A comparison between Mencius and Hzün Tzü versus Plato
The Chinese philosophers often put their efforts into giving council and advice to kings. A king would approach the philosopher with a question in need of resolution. These philosophies were valuable to kings for purposes of security, because the philosophers gave them advice on what would happen in a society after the king’s decisions were made and implemented. In this sense, Chinese political understanding of human nature attempted isolate the elements of human behavior essential to the functioning of the state and find the social laws governing them.
Each of the philosophers has a different approach to diagramming the composition the individual. The most important thing to realize is that Hzün Tzü argues that man’s nature is evil, while Mencius believes in the goodness of humans.
- Mencius is known for saying, “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others.”(Mencius, 82) The derivation for this he gives is that the motivation for human compassion is separate and distinct from selfish cause and effect, or any other end than being an end of its own.
- He says “The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence…”(Mencius, 83) When the man in the example sees the girl about to fall into the well, he is driven to compassion for no reason of his own, but a genuine reason of human recognition.
- Hzün Tzü violently refutes this and postulates that “Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity.”(Hzün Tzü, p. 157) He believes that what is natural to humanity is “that part of man that cannot be learned or acquired by learning.”(Hz p.158)
- According to his doctrine, hunger would be an evil aspect of human nature because it requires no learning to be able to have hunger, since hunger is present from the moment of birth.
- He gives an example of his idea of the good man: “Although he is hungry, he will not dare to eat in the presence of his elders.”(Hz, 159) Some degree of restraint of material desires is seen throughout Chinese writing as a proper way to show respect and follow the rituals.
- If this restraint is not present in society, the people will act by nature on their excess desires and “wrangling and strife” will occur.
- To the traditional Chinese doctrine that ritual brings honor to society, Hzün Tzü adds that any honorable behavior is the result of education. He says “In the ancient times the sage kings realized that man’s nature is evil…and accordingly they created ritual principles and laid down certain regulations in order to reform man’s emotional nature and make it upright…”(Hz p. 158)
- Plato describes an entirely different kind of philosopher with the role of challenging and questioning figures of authority rather than advising and instructing them.
- Plato’s idea of human nature centers around the questions presented by morality. Chinese philosophy is different, in that the event of a selfish or harmful decision is seen in political discussion. They do a lot of talking about what a group of people will most likely do in a given situation.
- Plato is attempting to understand the nature of each human as an individual, rather than humanity as a whole, and attempting to define and (eventually) validate his morality. The Chinese rarely took it into consideration that evil or discordance could come as a result of the conscious processes of an individual [as the result of a moral decision].
- Plato thinks that a man left alone and unpunished will be left in separation from the knowledge of good, and he will slowly become miserable from a lack of spiritual healing that could be brought on through the system of justice. From this it seems that an need to understand the good is a part of human nature, and essential to its health. Therefore, Plato concludes that it is better to suffer wrong than to commit wrong.
- Callicles would say that since fulfillment of needs is a part of human nature, it gives the greatest pleasure in life to live for the purpose of fulfilling needs. [Plato, peaking through] Socrates disagrees with this, indicating he believes the greatest happiness is not synonymous with the greatest pleasure, and that he looks to something outside of human nature for the greatest human happiness. This is comparable to Hzün Tzü’s feeling that human goodness is found in looking outside of human nature, with one essential difference: Plato believes that the good, which is critical to human nature and human happiness, should be reflected in the individual’s actions towards the outside world, and correspondingly that any deviation from this will result in unhappiness.
So, from the findings of these three sources, it looks like there is an initial disagreement as to whether human nature is found internally, ingrained in his being (Mencius), or externally, and acquired through conscious understanding (Hzün Tzü). It’s possible Plato provides the missing link by saying it is the nature of man to realize the good that is external to him.