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Xunzi, Revisionist Confucian

A couple of generations after Mencius, a Confucian scholar appeared whose name was Xunzi. He lived from 315 to 236 and, like Mencius, he was to be looked upon as a great contributor to Confucianism. As a Confucian he believed in education, activism, class hierarchies and accessing heaven's powers through religious rites, but he believed that earlier Confucianists had erred in believing that the order and virtues of the early Zhou dynasty could be re-established. He called on Confucianists to give up what he saw as their excessive idealization of the past.

Xunzi revised the Confucian view of human psychology. He argued against the view of Mencius that all men were born with a nature that was essentially good. He put himself more in accord with what would be the view of modern psychology: that goodness was a product of socialization – what Xunzi called learning. Xunzi believed that one should ask not whether humanity was basically good but what was the source of people doing evil. Befitting his Confucianism, and contrary to Taoism, he concluded that evil was the work of impulse, that impulses had to be controlled and that this was accomplished by reason. Correct behavior, he believed, came from the teachings of the sages and could therefore be learned by striving. Believing in reason, Xunzi attacked those religious practices that he thought unreasonable, including fortune telling.

Xunzi opposed the Taoist claim that people should submit to nature. He argued that the destiny of humankind involved humans acting willfully on nature. Also contrary to the Taoists he saw recourse to the ills of his time not in the skepticism and withdrawal but in leaders of society understanding and discriminating between wise and foolish policies. This ability to discriminate, he believed, was what distinguished humans from beasts.


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