Kongzi, or Confucius, often known as the Socrates of the east, has been a pretty influential figure in the Chinese culture. He is considered to be the first man in China to emphasize on education for everyone and its role in building one’s character. Based on the learning abilities, he considered humans to belong to upper, middle or lower groups. However, his view on human nature has not been well- documented. From whatever we know, he only spoke once directly about the human nature. In The Analects of Confucius XVII, verse 2, he said that by nature, the humans are made to be close to one another and grow apart only by practice. What he meant was, when we are born, we have same needs, same lifestyle, thus are similar to each other. During the course of our growing up, we perform actions, receive feedback, act on it and our paths begin to diverge from each other. This cycle shapes our lives and personalities. He also points out that one trait that we all share is our potential to grow; we differ from each other by our individual degree of growth.
Mozi or Master Mo, a Chinese thinker, came forward as the first major intellectual rival to Confucius. He believed in the “impartial concern for each other” school of thought. He preached the doctrine of universal love, which identifies no distinction between self and the others, and the welfare of the society is equally important as self-welfare. He held firmly to the thought that, given the human nature, people can be made to practice selfless concern through right thought leadership.
Yang Zhu’s explanation of human nature was in contrast to both these philosophies. A philosopher and the founder of Yangist School of thought, he emphasized that people should act and behave according to the human nature and human nature is to think about self. He emphasized that the Confucian and Mohist philosophies focused on to be willing to sacrifice self-desires to fulfill others’ well-being claiming it to be the will of the Heaven and was thus, unnatural. The deeper thought behind this was to free oneself of any compassion towards others to achieve self-satisfaction. Any kind of interaction with others would affect their life and may prove to be harmful in future, and the harm to others would bring self-suffering. While the others considered him as an egoist, he labeled himself as a preacher of naturalism. He did not desire fame, money or long life. Fame, he believed, would hide his actual personality and a long life would mean more unfulfilled wishes and thus, more suffering. Due to this self-centered philosophy, he was often criticized and was known to never have performed any action, even as small as pulling out of hair, for the combined good of the society.
Mengzi or Master Meng, a Chinese thinker, had made immense contribution to Confucianism. According to his theory, all human beings possess and share inner goodness, which can either be developed into right direction through proper education or swayed away through negligence. According to him, the human goodness was made up of four basic human sentiments: empathy (humanness), dislike and shame (righteousness), modesty (propriety) and an understanding of right and wrong (wisdom). The application of these sentiments in daily life is what he considered to be true morality.
Human beings are considered to be the social animals and hence, adjusting self for the well-being of others and the peace to prevail is the need of the hour today. In the current world scenario, Mengzi’s theory on the human nature makes the most sense, because even though it was built over Confucianism, it answered the questions Confucius did not or failed to. Hence, it is more complete than any of the other theories.
Mengzi was regarded as the greatest thinker of Confucianism after Confucius himself. He stood to protect Confucianism from other influential schools of thought, especially of Mozi and Yang Zhu. His philosophy on “Our nature is good” made him to be known as the true preacher of Confucianism.
- Ren (Human – heartedness)
- Li (Observing rites, feeling of modesty)
- Yi (Righteousness, feeling of dislike and shame)
- Zhi (sense of right and wrong/wisdom)
These four “sprouts” of human behavior formed his response to the Yangist and the Mohist theories. Mozi did not agree that the human beings had any ethical obligations, and in the absence of any such obligation, living a life of impartial and undistinguished concern is seemingly impossible. Mengzi, on the other hand, believed that these four sprouts, when cultivated properly, lead to the development of ideal human moral behavior and can train people to care impartially for the welfare of the society as well as self-well-being. Yang Zhu preached that the human nature is imbibed in heaven, and by serving to self-desires, one serves the Heaven. He discarded the ethical obligations of human beings and emphasized that the human beings are driven by biological needs. As long as the biological drive is satisfied, a human being can lead a life of satisfaction and harmony. For Mengzi, ethical drive took priority over the biological needs.
He believed that all the humans held the potential to achieve true morality, but there is a gap between the ideal moral behavior and the way we exhibit in our daily lives owing to the corruptible tendencies of humans. He considered the mental processes, such as emotions and feelings, to be a type of biological activities, and hence, the mind was not to be treated separately from the body. To achieve true harmony, the mind (thinking) should complement our actions.
He emphasized and encouraged enlightened self-interest. One such application in the daily life is our affection and compassion for the neighbors. We love others’ children because we love our own. If our children irritate us, we would tend to stay away from others’ children as well. He believed that our love for others is an extension of self-love. Unless and until we learn to love ourselves, we cannot love others. One needs to develop their ability to extend their love to others impartially and treat the whole world as one family. Rituals took a back seat in his philosophy and human relationships were paid more attention. He believed the nature of the universe to be moral, with the human emotions being its primary driver.
Over the time, people have understood that to live peacefully, it is important to live in harmony with each other. Self-centeredness has always led to wars and concern for each other’s welfare has helped peace prevail. Humans have biological needs to satisfy, but even they are driven by ethics. Feelings and sentiments take a priority over physical needs. When we see a beggar being abused while being given the food and the beggar rejecting it even at the cost of his life, we know that mutual respect and ethics have an upper hand over the survival itself. Thus, the current need of the hour is to discard self-focused egoism and embrace Mengzi’s “Our nature is good” philosophy.
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