before we also look at Mencius and Xunzi, two significant Confucian writers. This will give us a good handle on the kind of things that are in the philosophical background for those influenced by Confucianism.
2. Confucius – silence on human nature
Confucius (551-479 BC) taught his disciples very clearly about the use of rites to train oneself to become a virtuous man. As he went about doing this, his focus was not at all on theoretical questions such as original nature of humans. Instead he concentrated on practical questions such as how one perfects oneself. In 1.15 of the Analects, we find the Confucian metaphor of carving horn, sculpting ivory, cutting jade and polishing stone – metaphors that describe the process of perfecting oneself. In that string of metaphors, the important factor is the process of caving, sculpting, cutting and polishing – processes which are equivalent to learning and observing the rites.
But what did Confucius believe about that original nature of humans? did he believe that we are originally good in nature? or that we are originally evil? It’s not clear what Confucius thought, as this was one of the areas that he remained quiet about. Here is a famous passage from the Analects:
Tzu-Kung said, Our Master’s views concerning culture and the outward insignia of goodness, we are permitted to hear; but about Man’s nature (xìng, 性) and the ways of heaven he will not tell us anything at all.”
Analects, 5.12 (tr. Arthur Waley).
As a result, there is great debate among scholars, with some finding slender threads of support in the Analects for one position or another (eg. Analects 6.16-17). But really, the closest Confucius ever seems to get in talking about nature are passages such as this one:
The Master said, “By nature (xìng, 性) , men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.”
Analects, 17.2 (tr. James Legge).
Even in this passage you can see that his focus is very squarely on practice – and not on nature. And so when it comes to human nature, the consensus is that Confucius never really gave a solid answer, but simply left the question open.
3. Mencius – the goodness of human nature
After his death however, the question of man’s nature became a point of debate between the disciples of Confucius. One of the foremost disciples of Confucius was Mencius (372-289 BC), who believed in the essential goodness of human nature. He believed that humans become evil when they fail to develop that potential, or cultivate what goodness there is. He taught that the seed for the virtues (such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, knowledge) are already inside us at birth, and only need to be encouraged.
The feeling of commiseration belongs to all men; so does that of shame and dislike; and that of reverence and respect; and that of approving and disapproving. The feeling of commiseration implies the principle of benevolence (ren); that of shame and dislike, the principle of righteousness (yi); that of reverence and respect, the principle of propriety (li); and that of approving and disapproving, the principle of knowledge (zhi). Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge are not infused into us from without. We are certainly furnished (duan) with them.
For Mencius, virtue was not a far-off goal to journey towards, but the home (or ‘tranquil habitation’) to which a person is to return:
To say—”I am not able to dwell in benevolence or pursue the path of righteousness,” is what we mean by throwing one’s self away. Benevolence (ren) is the tranquil habitation of man, and righteousness (yi) is his straight path. Alas for them, who leave the tranquil dwelling empty and do not reside in it, and who abandon the right path and do not pursue it!
In 6A.8 Mencius makes use off the analogy of a mountain that was once covered with luxurious trees – but which is now bare because people from a nearby town constantly cut down its trees, and by the constant grazing of sheep and cattle. He comments that,
People, seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it never had any trees. But can this possibly be the nature of the mountain? Can what is in man be completely lacking in moral inclinations? A man’s letting go of his true heart is like the case of the trees and the axes. When the trees are lopped day after day, is it any wonder that they are no longer fine?
The point he is making is that like the tree-covered mountain, humans begin life as essentially good persons, and it is only by exposure to bad examples that a person turns bad. Yes, if you look at people now they appear bad – but that is not their original nature.
How then can a person be made restored to his original goodness? Here Mencius picks up on Confucius’ thought much more explicitly, believing one can perfect oneself through proper education. Here is Mencius again, carrying the metaphor of the mountain further:
Hence, given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.
For Mencius, the rites (li) were the means by which humans preserved and further cultivated that goodness that already resides inside of them.
4. Xunzi – the evil of human nature
However Mencius was not the only one who attempted to fill the void left by Confucius. In stark contrast to Mencius, another disciple named Xunzi (312–230 BC) believed that human nature was essentially evil. He lived and taught just after Mencius, and explicitly interacted with Mencius’ belief in the essential goodness of human nature.
Mencius states that man is capable of learning because his nature is good, but I say that this is wrong. It indicates that he has not really understood man’s nature nor distinguished properly between the basic nature and conscious activity.
Xunzi taught that humans are born with natural instincts – evil ones – that, if not guided and controlled, led to bad behaviour and social disruption. He writes unequivocally that,
Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity.
The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear.
He is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear.
Man is born with the desires of the eyes and ears, with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If he indulges these, they will lead him into license and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct forms will be lost.
Hence any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal.
However Xunzi believed that it was possible for humans to be transformed through observing ritual practices (li), so that harmony rather than disorder would prevail in the world. According to Xunzi, these ritual practices served to restrict and control human appetites and desires that rage within ourselves, giving them their proper, orderly expression.
In several places Xunzi makes use of the analogy of how a bent piece of wood may be straightened, or how a piece of metal may be sharpened, as a way to explain the role of this moral education. He writes that,
A warped piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape before it can become straight; a piece of blunt metal must wait until it has been whetted on a grindstone before it can become sharp.
Similarly, since man’s nature is evil, it must wait for the instructions of a teacher before it can become upright, and for the guidance of ritual principles before it can become orderly.
If men have no teachers to instruct them, they will be inclined towards evil and not upright; and if they have no ritual principles to guide them, they will be perverse and violent and lack order.
You can see that in line with both Confucius and Mencius, Xunzi also acknowledges the place of education in training a person to become good.
On first glance, it can seem as though what we have here is a debate about human nature that is similar to the debate in Western theology between Calvinism and Arminianism. After all, within Confucianism we seem to have two poles of opinion: one which holds to the essential evil of human nature (Xunzi), and another which holds to the essential goodness of human nature (Mencius).
However it’s important for us to note that this is not really the case. Because both Mencius and Xunzi believe in the perfectibility of the person through means of education. While it is true that Xunzi teaches that human nature is evil, he still believes in the essential rationality of the person, and the ability to choose that which is good. In Xunzi’s thought, evil resides in our passions – but it does not touch our mind.
Here is a contemporary assessment of Xunzi’s teaching about the mind. Notice how the mind is able to choose to do good:
By stressing that human nature is evil, Xunzi singled out the cognitive function of the mind (human rationality) as the basis for morality. We become moral by voluntarily harnessing our desires and passions to act in accordance with societal norms. This is alien to our nature but perceived by our mind as necessary for both survival and well-being.
Tu Weiming, “Confucius and Confucianism”.
By contrast, Reformed Christians believe that the Bible teaches that our will, and even our thinking is affected by the fall (eg. Romans 1:21ff), and so unregenerate people are unable to choose to do good. In theology, this is referred to as the noetic effects of the fall and makes essential the work of regeneration.
And of course Mencius’ understanding of the goodness of humans is clearly at odds with the Bible’s understanding of the fall. Far from being ‘naturally good’, passages like Genesis 6:5, Psalm 51:5 and Romans 5 argue for a much bleaker assessment of the human condition. Mencius’ position actually shares similarities with a Christian heresy called Pelagianism.
Therefore while the poles of thought in Confucianism might seem to be analogous to the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, it is actually more analogous to the differences between Arminianism and Pelagianism.
This means that the philosophical background for those influenced by Confucianism may actually lead to a tendency towards Arminianism at best – and Pelagianism at worst. Because historically, these have been the classical categories for understanding human nature.
Could this account for preaching and evangelism which only addresses the will? rituals that highlight human decision making? Could this account for preaching styles that holds up moral examples for people to follow?
In any case, it highlights that, at the very least, in discussions about Calvinism vs Arminianism, we won’t simply be contending with exegetical questions. We will also be striving against a long-standing, historical commitment to the ability of the mind to choose to do good…