Monday, October 1

Reading assignment: Xunzi

Naturalism was the rising intellectual trend of third century China, and for this reason, Xunzi, in his attempt to defend the Confucian vision that moral authority and value standards should derive from sage history and ritual culture, was taking on a tough and popular intellectual opponent. The book that bears the name of Xunzi - some of which was surely composed by his followers after his departure from the Jixia Academy in Qi late in life - is perhaps the most intellectually ambitious work of its time. In fact, the Xunzi is sometimes compared for its breadth of philosophical vision to the works of Aristotle (though it cannot compare in length and detail of argument).

Xunzi did not confine his intellectual targets to the Naturalists: the Mohists, the Daoists, and schools that exploited the structural ambiguities of language to challenge the possibility of acquiring certain knowledge of any kind were all subject to his critiques. Nor did he spare members of his own Confucian school whom he believed had made dangerous intellectual compromises, particularly Mencius, whom Xunzi viewed as having surrendered far too much to the Naturalists in conceiving human ethics as a set of natural intuitions, built into mankind by a transcendent moral agent: Tian (Heaven).

The chapter we'll read, Xunzi's "Treatise on Tian" (which could be translated, in this context, as the "Treatise on Nature," rather than the "Treatise on Heaven"), was Xunzi's most eloquent effort to lay groundwork for refuting both Mencius and the Naturalists at once, by arguing that man, not Tian or Nature, is the starting point of human value.