Class #30

Xunxi on Study

Reading:  Burton Watson, trans., Xunzi: Basic Writings, pp. 1-33 (Introduction, "Encouraging Learning," "Improving Yourself")

Lecture PowerPoint Deck

The Xunzi is the most comprehensive of the early Confucian texts. It is more systematic than either the Analects or Mencius, and it attempts to defend Confucianism against the attacks of Daoists, Naturalists, Mohists, Legalists, and Logicians -- a broader array of doctrinal enemies than confronted Confucius or Mencius. Its thinking, while by no means flawless, is on the whole more sophisticated than any other text we have encountered, with the exception perhaps of chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi. The Xunzi is frequently distinguished by a very hard-headed style of analytical thinking, which occasionally impresses readers as nearly sociological. A frequent comparison pictures Mencius and Xunzi -- the greatest Confucians after Confucius -- as the Plato and Aristotle of China: the former idealistic and singleminded, the latter almost scientific and diverse (Confucius would presumably become the Chinese Socrates). The comparison is silly in many respects, but on the level of a helpful cartoon it has a point.

The author of most of the Xunzi was a man named Xun Kuang, whose dates span the period 300-230 BCE, with some extra years at either end -- he lived to a very old age. In his prime he was the senior member of an academy of "wise men" assembled by the rulers of the state of Qi near the "Jixia" gate of their capital city. At this "Jixia Academy" masters of every type trained disciples in their various arts and doctrines, competing among themselves for preeminence in the intellectual elite of early China. (You should recall that the Guanzi, from which we read the "Inner Enterprise" chapter, was also a product of the Jixia Academy. Two of Xun Kuang's sometime students at the academy, Li Si and Han Feizi would up as leaders of Legalism -- some interpreters claim that Xun Kuang himself was a Legalist, but, as we will see, the claim is hard to defend, and besides, he died in his bed.) It was in this atmosphere of competition that Xun Kuang (along with his disciples) composed the sophisticated arguments of the Xunzi.

Although it makes far better reading, the Xunzi is like the Mozi in that it consists of a series of sustained essays on individual subjects. These essays cover a wide variety of topics, but as we analyze them in class, they will be linked by a common practical theme. As we move from topic to topic, we will find reflected in each essay a single governing motivation: to defend the ritual cult of Confucianism, with its broad syllabus of study and its commitment to li, against philosophical attacks launched from a variety of angles. Bear in mind always as you read the text that the Xunzi is a product of the Confucian ritual dao: its ideas are interesting in themselves, but the point lies in their relation to the practical training of the Confucian sect.

-- "Encouraging Learning," "Improving Yourself"

For Wednesday, we'll consider the opening chapters of the Xunzi text.  The first chapter of the text gives us a picture of the Confucian syllabus as it was taught by Xun Kuang, and presents arguments to defend both the efficacy of study in general, and the value of Confucian study in particular. As you read, ask yourself what those arguments are. The Mohists claimed that the Confucian syllabus was laughable because its complexity lay beyond the powers of any one person to master in a lifetime. Does the Xunzi provide a response to that attack? In the second chapter, "Improving Yourself," the text joins the debate about self-cultivation practices, and discusses how to nurture one's qi (Watson translates qi as "temperament" here). We have seen discussions of qi cultivation in the Mencius (2A.2), Guanzi, and Zhuangzi. How does the Xunzi compare to these other texts?