Introduction to Asian Philosophies: Mengzi and Zhuangzi views on Human Nature
Mencius (Chinese: Mengzi) and Zhuangzi are Chinese scholars who authored various concepts that have formed the basis of many philosophical concepts today. They are famous for their thoughts concerning different issues about life and human nature. The positions of Mengzi and Zhuangzi are different and this analysis seeks to explain the reasons for their thoughts, the basis of their deductions and points out the best view of the two concerning human nature.
Mengzi was born in a turbulent and violent era during which various states competed for leadership of all China. Although many philosophers of that time wished to provide an intellectual solution to these unending feuds, they differed on how and whether the ruler was to consider moral limitations on religious ceremonies, power and the welfare of his servants. This resulted in the development of the Mencius text. The text includes the teachings to his followers and the dialogues he had with the philosophers and leaders of his time. Mengzi claimed that human nature is good. He asserts that, “everyone has a heart-mind which feels for others”. He further gives the example of a child who falls into a well in the presence of onlookers, “They all have a heart-mind that is shocked and sympathetic. He further relates, “It is not for the sake of being good to the child’s parents, and it is not for the sake of winning the praise for neighbors and friends” but rather because of their nature (Mencius, and Lau 46). In relation to reasoning, he does not mention anything about automatic cognitive reaction to suffering but states that the feeling is what counts. He argues that, “without a heart-mind that sympathizes, one is not human; without a heart-mind aware of shame, one is not human…” With this, he makes the assertion that human beings feel for others.
Mengzi further identifies, shame, judgment, sympathy and deference as the four fundamental qualities of the heart-mind. According to him, any human being having the “four sprouts” within themselves can develop them to the fullest and gain the ability to protect the whole world. On the contrary, by not being able to develop them, a person will not even be able to serve their parents at the least. In other words, Mengzi acknowledges empathy for the suffering of others is what makes us virtuous beings. He also argues that being righteous is an inherent attribute in human beings. It is not acquired by social orientation of any kind. In his view, “rightness” is just like any other visceral activity such as hunger or thirst. Mengzi also uses his thoughts on moral psychology to explain how to avoid moral failure. He defines moral failure as the inability to develop ones heart-mind. He points out that engaging in regular acts of “rightness” will boost the state of ones heart-mind. He offers a theory involving qi (vital energy) which he describes as a “hard thing to speak about” (Mencius, and Lau 64). He describes it as a ‘fluid-vapor’ found in the human body and the atmosphere that affects ones well being and regulates cognitive processes. It is abundant in the atmosphere during the night and early in the morning, which is why breathing in fresh air can act as an effective spiritual and physical tonic. In summary, both biological and cultural factors are essential for cultivation of the heart-mind. Environmental factors transform the heart-mind just as food changes the body.
Zhuangzi also known as “Master Zhuang” developed theories on human nature similar to those expressed by Mencius although they had little to no communication between them. He espoused a holistic view of life and encouraged people to refrain from the simulated social and cultural norms in order to live a simple, happy and fulfilling life. He was adamant in his belief advocating for a mode of understanding that is not conformed to a fixed system, one that maintains a pragmatic social outlook of society. Zhuangzi was born during a warring period around the same time as Mengzi was born. Different states were competing for imperial power over china. This situation resulted in what is known as the baijia, many schools of thought that articulated various conceptions of how best to return the region to a state of peace. These schools of thought included that of Confucius, Mozi (“Master Mo”) and the Daojia. Zhuangzi developed his school of thought based on these three. According to Zhuangzi, confining ourselves to our social roles, values and expectations is inadequate in helping us appreciate the nature of things. What we need is to see how we can structure and restructure the nature of these things. We can only do this by wondering beyond the limits of the familiar. This will involve freeing our minds and evaluating ourselves, renew our worlds and as a result begin to understand the natural transformations that affect us. We do not only cross the horizontal boundaries, but we also rise to greater heights. This brings about the distinctions between the small and the great or the petty and the vast. This encourages us to drop familiarity, embrace the unknown and in turn learn new things without the need for words.
Although he encourages people to venture into the unknown, he states that we cannot be sure of what is good or bad for us, or how something feared such as death might be a blissful awakening from the trials and miseries of life. Accepting to wander from the norm will enable us accept changes in different things and refrain from distinguishing them into acceptable and unacceptable. Zhuangzi also focuses on the issue of protecting oneself while in a dangerous situation. He is skeptical of the ability of a person to come up with a perfectly effective plan to deal with a dangerous situation especially with the complexities of such an uncertain world. He perceives nature as portraying an unusual kind of intelligence with which our wisdom cannot match. He argues that humans cannot keep up with this level of wisdom. He makes up a story and narrates how a strict follower of Confucius attempts to ‘rectify’ a king famous for his brutality and selfishness. He states that this is not only dangerous, but also misguided. In his view, little can be done to change a world that is corrupt, but if a person has to try, then they should be aware of the nature of things before hand and the repercussions of their actions. He also compares those who fail in their attempts to bring harmony to characters with ugly bodily deformities. Some he says are born with these deformities. These he says were born with a natural inadequacy in their capacity that is beyond the human range. This unusual physical form is a sign with deeper meaning and significance that connects them their ancestors; evidence that these people have “gone beyond” (Zhuangzi, and Towler 36). Going beyond he says, is beyond human and inhuman but not necessarily to become inhuman. Zhuangzi also discussed the relationship of the human and the inhuman. He states that the greatest level of wisdom is to know the relationship between the two. Thus, it is a mistake to make a person choose between the two. Human life is indispensable from the natural, therefore cannot deny its own humanity.
Although these two positions differ in many aspects, in my opinion they are both right. Mengzi declared that human nature is inherently good. He states that a person possesses the innate knowledge of good. Zhuangzi on the other hand, argued that a person should free himself or herself from the world and refrain from limiting himself or herself based on social roles and expectations. These two views when combined are sufficient in bringing fulfillment to a person. While it is indeed important that humans possess the ability to be sympathetic toward others in a difficult situation, humans should try to see these situations not merely as terrible things but rather as potentially blissful and release from the troubles that come with life. According to Zhuangzi, these natural ills are an inevitable part of life, and therefore freeing oneself will enable a person to release themselves from the conventional judgments of the society. Mengzi’s argument is right in many aspects. He says, “No man is devoid to a heart sensitive to the suffering of others. Such a sensitive heart was possessed by the Former Kings and this manifests itself in compassionate government, it was as easy as rolling it in your palm…” (Mencius, and Lau 36). He recommended this style of leadership for the leaders of his time and emphasized that it made leadership more effective.
It is also true that efforts would be needed to recover person’s heart-mind (their good nature). He relates, “There was a time when the trees were luxuriant on the Ox Mountain, but as it is on the outskirts of a great metropolis, the trees are constantly met by axes…People seeing only its baldness, tend to think that it had never had any trees. But can it possibly be the nature of a mountain?” A man’s letting go is symbolized by the action of axes on the trees. “Hence given the right nourishment, the there is nothing that will not grow, while deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.” (Mencius, and Lau 40). Zhuangzi’s argument is also quite accurate. His central theme is that of fun and freedom. Through his work, he raises the question, “How is a human being to live in a world ruled by suffering, chaos and absurdity?” Although many would offer plans designed to rehabilitate an individual or the society, Zhuangzi’s argument was different. His responds by saying that only by freeing themselves from the world would people be able to live peacefully. He tells a story of a man named Nan-jung Zhu who visited the Daoist sage Laozi hoping that he would find a solution to his worries. Laozi asks him, “Why did you come with all these people?” (Zhuangzi, and Towler 92). The man turned around to see that no one was behind him. The “crowd” in Zhuangzi’s view is the baggage of outdated ideas of wrong and right, life, death among other things. He believed that if a person were to stop classifying things as good and bad, then these ills would disappear.
These natural ills would be seen as a normal part of life that cannot be prevented. In doing this, a person does not necessarily withdraw from the world in literal sense, but refrains from acting out of the normal impulses with which other men struggle. These two scholars provide theories that are very practical in the present day. Zhuangzi’s theory however may be misunderstood to mean that ignoring the evils in the society will alleviate pain and suffering which is not the case. He insists that this outlook of life helps human beings to accept suffering or death as an inevitable part of life. These two texts prove to be sufficient in creating harmony in the society when combined. Over emphasis on Mengzi’s view would mean that we confine ourselves to specific views engrained in our society and resist change. Too much focus on Zhuangzi’s view on the hand may result in unregulated freedom. These two concepts when combined would provide the optimum quality of life for a human being.
Mencius, and D C. Lau. Mencius. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Zhuangzi, and Solala Towler. The Inner Chapters: The Classic Taoist Text: A New Translation of the Chuang Tzu with Commentary. London: Watkins Publishing, 2010. Print.