Human Nature in Chinese and Greek Philosophy: External or Internal?, Piter
(This is a paper written for a philosophy class. Hopefully it will be valuable to those researching or interested in the subject.)
The philosophers in the syllabus of our class frequently wrote in response to ideas about human nature, or presented their own. Human nature is a difficult subject to draw conclusions about, because it encompasses and exceeds any worldly evidence that could be provided to support or refute any one of its many facets. Although we cannot easily construct a proof to demonstrate without a doubt that human nature is any one thing, philosophical questioning may be able to yield a new understanding of the question, if not an answer.
I have chosen to write about two of the Confucian Chinese philosophers, Mencius and Hzün Tzü, and a Greek philosopher, Plato. This paper is an extension of the topic of human nature, a condensation and rephrasing of what two of those authors have said and my attempt to find some aspect of human nature both authors can be said to agree on.
Chinese Philosophy falls into topical categories; roughly divided into political, personal, metaphysical and spiritual spheres. The philosophers spent a good amount of time refuting each others beliefs, so books written in succession by different writers tend to go along the same thematic lines, because a debate is going on. As a result, each author addressed questions on the nature of human life, such as social order and human goodness, in order to defend the comprehensive world view they believed in.
The first is made up of topics relating to the governing of a political state. 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, as when King Hsüan approaches Hzün Tzü and asks “Everyone advises me to pull down the hall of light…”(Mencius p.65) Mencius advocated for kings to have a good foundation for understanding human nature, so the people would be inclined to follow a beneficial patriarch who understood his subjects and their needs. 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. Historically, it’s fairly clear that they never could have perfected this practice, because there was always some degree of war and poverty in ancient China (the Tso Chüan), which wasn’t in line with the ideals of good governing held by the rulers. I leave this open to dispute, but it is also true that although a ruler influences the decisions of his people, they ultimately make their own decisions given the means they are allowed. Given these two assumptions, a ruler has only nominal or suggestive control over his people, as opposed to direct control of their actions or opinions. So, any prediction or assumption about the past, present, or future activities of human beings relies on a single, functional idea of human nature.