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Mengzi, Gaozi, and Xunzi

Page history last edited by Paige Arrington 9 years, 6 months ago


   ~By P. Arrington


Mengzi (a.k.a Mencius), “the greatest Confucian thinker after Confucius himself”, was born in the 4th century BCE. His great influence survives to this day, particularly in conservative ideological movements of Chinese contemporary culture that emphasize a revaluing of “traditional” Chinese ideas about human nature and relationships. Mengzi perceived in rulers of his time a need for consultation regarding Confucian ideals, and set out to fulfill that need. Ultimately he became depressed that his work manifested so seldom a positive change in the culture he was trying to shape, so he retired. This motivation resonates given Mengzi is known for espousing the belief that Man’s basic nature is good.


A discussion of Mencius nearly always includes mention of Xunzi, powerful third century Confucianist, whose philosophies stemmed from the belief that Man’s basic nature is bad and needs “shaping,” namely through instruction. Xunzi’s arguments often exist in dialogue with Mengzi’s, for instance whereas Mengzi recognized good and the potential for good, and a lack of goodness or lack of potential for goodness, Xunzi recognized evil and “badness” as natures in and of themselves, not “lacks”. Such distinctions seem to determine these two often opposing views as to how people can and should behave and be governed.


Gaozi, a contemporary of Mengzi, enters many conversations about Xunzi and Mengzi, and he gets positioned “in the middle.” Gaozi—whose ideas we understand mainly from Mengzi’s book Gaozi, written in dialogue form—held the belief that Man is by nature neither bad nor good; we are moral blank slates from the start, with no natural inclination either way. He does, though, identify feelings and attitudes as stemming from internal forces or being shaped by external forces; and he identifies morality as a human trait born of the “external.”  This thinking results in a morality that can only be taught or “acquired," which, interestingly, aligns Gaozi with Xunzi and against Mengzi in a fundamental way.


A rhetorical interest in the “conversation” between these three fundamental Chinese philosophers hinges both on the styles of argumentation they employ in their debates and the relationship between the content of their philosophies and the effect of that content on the way people in their societies behaved.


Mencius employs dialogue to structure debates with an imagined Gaozi. And though Gaozi’s works long ago disappeared, the nature of his arguments as they appear in Mencius’ work typify the heavy use of natural metaphor associated with ancient Chinese philosophy. As analogy can so often be disputed based on differing understandings about how well certain aspects match up, it makes sense that Mencius would articulate Gaozi, whom he desires to refute, so heavily in the language of analogy. Xunzi, on the other hand, is noted for the systematic style of his writing, which is much more direct than that of his contemporaries, leaving out customary analogies and largely eschewing the common dialogue for a more straightforward, “essay”-like style.


This is to say nothing of the types of arguments they employ, why they do so, and their effects. No doubt a close analysis of their rhetorical choices would reveal much about the communities within which they were writing, the values and ideals of the rulers they were trying to influence, as well as the power that has resulted in the endurance of their philosophies.



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Lu, Xing. Rhetoric In Ancient China, Fifth To Third Century, B.C.E. : A Comparison With Classical Greek

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Roetz, Heiner. Confucian Ethics Of The Axial Age: A Reconstruction Under The Aspect Of The

          Breakthrough Toward Postconventional Thinking. Albany: State University of New York Press,

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Van Norden, Bryan and Shun, Kwong Loi. "Mencius." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer

          2014 edition). Edward N. Zalta, ed. 2014. Web. 29 October 2014.



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