Taming Human Nature? Reflections on Xunzi and Hobbes

It is a common practice to compare Thomas Hobbes with the ancient Chinese philosopher, Xunzi. Indeed, for the student who is acquainted with Hobbes and Western Philosophy but unfamiliar with Ancient Chinese philosophy, accessing Xunzi through the lens of Hobbes can help provide a tractable entry point into a different philosophical tradition. This is because, like Hobbes, Xunzi takes human nature to be bad and envisions a state of nature that, on account of human badness, is chaotic and violent. And like Hobbes, Xunzi justifies the establishment of political authority because it brings order and peace in place of chaos and violence. But the common starting points of these philosophers should not obscure some very significant differences that come to the fore on further comparison. While Hobbes believes that a powerful political authority with strong laws can maintain a well-ordered society in spite of bad human nature, Xunzi believes that a well-ordered society must also require some reformation of human nature. Thus in addition to effective laws, a truly stable and harmonious political society must also encourage the practice of rituals across the different areas of human life through which human nature is corrected. This difference with Hobbes furthermore invites a more general question with respect to human nature and political society. Is the end of political society that of securing peace and cooperation among people (regardless of their nature), or is it ultimately that of moral self-cultivation?


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