A common misconception in mainstream texts and media is the idea that Confucianism has always been a doctrine for the ruling class whereas Buddhism and Daoism appeal to the “ignorant masses” (Welch & Seidel, 1979, p. 1). However, all three indigenous philosophies have contributed to shaping Chinese culture which views the universe as a harmonious and inter-related whole. While Confucianism puts emphasis on morality and how people should maintain proper relationships to achieve an ideal state of harmony (or ‘harmonisation’ depending on the translation of he, 和), Daoism is more individualistic and mystical, relying on instinct and consciousness rather than rules to govern social conduct (Jing, 2008).
The name daojia, 道家 or “school of the dao” was created by the historian Sima Tan in the text, Shi ji (“Records of the Historian”), which was written in the 2nd century BCE and later completed by his son, Sima Qian. According to Sima Qian’s classification (liujia zhi yaozhi, 六家之要指), the Daoists are one of the Six Schools in Ancient China, which also include the Confucians, the Mohists, the Legalists, the Logicians and the Yin-Yang school (or school of Naturalists). The classification of Daoism as a single school meant that historians compiled a list of texts such as the Laozi, 老子 and Zhuangzi, 莊子 of the pre-Han period that shared similar views on themes related to cosmology and ontology. Some of these themes include discussing ‘the Way’ (dao, 道, lit. “path”) as the ultimate metaphysical force in the cosmos, and ‘wu’ (無, “nothingness” or “nonbeing”), as a state that is complementary to being rather than meaning non-existence. Through the idea of wu, Daoists went one step further than the Greeks by expanding the traditional definition of ontology as examining the ‘being’ or existence of a human being by dealing with the concept of nothingness. This resulted in heated debates during the 3rdand 4thcenturies over whether things in the world were born from nonbeing or being (Chai, 2012). The eventual consensus in the Daoist school was that dao gives birth to both nonbeing and being and so, dao itself must be beyond the sphere of existence and non-existence.
Once institutionalised, the experts and practitioners of Daoism began to promote self-cultivation practices or “techniques of the Way” (dao shu, 道術), which would help individuals realise the daoand live a more harmonious life. While some of these techniques included adopting a sceptical mind and finding meaning in indirect, non-argumentative writing, often in the form of poetry and parable (Hansen, 2007), the political implication of Daoist thought was its opposition to authority, government, and coercion. As Loy (1985)noted, the Daoist concept of “spontaneity” (or wu-wei, 无为, lit. “without exertion”) was contrasted to the Confucian practice of obediently following teachers and traditions. For the Daoists, rules and social conventions restrained individuals from expressing their true nature, while natural movement was a way of promoting freedom and egalitarianism. Hansen (2007) argues that from a Confucian perspective, the rejection of order through authority and rulers was anarchist since the role of government was to promote moral character, whether by education, attraction or force.
However, whether this is a correct understanding of Daoism is debatable. For instance, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy John Clarke (1983) points out that it has become commonplace to identify Daoism and anarchism in political discussions, and Andrew Vincent (1992) adds that “it is also asserted that anarchist themes are to be found within ancient Chinese texts like the Tao te Ching [Daodejing]” (p. 116). But for Feldt (2010), these claims have often been made in passing or without critical engagement. The Zhuangzi also tends to be overcited when linking Daoism to anarchism because it is one of the only pre-Qin philosophical classics that does not make normative political claims. Whereas other Daoist texts like the Daodejing (also called the Laozi) provide theories for rulership and legitimate political power, where the ideal government would exert a minimum amount of interference over individuals (Ames, 1983), the Zhuangzi is silent on political issues and suggests that people should stay away from politics and any external, dominating powers (D’Ambrosio, 2018). Since the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which was dominated by a Bolshevik-style state-party system, anarchist activity and Daoist thought have been isolated and marginalised in the Chinese radicalism movement. Anarchism in China was also more associated with Buddhism because of the large number of Buddhist monks joining the Guangdong anarchist movement in the early 1920s (Dirlik, 2012).
Chinese anarchist visions were largely influenced by the writings of Russian activist and revolutionary Peter Kropotkin (1901), who put forward a version of ‘socialist anarchy’ that called for the abolition of individual property and the emancipation of the individual from the State, which was thought to maintain and reproduce conditions of economic slavery. Although some Maoist policies that integrated agriculture and industry were in line with the anarchist movement’s goals of setting up a more equal society, the emergence of state-based and armed groups such as the Communist Party and the Kuomintang meant that the Chinese anarchist community quickly lost its influence amongst the political elite (Dirlik, 2012). In its historical context, Anarchia, meaning the absence of government in Ancient Greek (coming from the word an-arkhíaor “not authority”), is about organizing society without government or coercion. Mainstream anarchist movements are opposed to states, armies, slavery, the wages system, prisons, all forms of capitalism, bureaucracy, patriarchy, matriarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, and intimidation by gangsters (Rooum, 1995). Anarchism is not perfect freedom in that people are not universally assumed to be altruistic or good. Rather, the movement is based on the belief that although humans are imperfect and can be unpredictable, a non-coercing and non-authoritarian way of organizing society is ethically worth striving for. In other words, anarchism seeks to offer a plausible alternative to current systems of governance where, it is argued, modern-day forms of slavery and brutality increase inequalities and reduce individual opportunity. It should be noted that when anarchism was applied to China, the anarchists did not insist on an anarchism with Chinese characteristics, but tried to apply universal anarchist principles to China’s political situation.
While there are some similarities between anarchist beliefs and Daoist principles, there are also fundamental differences. For example, although both Daoism and anarchism see freedom of the individual as a crucial aspect to human relations and existence, the meaning of freedom in anarchism is socio-political, where an ideal society would be free from oppression and authority, whereas the Daoist freedom is based on metaphysics. In the Daodejing (道德經), it is written that humans should have the freedom to cultivate their natural and simple character that originally comes from the dao. For instance, in chapters 8 and 9 the ideal human condition is described as natural governing “without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks. His work is of talent like the free flow of water. His movement is of right timing like water that flows smoothly. A virtuous person never forces his way and hence will not make faults.” In that case, the cultivation of the self involves action without force. An individual is free in their creativity and accessing this freedom means not holding on to things such as desire and success. While some writers appeal to the noncoercive and nonauthoritarian conception of wu-weias one of the key links between Daoism and anarchism, there are various ways of translating wu-wei. Roger Ames and David Hall (1983) use the term “noncoercion”, but Ames (1994) also generalised the meaning through the terms “noncoercive activity”, “nonaction”, “doing nothing”, and “acting naturally”. D.C. Lau (1963) uses “nonaction”, while Edward Slingerland (2003) refers to wu-wei as “effortless action”. The different translations can have different meanings when discussing political authority. For example, a government that “does nothing” or is non-active seems like an appeal to anarchism, whereas governing through “noncoercive activity” or natural action is to voluntarily govern without relying on force. But the authority would still remain. Thus, Wu-wei is not simply the lack of authority or action. In chapter 43 of the Daodejing, the Sage is advised to do nothing (with a purpose), and in chapter 48 it is stated that a person should arrive at the point of non-action where “there is nothing which he does not do.” Thus, there is still activity, intention, and spontaneity in the meaning of wu-wei as the dao can only be expressed and realised beyond actions and words.
Finally, at no point does Daoism outright reject a ruling authority or the state. This is because, as Xiao Gongquan (1979) states, “what Lao Tzu attacked was not government in and of itself, but was any kind of government which did not conform to “Taoistic” standards” (p. 299). In other words, it is believed that society should be governed by a sage-ruler that follows the standards and spontaneous workings of the dao, which involves allowing citizens to realise their individual freedoms by not applying an excess of laws. In chapter 57 of the Daodejing, Lao Tzu says “Govern the state by being straightforward; wage war by being crafty; but win the empire by not being meddlesome…Hence the sage says, I take no action and the people are transformed of themselves”. Here Lao Tzu puts forward the idea that the state should be non-intrusive with minimal or no taxation and laws so that people can live without unnecessary competition or strife. For Robert Eno (1990), Confucius himself adopted such as Daoist attitude as his political theory was a justification for staying away from government at least until a sage would become a proper ruler. The development of a rule-based, authoritarian Confucianism would later contrast Daoism’s natural spontaneity and scepticism to social control, but to equate Daoism with Western anarchism is to ignore the cultural and historical differences in how both schools of thought developed and influenced Chinese society.
It should be noted that while traditional Confucianism spoke more of virtuous rulers teaching their citizens about correct conduct and moral behaviour, by the early Ming dynasty emperors began adopting an official neo-Confucian theory of foreign policy that allowed for the legitimate use of force (see Feng Zhang, “Confucian Foreign Policy Traditions in Chinese History,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics8 (2): 2015, p. 197-218. https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/pov004).
The Japanese are an often misunderstood people. Arising from a land of paddy fields and feudal landlords about one hundred and fifty years ago, the Asia-Pacific has since come to experience Japan as an imperial aggressor in the Second World War and later an ‘economic miracle’ rising from the rubble of defeat. The cultural component of this miracle has been associated with Japan’s Confucian values of a strong work ethic and obedience to the government (Little & Reed, 1989), but other factors in Japan’s cultural history are – as we will see – also of interest. Japan became the world’s second largest economy until overtaken by China in 2010, and remains strong as the world’s third largest.
In the West, the idea of Japan has often been simplified and eroticised, with patronising and exotic nineteenth-century images of doll-like geishas, farmers with rice hats, and fearless samurai soldiers (Henshall, 2004). After the war, the images still remain strange, fantastical, and even repulsive– from sex robots and whale-culling to the widespread experience of loneliness resulting in rent-a-friend business across Japan.
Among Asian societies, in addition to the wartime atrocities of rape and mass murder, there is an acceptance that Japan has created a reputation for quality mass-produced goods in the global market. In many ways though, Japan is still a ‘fragile power’ as the country remains vulnerable to fluctuations in foreign policies and unpredictable natural disasters. Japan also imports 80 per cent of its energy and is dependent on value added exports for its wealth. This reality has moved the country into imperialism, war, and global trade at various times over the last century. It also calls into question who exactly are the Japanese: Are they peace-loving or war-like? Isolationist or expansionist? Open to other cultures or fearful to engage with others? To understand such a complex picture of Japanese society, it is important to examine the history, myths, and culture of Japan beyond the feudal nineteenth century where most history textbooks begin. This article will briefly examine the pre-Confucian, pre-Buddhist history and mythology to highlight how Japan’s fundamental characteristics have changed and developed over time.
Japanese Anthropology: A Mixture of Influences
According to archaeological accounts, there is evidence that humans existed around modern-day Japan at least 30,000 years ago, but it is unclear who these people were and how they survived (DeFelice, 2010). For Sergey Lapteff (2006), a specialist in the history of cultural exchange, there can be no doubt that the Japanese Palaeolithic period (kyūsekki jidai, 旧石器時代) derived from the larger Asian continent. It is known that around 10,000 years ago, there were gradual changes from the Palaeolithic to the “Jomon” cultural period (Jōmon, 縄文,translated as “rope pattern”), where the last clearly Palaeolithic phases are distinguished by the use of knife-shaped stone tools and stone points, while the first Jomon cultural phases started using punctuate-marked and nail-impressed pottery (Keally, 2009). Although migration from the larger continent never stopped during this period according to Hanihara Kazurō’s 1927 anthropological studies, the Japanese archipelago was already separated from the continent by the sea during the Jomon cultural period. This geographic factor would have had a significant influence on Jomon culture and as Lapteff (2006) notes, many of the pottery found in the sites that are believed to have belonged to the Jomon show features and distinct markings that have not been found anywhere else in north and south-east Asia.
However, in terms of Japanese ethnicity, there is no biological validity to the idea that the Japanese consist of one Jomon-type ethnicity since by the fourth century BCE, a new cultural period emerged (弥生時代, Yayoi jidai) when the Yayoi people, who are named after the neighbourhood in Tokyo where their homes were first found, began to grow rice and use metals like copper, which the earlier inhabitants did not use (Roberts, 2010). According to researchers like Curtis Andressen (2010) and Jim DeFelice (2010), the introduction of new technologies made of iron and bronze as well as artefacts such as mirrors, weapons, and coins suggest that the Yayoi would have come from China and Korea, or at least traded and interacted with people who did. While the exact nature of this migration pattern is still being investigated, Lapteff (2006) points out that during this period the highly developed and organised cultures of the Hemudu河姆渡and Liangzhu 良渚, located in the Yangtze River Delta of China, already had an established rice farming society and the same storage pits that they used were spreading into what is now the Korea peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, and southwards into Indochina.
The presence of wet rice agriculture in uncultivated areas of Japan had a significant impact on Japanese society. For one, rice provided the locals with a high level of food production, which led to an increase in population and expansion of the Yayoi to eastern parts of Japan. Although the Yayoi had no written records, the presence of agriculture would have resulted in high levels of cooperation to build large rice paddies and irrigation systems. This would have influenced Japan’s communal culture and possibly led to specialisation in labour and social stratification with the introduction of social classes and land ownership (Kanaseki & Sahara, 1976). Some of the earliest descriptions of Japan appear in Chinese historical records called “The History of the Kingdom of Wei”, produced around 300 CE, with an extended account of Japanese society (called “Wa” peoples) in a section that chronicles the various “barbarian” peoples on China’s borders. What is known from these accounts is that Japanese society experienced years of warfare under a shaman queen named Pimiko (or Himiko, 卑弥呼, 170–248 CE) over the Yamato people in today’s Nara prefecture. The presence of large burial mounds (called kofun, 古墳) from the extended battles during this period were a key sign that the Yamato clan was gaining power and influence over western and central Japan (Henshall, 2004).
Between the Yayoi peoples and the emergence of the Yamato clan, Japanese society had established a dependency on rice and fish, which forms the basic diet of Japan even today. While there are clear links between Chinese continental cultures and Japan, not all elements of the continental culture were adopted. For instance, Kanaseki and Sahara (1976) state that while there was an extension of the Jomon pottery techniques by the Yayoi, continental developments such as animal domestication, walled cities, and writing was not introduced right away or at all. A key factor to explain this phenomenon could be the different geographic realities of the Yayoi peoples compared to continental cultures. For example, the Yayoi people settled in areas along the coast, where villages were built on hilltops and mountainsides more than 100 metres above sea level. This would make building walled city structures and domestic farms difficult to maintain. Survival priorities during this time would have also limited the creation of a writing system since food production techniques were still being developed.
Early Mythology and Moral Attitudes
The origins of the Japanese writing system can be traced back to Chinese continental culture which codified largely pictographic glyphs into a unified writing style. These were further transformed over many centuries, and by the time the writing system was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks from Korea, Japanese scholars started experimenting and adapting the kanji(漢字) into their own language (Heisig, 1977). It was during the period of the Yamato rulers that a dominant Japanese culture was being established and with the emergence of the writing system came various written mythologies and creation stories. Mythology plays an important role in constructing civilisations and cultural movements and from a historical-ethnographic perspective, allows groups to face problems and adapt to changing situations marked by temporality and human fragility against the natural elements (Morales, 2013). In other words, myths allow humans, both individually and as a collective, to transition“from chaos to cosmos” (Duch, 2002, p. 37). As the Yamato rulers gradually extended their rule over the archipelago through warfare and diplomacy, they justified their control by associating their clan with a story about the beginning of the world, linking the ruling family to creator gods. Eventually, such stories became central to the Shinto (Shintō, 神道, translated as ‘the way of the gods’), a belief system that involves worshipping kami, which can be understood as sacred spirits that take the form of things important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, and fertility (Hammer, 2018). Once writing was introduced to Japan, the Yamato oral traditions were recorded in the Kojiki (古事記, “Records of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihon Shoki(日本書紀, “Chronicles of Japan”), compiled in the eighth century.
One of the myths describes the beginning of the universe as a ‘chaotic mass like an egg’, where there was no division between heaven and earth. Once the purer part separated into heaven and the heavier, impure part of the mass became earth, a number of deities came into existence and they stood on the floating bridge of heaven, thrusting a jewelled spear (a phallic symbol) down into the ocean. As they raised the spear, some water dripped from it and two of the deities, Izanagi (‘He Who Invites’) and Izanami (‘She Who Invites’), turned this liquid into land. The two deities descended and began to populate earth. Numerous divine offspring were produced, not only by vaginal birth but from other bodily parts and even from bodily waste. The God of Fire is one deity born vaginally, and Izanami was burned to death during his birth. Distraught, Izanagi travelled to Yomi (the Land of the Dead), to try to bring Izanami back to the Land of the Living. However, Izanami became ashamed and angered when he saw her maggot-riddled body, and she chased him out of Yomi. As Izanagi bathed himself in a river to wash away the stench of death, deities emerged from his body parts, including the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (‘Light of Heaven’) and the Sea God Susano-o (‘Wild Male’). Izanagi sends Amaterasu to Takamagahara to rule over the heavens, while Susano-o is given the sea to rule. Susano-o, however, disobeys Izanagi, and ends up being banished. Before heading into exile, Susano-o visits Amaterasu in Takamagahara and at his suggestion they produce a number of children. Susano-o then torments Amaterasu by destroying her rice-paddies and smearing excrement on the walls of her palace. Amaterasu retreats into a cave, plunging the universe into darkness. The other deities try to lure her back out with a mirror and jewels. One goddess begins performing a lewd dance, exposing herself and making all the other deities laugh. Intrigued by the laughter, Amaterasu comes out from the cave and the other deities seize her and block the entrance to the cave with a boulder. In another tale, Susano-o finds a sword, which he later presents to his sister Amaterasu as a token of remorse. The sword, mirror, and jewels still form the imperial regalia of Japan in modern times. Susano-o’s son, Okuninushi, is credited with calming the wild land. A hero, he becomes the victim of numerous treacherous acts by his jealous father. Susano-o murders Okuninushi several times, but he is restored to life each time. Okuninushi’s sons eventually agree to let Amaterasu’s descendants rule the land. Her great-great grandson, Jimmu, becomes the first ruler of Japan.” (see Henshall, 2004, chapter 1).
The specific nature of this mythology provides an interesting commentary on life in ancient Japan, a world which was characterised by violence and death, where it was not uncommon for parents to kill or abandon their children.While cruelty and violence are seen in myths and early histories throughout various culture, what is distinctive about Japanese myths is the lack of moral judgement or education. For example, Susano-o, who plays the role of the deceiving, power-hungry trickster, is simply exiled by his father rather than condemned as evil. In that case, behaviour is accepted or rejected depending on the situation, not according to a set of universal principles that should guide all human interaction. For commentators like Yamamoto (1990), such an approach to morality is still present in contemporary Japan where there is extreme context dependency of judging moral actions. This context dependency is believed to be “governed by a morality based on mutual trust…[existing] in its most secure form, among intimates, among those who share a familiarity with one another’s concerns” (p. 451).
The use of these myths for political purposes shows up periodically in Japanese history, especially during the Meiji period in the nineteenth century. In the last century before the Pacific War, it was used to bind the Japanese together by appealing to ultranationalism. The current emperor, Akihito, is said to be the 125th direct descendant of Amaterasu (Jordan, 1996), and the worship of the sun by ultranationalists comes from associating the name ‘Japan’ with the corrupted forms of the Chinese word Jih-pen, which means ‘the place where the sun comes from’ or ‘the Land of the Rising Sun’. Such associations are linked with myths that explain the divine origins of the islands, and the geographic separation of the archipelago from the continent has led to the self-perception that the Japanese are very different from other nationalities, an attitude that still partly endures today, although younger people are increasingly much more internationalised.
The revival of Confucianism, spread of education, emergence of nationalism, and promotion of conformism and obedience, are all important factors in the formation of modern Japan. However, it is clear that from early times, Japan has always had unique cultural developments, often because of its diverse population origins and the racial mixture of its indigenous populations. The process of adapting outsider cultural elements is also what led to the development and success of today’s Japan, with the adoption of technologies such as agricultural techniques to writing systems. From its early stages, Japan was strongly influenced by China as were other countries in the regions further south, and while the idea of ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian cultures’ was later developed by outside influences like Jesuit missionaries during the sixteenth century, Japan interacted with the continent for most of its trade, communication, and cultural contact, meaning that many Asian cultures and societies developed similar basic characteristics. It was this cultural similarity that led a number of intellectuals and politicians to argue for “Asian” solidarity– a theme that is still prominent, particularly in China’s “common destiny” slogans.
Japan’s isolated and rugged geographic reality had a direct influence on the current social values of mutual respect and cooperation, especially since survival is relatively difficult in places with few natural resources and frequent natural disasters. The avoidance of social conflict is matched with the historical struggle of power between clans, and while Japan is a democracy today, the centralised hierarchical ruling is still a factor in Japanese political culture and decision-making. As American anthropologist Ruth Benedict noted, the dichotomy between the chrysanthemum and the sword and the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ aspects of Japanese culture are part of the nation’s historical development, and without these mutually complementary sides of its culture, Japanese society would have not been able to survive to this day.
By Cindy Minarova-Banjac
Part 6 of the 2018 interview with Dr. Alan Chan at Bond University, Australia. Countries such as Korea and Japan were historically under the cultural and political influence of China, which brought Confucianism to these countries. In this video, it is discussed whether Confucianism is just as important to the economic and social development of Asian countries outside of China.
The theory of human nature continues to be popularised in philosophical and biological debates. The nature of something refers to the idea that some traits are an expression of an animal’s inner essence, while other traits are developed because of the animal’s environment. For example, one may debate whether particular breeds of dogs are naturally aggressive or whether their environment necessitates that aggression is key to the dog’s survival. The phrase ‘human nature’ refers to something that all humans share universally. It assumes that there is an essential quality in human behaviour that makes humans distinctly human and not animal-like. In medieval scholarship, it was believed that thing that makes humans especially distinct is the existence of the soul– the first principle of life that is present in all of us. Although biological in that the soul makes up part of living organisms, the soul is not material or corporeal, but made of more ethereal properties (Pasnau, 2011). Descartes followed this line of thinking by making a distinction between the natural world, which simply involved bodies in motion, in comparison to the human world, where individuals were believed to possess an immortal soul.
But what is this essential soul like? Is it kind and good-natured or, as Hobbes posited, are humans naturally self-centred and power-hungry? In the text The Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville reinforced the negative view of human beings as innately selfish and unruly. Thus, it was the duty of law and education to civilise or domesticate humans and make them fit to exist in an ordered society. Discourses and systems of thought and knowledge had to be governed by rules, logic, and grammar that, if taught from an early age, would start shaping the consciousness of individuals. Such an approach could instil values of order in humans to help them control their inner urgers or bestial tendencies. While some people are more susceptible to slipping through the system and being overpowered by their nature, becoming victims of uncontrollable sexuality, insanity or criminality, throughdiscipline, punishment, and normalization techniques, bodies can be ordered and made easier to control (Foucault, 1975; Gutting & Oksala, 2018).
In Chinese history, reflections on human nature (xing性) began to enter the literary tradition around the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ, during the conflict period in the Eastern Zhou dynasty that resulted in significant political, economic, and social changes throughout China. According to sinologist A. C. Graham (1967), it was the doctrines of the Individualists that first posed the problem of human nature when reflecting on the role of Heaven influencing people’s private lives. Unlike Confucius whose philosophy was aimed at creating optimal conditions for social harmony and coexistence, Individualists put emphasis on the necessity for people to take care of their health and body to maintain a good quality of life. According to the Lüshi chunqiu, the most important task is “to keep intact what Heaven has [granted]” (1.2), which includes maintaining one’s health, desires, and ambitions. To avoid disrupting Heaven and the natural flow of life. Individualists argued that humans should stick to their nature and seek to satisfy their desires and ambitions with moderation, and avoid involving themselves in any conditioning, such as political and social life, that could negatively impact the sereneness of achieving their life path. The idea here is that human nature is neither good nor bad, but the essence of humans is to achieve their goals and maintain that sense of tranquillity in life that comes from satisfying one’s desires.
In the first century, Chinese meteorologist, astronomer, and philosopher Wang Chong emphasized the goodness and badness of human beings. Human nature in his writings is described as being malleable since taking part in goodness will cultivate good human nature, while taking part in badness is what leads to evil human traits and behaviours (Lun heng, 1.13). Gaozi, who is only known from the Menciusand who Confucianists identified as a Daoist, disagreed with Wang Chong’s views. For Gaozi, the goodness and badness of people and morality itself is socially constructed and based on the culture that people exist in. For instance, some actions may be considered good and noble in culture X, whereas they are shunned and made taboo in culture Y. In this sense, human nature has nothing to do with being good or bad because we all initially have no conception of right and wrong before we are taught that goodness is what is praiseworthy and positive whereas badness is what should be punished. While Xunzi agreed with Gaozi in that he argued that morality is culture-based, Xunzi went further to state that the origins of evil come from negative feelings that are rooted in human nature. That is not to say that humans are evil, rather that they deliberately violate the rules of morality and sometimes even take pleasure in doing so. This is because people have no conception of morality. At birth, all humans are morally blind, and it is only later that we learn what we should do to exist in an ordered society. If people were inherently good, then there would be no need for people to learn rituals and social norms and keep their desires and impulses in check. Xunzi states that people desire order and goodness and since desire comes from a lack (we only desire what we do not have), then it follows that people are not inherently good. In fact, without learning the Way, feelings like fear, jealously, and greed would inevitably lead people into conflict and disorder.
Gaozi and Xunzi were heavily criticized by Mencius, who outlined various positive values that he believed were innate to human beings. Using an agricultural metaphor, Mencius stated that all humans have good tendencies or “sprouts” (2A6). If these sprouts are taught and cultivated, they would inevitably grow and give life to virtues and morality in society. However, if the sprouts failed to develop, then evil would manifest in human relations. In Mencius’s theory, one could take the example of benevolence as being a sprout. All humans, at least on some occasions, feel compassion when humans and animals suffer, and this compassion always has the potential to turn into benevolent action. All humans also have the capacity to feel shame, and these feelings are expressions of righteousness. But as with any seed or sprout, these good tendencies are not fully formed. Our innate virtues are inconsistent and context-dependent. For instance, a father who is kind to a pig and spares its life from slaughter may ignore the suffering of his own hungry family. To allow good human nature to flourish, people should extend their virtuous inclinations in appropriate situations (Van Norden, 2014). The father has a higher duty in Confucian philosophy to protect his family and ensure their survival and so benevolence for family would override benevolence for pig in this starvation scenario. Thus, though we are inclined towards goodness and humaneness, benevolence is not static and involves understanding the long-term implications of certain actions and the number of lives that could be impacted by these actions. Although a difficult calculation to make, Confucianists posit that it is essential to make these calculations and live in a harmonious social order. Therefore, whether humans are innately good or evil is beside the point. All of these perspectives put forward the idea that humans have the capacity for good and that this capacity should be acted upon since it is necessary for the survival of a polity or community to have rules and standards on right behaviour and social conduct.
In Buddhist philosophy, although the Buddha never directly addressed the question of human nature, it was stated that humans have the capacity to do good and, in the right circumstances, will lean towards goodness. This is because the development of goodness conduces people to have a better and more happier life. In the Milinda Panha, a King was said to ask the Venerable sage Nagasena whether good or evil is greater. Nagasena replied that good is dominant and evil less so because doing evil leads to remorse, while doing good does not lead to remorse and when one is free from remorse, a person becomes glad, and from gladness joyful, and from joyful tranquil, and with a tranquil mind and body one can see things as they really are (passage 84). The clarity of this passage can be disputed. For example, what if one does not feel remorseful from doing something evil? Not all ‘bad’ actions cause people to feel remorse, especially if the person believes that what they are doing is a lesser evil or that such an evil is done with principled intentions (like avenging another person’s grievous wrongdoings, for instance). Likewise, some ‘good’ actions may not cause people to feel joy. Often, what one defines as good actions is dependent on the culture and context and may be conducted out of necessity and not out of good-willed intentions.
Finally, one should also ask whether all human natures are the same. A 2006 psychological study by Harris and Fiske found that a small sample size of American university students exhibited less neural activity when they were shown pictures of homeless people or drug addicts compared to when they were shown higher-status individuals. Kteiley et al.’s study also highlighted that people who opposed Muslim immigration saw Muslims as less evolved. Perhaps then the debate on human nature should start with the proposition, what are humans’ naturesconsidering that there are many types of humans and contexts where good and bad inclinations can develop. Are all people whose sprouts fail to develop bad? What about those who are not aware (or even incapable of being aware) of the consequences of their actions? Also, how should we treat people with bad tendencies? Are we obliged to put them in correctional facilities or hide them from society? It seems that human nature is both socially constructed yet constructing, universal yet historically and culturally specific, and so there should be care when making overarching claims about human goodness or badness and what people should do when someone does not fit into the narrative of an ordered, good, and socially acceptable human.
One of the more arresting claims Aristotle makes in his famous exploration of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics is that you can’t be friends with god. His reasoning is that friendship requires equality, and the gods are vastly superior to us. The argument is a plausible one: it seems difficult or impossible to be friends with a boss, mentor, or teacher in quite the way that one is friends with one’s peers and equals. Indeed we might say that friendship is distinctive precisely in being non-hierarchical. If I am truly your friend, what I am to you is exactly what you are to me.
This thought has been supposed to cause trouble for the followers of Confucius. Confucianism was China’s most influential philosophical tradition for well over two millennia. Its ethical teaching has at its center several hierarchical relationships that were intrinsically bound up with forms of propriety, including rituals. The second most famous Confucian thinker Mencius (372-289 BC) identifies five ‘cardinal relations’, four of which are clearly hierarchical: ruler and subject, father and son, old and young, and husband and wife (Aristotle too sees the latter as an unequal relationship). The odd relationship out is friendship. Friendship seems to fit badly with the Confucian idea of modeling human relationships on family bonds. One possible comparison, which sees friends as having a bond like that between older and younger brother, would not secure the symmetry we’re looking for. Friendship is also anomalous among the cardinal relations in lacking ritual prescriptions, and in being voluntary. You don’t choose your father or (at least in ancient China) your ruler, but you do choose your friends.
Confucius (551-479 BC) would also have had some reason to think that friendships should be unequal. For him the purpose of friendship is the cultivation of virtue. It seems a natural thought that we should therefore befriend those more excellent than us, so as to learn from them. Yet like Aristotle, Confucius insists on symmetry in true friendship, advising, “do not have as a friend anyone who is not as good as you are.”
It’s been argued that in light of this latter rule, Confucius himself could never have made friends at all. His disciples were certainly dear to him, as we see from a passage in his Analects, when he openly grieves for one of them who has died. But does that mean he was this disciple’s friend? David Hall and Roger Ames would say not. In their book Thinking Through Confucius, they asserted, “Confucius is peerless and hence, friendless. To assert that Confucius had friends would diminish him.” His relation with his students was arguably more akin to a hierarchical, familial one, as shown by the fact that he referred to them as his xiaozi, meaning ‘little masters’, or ‘sons’.
In keeping with the equality of friendship, Confucius identifies trust (xin) as its distinctive attitude, whereas a familial relationship would be characterized by an asymmetrical virtue such as filial piety (xiao). Confucius would thus discourage parents from trying to befriend their children, a common trend in modern-day family life. Just as a father cannot be the teacher of his son because their relation is too intimate, so being overly familiar is no way to be familial.
But how exactly do I cultivate excellence by befriending someone who is equal to me? After all it would seem that I have nothing to learn from my moral peer, at least not in the way Confucius describes in this passage from the Analects: “in strolling in the company of just two other persons, I am bound to find a teacher. Identifying their strengths, I follow them, and identifying their weaknesses, I reform myself accordingly.” Instead, it must somehow be that sharing with equal others in the excellent moral life, or at least in the pursuit of virtue, is itself a spur to the good life, or even a constitutive part of it.
Confucius seems to have been convinced that this is so. For one thing, no less than other relationships, friendship gives us an opportunity to exercise virtue. Confucius himself aimed “to bring peace to the old, to have trust in my friends, and to cherish the young,” and in advising us on examining our own character he speaks of reflecting on whether we have always kept our word with our friends. Friendship is also a source of delight, as is made clear in this line from the opening passage of the Analects: “to have friends [peng] come from distant quarters: is this not a source of enjoyment?” Yanguo He informs us that the word peng has a strong implication of ‘like-mindedness’, and may especially indicate the bonds between the students gathered around one master.
This is a hint towards a deeper importance of friends, namely that they are embarked with us upon a joint project of self-cultivation. We do not improve morally by looking to friends as a model for imitation, as we might with a superior. Rather, our affection for them is based on a recognition that they share with us our greatest pursuit. To illustrate this idea, the scholar Xiufen Lu gave the example of the tale of Bo Ya, a musician whose mastery was fully appreciated only by his friend Zhong Ziqi. When Zhong died, Bo Ya smashed his instrument, on the grounds that playing without being understood is pointless.
Likewise, Confucius occasionally complained about being unappreciated by the morally inept. This may come as a surprise, but is simply the counterpart of the joy he took in associating with those who shared his values. Birds of a feather really do flock together, ideally by taking wing towards the heights of virtue.
© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018
Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.
*This original article can be found here.