Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism

By Wing-Tsit Chan | Go to book overview

10

What Was New in the Ch'eng-Chu
Theory of Human Nature?

A. C. GRAHAM

AT THE TIME of the rise of Neo-Confucianism there was one philosophical problem that had long obsessed Confucians and upon which they seemed destined never to reach agreement, the goodness or badness of human nature. Man's nature being what he is born with and can do nothing about, it must, like everything else independent of his will, be the work of Heaven; in the words of the opening sentence of the Chung-yunga(Doctrine of the Mean), "It is the destined by Heaven that is meant by the 'nature.'" Should it not follow then that it is by following his own nature that man obeys Heaven, his highest authority? If so, either human nature is good, or morality is baseless. How then do we reconcile the demand for morality with the evidence of common experience that the evil in man is at least as natural to him as the good? When Mencius (372-289 B.C.) defended the goodness of human nature in the late fourth century B.C, three other doctrines were already current: that it is neutral, can become good or bad, is good or bad in different individuals. 1 In the next century Hsün-tzub (313-238 B.C.) pronounced it bad. Later, Yang Hsiungc (53 B.C.-A.D. 18) thought it a mixture of good and bad. This profoundly troubling issue, a threat to the foundations of Confucian moralism, continued to be discussed, urgently and fruitlessly, even at the times when Confucians showed least interest in philosophical abstractions. Thus during the T'ang dynasty (618-907) Han Yüd (768-824) argued that there are three grades of human nature: good, intermediate, and bad; his disciple Li Aoe (fl. 792) sided with Mencius, Tu Muf (b. 803) with Hsün-tzu. 2

The controversy continued right up to the Sung, even among the earlier of those later classed as Neo-Confucians. Chou Tun-yig (1017-1073) treated human nature as mixed. 3 Chang Tsaih (1020-1077) and Ch'eng Haoi (1032‐ 1085) approximated the Mencian doctrine, but both seem to have shared a position commonly held in the early Sung, for example by Su Shihj (1036‐ 1101) and early in the twelfth century by Hu Hungk (1106-1161) that although it is good to act according to the nature, the term "good" cannot properly be applied to the nature itself. 4 But with Ch'eng Yil (1033-1107) something fundamentally new entered the discussion. In defending the good

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