(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.

For example, Mencius again comes to see King Hsüan of Ch'i. He mentions that “You no longer have trusted ministers...they have all disappeared without your even being aware of it.”(Mencius p. 67.) He goes on to tell the king never to listen directly to his councellors when making deciding on the trustworthiness or guilt of one of his subjects, but rather he should see for himself and act accordingly. In this way, the king rules his state by his understanding of human nature, and then, “Only by acting in this manner can one become father and mother to the people.”(Mencius p.68.)

Secondly, each of the philosophers have a different approach to diagramming the composition the individual. The most important thing to realize is that Hzün Tzü argues that man's nature is evil, while Mencius believes in the goodness of humans. That's not to say the two are undeniably opposed, only that the two authors approach the subject from different initial perspectives.

To begin comparison, Mencius is known for saying, "No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others."(Mencius, 82) The derivation for this he gives is that the motivation for human compassion is separate and distinct from selfish cause and effect, or any other end than being an end of its own. He says “The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence...”(Mencius, 83) When the man in the example sees the girl about to fall into the well, he is driven to compassion for no reason of his own, but a genuine reason of human recognition. Also, “Whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human.” So, to tell from Mencius's allegory, human goodness is something inseparable from the human himself, and occurring by nature, or even despite his will.

Hzün Tzü violently refutes this and postulates that “Man's nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity.”(Hzün Tzü, p. 157) He believes that what is natural to humanity is “that part of man that cannot be learned or acquired by learning.”(Hz p.158) According to his doctrine, hunger would be an evil aspect of human nature because it requires no learning to be able to have hunger, since hunger is present from the moment of birth. He gives an example of his idea of the good man: “Although he is hungry, he will not dare to eat in the presence of his elders.”(Hz, 159) Some degree of restraint of material desires is seen throughout Chinese writing as a proper way to show respect and follow the rituals. If this restraint is not present in society, the people will act by nature on their excess desires and “wrangling and strife” will occur. He says “Now, let someone try and do away with the authority of the ruler, ignoring the transforming power of ritual principles, rejecting the order that comes from laws and standards...and see how the people of the world treat each other...the powerful impose on the weak and rob them, the many terrorize the few and extort from them, and in no time the whole world will be given up to chaos and mutual destruction.”(Hz p. 163)

To the traditional Chinese doctrine that ritual brings honor to society, Hzün Tzü adds that any honorable behavior is the result of education. He says “In the ancient times the sage kings realized that man's nature is evil...and accordingly they created ritual principles and laid down certain regulations in order to reform man's emotional nature and make it upright...”(Hz p. 158) However, he also argues that, “The sages Yao and Shun possessed the same nature as the tyrant Cheih.” If human nature is still entirely evil, and he is incapable of understanding good without the aid of education, what part of human nature was used by the Sage kings to bring education into the world? Hzün Tzü provides no answer.

One possibility is that knowledge of good and evil is inherently the result of conscious reflection, either of the state of harmony in nature or the human soul. This awareness would fall into Hzün Tzü's category of things acquired by learning, because it comes as a result of humans looking outward into the world past their own human existence. The origin of this awareness is an unanswerable question as long as human nature is assumed to be evil, and that human tendencies will always turn towards that evil without the presence of external suggestion.

The dialog Gorgias is first between Socrates and Gorgias, later between Socrates and Gorgias's students Polus and Callicles. I will refer to the writer as Plato throughout, because it's doubtful how much of the text is Socrates's words and how much is reconstructed by Plato to demonstrate his themes.

Plato describes an entirely different kind of philosopher in the character of Socrates, with the role of challenging and meticulously questioning figures of authority rather than advising and instructing them. Socrates says he has no interest in the decisions or policies made by the group, only the agreement or disagreement of his interlocutor to which he asks questions and attempts to prove his arguments. He isn't inquiring towards a functional understanding of the topics of discussion, such as human nature, but rather an understanding of the nature of the thing itself. Plato's idea of human nature centers around the questions presented by morality. Chinese philosophy is different, in that the event of a selfish or harmful decision is seen in political discussion as an opportunity to show the degree to which goodness and virtue hold place in the world. The Chinese may be more divided in their views on human conduct because the subject is seen to be held collectively, or as a function of the current conditions of the state. I leave this open to argument, because it's based in my observation that nowhere in the Chinese texts do I see the writers go into the subject of human autonomy in decision making, and they do a lot of talking about what a group of people will most likely do in a given situation. Plato, on the other hand, tries to get at the heart of the moral question by first taking on the assumption that, as he says through Socrates, “Suppose I were to meet you in the market-place in the middle of the morning with a dagger up my sleeve, and say: '...such is my power that if I decide that any of the people you see around you should die on the spot, die he shall.'”(Plato, p. 54) With this, in the ancient western thinking, it's clear we're attempting to understand the nature of each human as an individual, rather than humanity as a whole, and attempting to define and (eventually) validate his morality, rather than compare his actions to an external idea of human goodness. The Chinese rarely took it into consideration that evil or discordance could come as a result of the conscious processes of an individual.

Plato makes a string of conclusions on this, the first being that it is better to suffer wrong than to commit wrong. This is followed from the idea that a man left alone and unpunished will be left in separation from the knowledge of good, and he will slowly become miserable from a lack of spiritual healing that could be brought on through the system of justice. From this it seems that an need to understand the good is a part of human nature, and essential to its health.

Mencius and Plato have in common their opinion of taking advice on the subject of other people. Mencius' advice on judgment (p. 2 here, Hz.) is very close to Plato's response when Polus asks Socrates if he thinks that Archelaus, a cruel king of Macedonia, is happy or miserable. Socrates replies that he doesn't know because he's never met him. He doesn't take time to mention his reasoning behind this reply, but it implies that a judged value (in this case of a person, so it deals with human nature) is based in a complete understanding of the forces that cause it to be the way it is. Mencius' idea of the treatment of the king's subjects and Plato's judgment both rest on human nature as a rule of thumb.

Callices then argues “that natural right consists in the better and wiser man ruling over his inferiors and having the lion's share.”(Plato, p. 87) Socrates argues that the desire to live best by the satisfaction of desires is an intemperate pursuit, in that it consists of the joy of attaining things of value rather than the sustainable value of having them. According to him, the happiness of human nature consists of something other than the reckless fulfillment of needs, the practice of which is compared to an attempt to perpetually fill a leaky urn with oil. Callicles would say that since fulfillment of needs is a part of human nature, it gives the greatest pleasure in life to live for the purpose of fulfilling needs. Socrates disagrees with this, indicating he believes the greatest happiness is not synonymous with the greatest pleasure, and that he looks to something outside of human nature for the greatest human happiness. This is comparable to Hzün Tzü's feeling that human goodness is found in looking outside of human nature, with one essential difference: Plato believes that the good, which is critical to human nature and human happiness, should be reflected in the individual's actions towards the outside world, and correspondingly that any deviation from this will result in unhappiness.

So, from the findings of these three sources, it looks like there is an initial disagreement as to whether human nature is found internally, ingrained in his being (Mencius), or externally, and acquired through conscious understanding (Hzün Tzü). It's possible Plato provides the missing link by saying it is the nature of man to realize the good that is external to him.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.