Xunzi and the Confucian answer to Titanism
By Nicholas F. Gier

Journal of Chinese Philosophy
V. 22:2 (1995.06)
pp. 129-151

Copyright 1997 by Dialogue Publishing Company,
 Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.A.



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    The term "humanism" has been used to describe only one eastern philosophy: Confucianism. Commentators on Indian philosophy are sometimes emphatic in their judgment that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism represent the very antithesis of western or Confucian humanism. Heinrich Zimmer is typical: "Humanity ... was the paramount concern of Greek idealism, as it is today of western Christianity in its modern form: but for the Indian sages and ascetics... humanity was no more than the shell to be pierced, shattered, and dismissed." [1] Zimmer goes on to say that the goal of the yogi was "superhuman," even "superdivine," and as such constituted what Zimmer calls the "heresy of Titanism."

    My view is that superhumanism is still a humanism, a radical humanism that does not recognize that there are limits to what humans can become and what they should do in the universe. Titanism is humanism gone berserk, it is anthropocentricism and anthropomorphism taken to an extreme. Titans deliberately reverse the positions of human and divinity; they take over divine prerogatives, and as a result of their hubris, they lose sight of their proper place in the universe. Even if there is no God, radical humanists delude themselves if they believe they can themselves become gods. As I have shown elsewhere, [2] in the East this is especially evident in the atheism of Jainism, Samkhya, and other forms of what I call "Yoga" Titanism. Elements of Buddhism and Taoism contain antidotes to Titanism, but in this paper I shall argue that Confucianism offers the most adequate and constructive response.



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    The word "Titan" comes of course from a group of older gods, who, under the leadership of Prometheus, stormed Mt. Olympus and battled Zeus and the other Olympian deities for control in the universe. In western intellectual and literary history, much has been written about both the positive and negative elements of the Promethean spirit. Even though I have chosen to give the term "Titanism" a negative connotation, I do not wish to give the impression that more knowledge or even new technology are not necessary, and I certainly do not mean to imply that we do not need heroes or saints. Rather, what I am suggesting is that we do require a new vision of human nature, one that breaks out of traditional western molds. In the West they sometimes say that their heroes are "larger than life," or alternatively they say that "we stand on the shoulders of giants" in relation to them. I contend that these images represent a distortion of how heroes are actually made. These ideas are also most likely responsible for the mistaken view, expressed variously in Hobbes' monarch or Raskalnikov's Napoleon, that some people are beyond our ken and above the law. I propose that we look at the Confucian sage as an alternative to the autonomous selfhood of Jainism, Samkhya, and the West.

    The eastern Titanism that I will discuss has expressed itself exclusively in an internal, spiritual way; therefore, one can say that it is a rather benign form of radical humanism. By contrast, western Titanism is considerably more extroverted, and with the aid of technology, a Titanistic spirit can be said to inspire the arms race, environmental pollution, and the possible misuse of genetic engineering. If left unchecked, some predict it might destroy or radically change life as we know it on earth. Even though it is western Titanism that poses the real threat, I believe that it is significant to show that eastern Titans share some of the same basic philosophical axioms as their western counterparts, viz., anthropocentrism and autonomous selfhood.

    Humanism arose during the so-called "axial period," and it is commonly observed that while the Chinese and western people generally responded to the discovery of human individuality by externalizing their



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new desires in a positive way, the Indians turned inward in an attempt to reconcile anxieties caused by an increased awareness of the self-world split. But even in their world-denying practices, many Indian thinkers have remained very much attached to the human form. They have made it the prototype for the shape and origin of the universe (the Jains are most explicit on this point); and they have made it the locus of all spiritual liberation. (To be saved the gods must eventually have a human incarnation.) Even if this anthropomorphic cosmos is not taken literally, the image itself is sufficient to indicate a distorted view of human beings and their relation to the world. Not only are the gods supplanted, but nature in general is denigrated in status and value. This becomes an especially serious problem when human beings develop technological means to systematically control and alter nature.

    If one looks for Titanism in the West, one might be tempted to say that Nietzsche's Üebermensch is the highest embodiment of radical humanism. I believe that this view is mistaken. Nietzsche's Titan is symbolized as a lion, the second of the Three Metamorphoses of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The lion, Titan-like, battles the dragon called "Thou Shalt," who rules over the miserable camels, the first metamorphosis. The lion takes every "It was" or "it happened to me" and transforms it into a "Thus I willed it and shall will it for eternity." Even though necessary and liberating, the lion's work is ultimately negative and destructive. The Promethean "No" of the lion must be replaced by the sacred "Yes" of the child, the third metamorphosis, which I believe is Nietzsche's answer to Titanism. "The child," as Nietzsche says, "is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred 'Yes.'" [3]

    The Titan is a false Üebermensch, the superman of popular, but incorrect Nietzschean interpretation. The true Üebermensch knows "the meaning of the earth ... I beseech you, my brothers," says Zarathustra, "remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of other worldly hopes." [4] Recall that Zarathustra has to learn this lesson from a crippled dwarf, whom he initially curses, but finally accepts as a



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necessary "spirit of gravity." I believe that it is Taoism and Confucianism that are most "faithful to the earth" and are most cognizant of our role as stewards of the earth and as mediator between Heaven and Earth. In fact, I believe that Zhuangzi comes very close to capturing the subtleties of Nietzsche's enigmatic sayings about the child. (They also have, amazingly enough, similar advice to the cripples of the world.) [5] But again I choose Confucian cosmology and Confucian models of the ideal person as the best eastern answer to Titanism.

    Philosophers after Confucius wrote often about human beings as equal partners in a trinity with Heaven and Earth. Only rarely are the roles of these constituents confused in the way we find in the cosmotheandric hymns of the Vedas, Samkhya-Yoga, or Hindu or Christian incarnational theologies. Of all Confucian philosophers it is Xunzi who appears most intent on preserving the integrity of each partner in the cosmic triad. In the First section of this paper I will analyze Xunzi's view of the cosmic triad, drawing on the recent contributions of Edward Machle. In the second section I show that the traditional reading of Xunzi as a thoroughgoing naturalist and prototechnologist appears to undermine my thesis that Xunzi offers an answer to Titanism. In the third section I present Machle's answer to the received view. The fourth section is a discussion of the deification of the sage, and my reservations a bow how Roger Ames, David Hall, and Machle handle this issue. Claiming that the sage is a god threatens, I believe, the essential balance of Heaven (Tian), Earth, and human beings. The deification of the prophet, sage, or mystic is a sure sign of Titanism, but Xunzi's "perfect man" (zhi ren) does not "compete with Tian" by encroaching on "Tian's province."



    Modern commentators have assumed that Xunzi was the most naturalistic of the early Confucian philosophers and that whenever he used the word tian we should usually read "nature." Edward Machle's recent



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book Nature and Heaven in Xunzi, a new translation and innovative commentary on Chapter XVII of the Xunzi, represents a formidable challenge to the traditional view. Machle believes that Xunzi is closer to the ancient Zhou belief in Tian as a providential deity, separate but in no way transcendent to the constancies of the heavens and the seasons. Xunzi's Tian, therefore, is God of the Heavens, a demythologized sky father god and the yang consort of the yin Earth. Using Schleiermacher's principle of absolute dependence and drawing on Otto's mysterium tremendum, Machle argues that Tian can be conceived, with the qualifications above, as a bona fide Confucian God. As Machle states: "Tian performs the functions of a god, but has no anthropomorphizing stories." [6] The latter is unique and essential in the Confucian answer to Titanism.

    Machle demonstrates his view in his translation as well as in his commentary. For example, at the beginning of Chapter XVII, where Wing-tsit Chan tends to merge Heaven and Nature by stating that Tian "operates with constant regularity," Machle subtly separates Tian and nature's regularities with "Tian maintains constant routines for the heavenly bodies"; and he comments that "Tian is thus distinguishable from nature both by its primacy and its functions..." [7] Machle of course agrees that Tian's providence is "general" rather than "specific," so Tian does not favor one person or society over another. Even though the barbarians may have their customs, Xunzi maintains that only the Chinese have Li, the correct rules of human behavior. This is due, however, to the keen perception of Chinese sages and not to any special action on the part of Tian.

    Xunzi believes that Tian rules only in the higher levels of the cosmic hierarchy and that humans should always expect irregularities in their immediate lives and environment. Separating those that might be signs of Tian (eclipses and falling stars) from those that are not (floods, drought, etc.) is an important duty of the sage and the wise administrator. Only the superstitious person thinks that the latter are acts of divine retribution. "As for the falling of stars and the groaning of trees, they are but (passing) changes in Tian and Earth, mutations of yin and yang or deviant



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emergents among things, It is appropriate to think them weird, but dreading them is an error." [8]

    Returning now to the ideal balance in the cosmic triad, Xunzi tells that us we are not to compete with Heaven, for each member of the triad has its own distinct role to play. "Heaven has its seasons, earth has its wealth [resources], and man has his government [culture]. This is how they are able to form a triad (can)." [9] Machle's translation of the last sentence draws on another use of can as describing the alignment of the three stars in Orion's belt. Here, then, is Machle's translation of the passage above: "Tian has its season, earth has its productiveness, and [the] man has [an ability] to set things in order. It is this situation that constitutes their potential to be harmoniously aligned." [10] Machle inserts the definite pronoun to emphasize the hierarchical thinking that pervades all of Confucianism. It is not just any person who can align himself with Heaven and Earth; it is only the sage, the "perfect man." Only he "who understands the distinctive functions of Heaven... may be called a perfect man (zhi ren)." [11]

    The literal meaning of zhi ren, according to Machle, is "he who has arrived" or the "ultimate man." This suggests parallels to both Buddhism and Hinduism. The Buddha is called the Tatagatha -- literally the one who has arrived at Nirvana with nothing else to do or will. Confucian philosophy is also in agreement with Buddhism that this "perfect" person is in no way a deity. The second translation of zhi ren as "ultimate person" can be contrasted to Krsna as uttamapurusa, a "superman" superior even to Brahman the Godhead. The alternative uttarapurusa in the Chandogya Upanisad (8.12.3) appears closely connected to the Indian concept of play (Iila), and is perhaps a form of Nietzsche's child rather than his Titan-lion. (Machle's contrast of the formal Confucian dance and wild dance of `Siva opens up some fascinating lines of discussion I will pursue in subsequent studies.) [12]

    The sage models himself on Heaven, which performs its "office" without any action or effort. The emperor also follows the sage's lead: he is to center himself on the pole star, face south, do nothing, and let his



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ministers run the state (cf. Analects 15:4). This is where Taoist wu wei and Confucian sagehood converge in stark contrast to western and Indian forms of radical humanism, where the Titan, by a supreme act of will power, overcomes the constraints of body and natural environment, and attempts to isolate himself from both. Machle reminds us that for the Chinese an assertion of will reveals an imperfect state rather than the ideal: "Where we hold 'will' to be one of the perfections of a person, the Chinese idea would suggest that it is rather a mark of an imperfection, either in the person or in his or her situation, an imperfection that requires will or effort to deal with." [13] This means that Tian has no will either and this fact has allowed westerners and even many Chinese to translate Tian as nature. This negative view of the will also strengthen the position of Chinese philosophy (and Chinese Buddhist development such as Zen) as an answer to Titanism.

    Xunzi believes that people should order their lives on natural harmonies and regularities, but, contrary to Mencius and the neo-Confucians, he says that they should not "deliberate" or "devote any effort" to the "deep" and "invisible" processes of Heaven's hidden spirit. This would constitute hubris on our part and tend to upset the balance of the cosmic triad. Xunzi's caution here is completely compatible with Confucius' own agnosticism about all things spiritual and his exhortations that we should concentrate on human affairs. Therefore, the superior person (junzi), one step lower than the sage (sheng ren) or the perfect person (zhi ren), is content with knowing Heaven's distinctive functions, but he remains silent about the inner secrets of Heaven. "The superior man is serious about what lies in himself and does not desire what comes from Heaven. The inferior man neglects what is in himself and desires what comes from Heaven [i.e., a misdirected desire for good fortune]." [14] The true Confucian humanist stays within herself and her society and does not aspire to Heaven or have Nietzsche's "otherworldly hopes."



    Xunzi's cosmology seems to be just the right response to Titanism,



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but the traditional interpretation of him as a thoroughgoing naturalist and prototechnologist appears to undermine this thesis. In some passages he seems to say that we should control nature and harness its energies. The following poem, translated by Chan, contains the most explicit evidence for Xunzi's preference for human exploitation of nature.

Instead of regarding Heaven as great and admiring it,
Why not foster it as a thing and regulate it?
Instead of obeying Heaven and singing praise to it,
Why not control the mandate of Heaven and use it?
Instead of looking on the seasons and waiting for them,
Why not respond to them and make use of them?
Instead of letting things multiply by themselves,
Why not exercise your ability to transform [and increase] them?
Instead of thinking about things as things,
Why not attend to them so you won't lose them?
Instead of admiring how things come into being,
Why not do something to bring them to full development? [15]

Chan comments that "nowhere else in the history of Chinese thought is the idea of confronting nature so definite and so strong. It is a pity that this did not lead to a development of natural science." Chan expresses disappointment that the Han Chinese did not follow through with Xunzi's program for applied science, and he blames this failure on orthodox Confucians and Taoists who overemphasized the harmony between human beings and nature. In the context of the current study, a very different response suggests itself. In this text we seem to have a recipe for technological domination and control, even (in lines 5-6) a plan for climate control and (in lines 7-8) a premonition of genetic manipulation of biological species. An alternative judgment is that the Han leaders were wise to reject what modern commentators have categorized as Xunzi's utilitarianism and incipient technologism.

    I began by praising Xunzi's insights about the relationship of



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humans, Heaven, and Earth. My thesis is that such a cosmology should be superior to other world-views in which human beings have exercised over-reaching self-aggrandizement at the expense of nature and the spiritual. Confucian cosmology should then serve as an effective antidote to Titanism. Could it be that Xunzi's alleged naturalism is too excessive and upsets the balance of the cosmic triad, such that there is insufficient respect for the integrity of Heaven and Earth? With Machle's perspective now in place, this definitely cannot, be the reason. Furthermore, the neo-Confucians naturalize Heaven more thoroughly and consistently than Xunzi does, even with the traditional interpretation of his naturalism.

    Is it then due to Xunzi's view that human nature is originally evil? I entertain this hypothesis only because commentators have said that the rise of technology in the West has gone hand-in-hand with a Calvinist doctrine of human depravity. But we all know that it is simply wrong to cast Xunzi as a Confucian Calvinist. Although he disagrees about original human nature, he is just as confident as Mencius about the capacity for people to establish virtue on their own power. Not only is he just as confident, some recent commentators believe that his theory of human virtue is more philosophically sound than Mencius'. [16]

    Perhaps the clue to why Xunzi may be a prototechnologist can be found in his concept of xin. Usually translated as "heart/mind" or simply "heart" in D. C. Lau's translation of the Mencius. Xunzi's xin is more properly translated as "mind" in the western sense. In the West, when heart and mind are separated, the latter tends to become a calculating, objectifying, even manipulative, faculty. Xunzi speaks often of xin as the "ruler" of the body and how it is to produce order where Tian is unable to. Furthermore, Xunzi's approach to the rectification of names is almost exclusively logical, rather than social and moral, and this focus may again be attributed to his concept of xin.

    But it cannot be Xunzi's concept of mind which leads him astray, because even Mencius warns us that if the mind is not in control, then the senses may well distract us from virtue (Mencius 6a15). Furthermore, many neo-Confucians separate the cognitive and affective parts of the



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soul just as much as Xunzi does, but yet they generally maintain a balanced view of the cosmic triad and do not recommend the exploitation of nature. But even with some separation of mind, feelings, and senses, we must remind ourselves that Confucian philosophy never entertained a complete subject/object split, the egocentric predicament, and the serious problems associated with these western developments. [17]

    Some might say that the solution to the problem lies in Xunzi's relation to Mencius. By rejecting the Mencian view that Heaven is in every one of us, Xunzi literally cuts the heart out of Confucian philosophy. The result is that he is unable to express the essential interrelation of the partners of the cosmic triad. Just as important as the integrity of each is the holistic view of their interpenetration, a pervasive theme, as we shall see, in neo-Confucianism. On this view, Heaven and Earth, for Xunzi, are not internally, but externally related to one another and to human beings. This would explain why in the passage above both Heaven and Earth are seen to be primarily objects for human use. Thomé H. Fang is a supporter of this view:

Xunzi was the only one who seemed to be "fed up" with the value-centric conception of Heaven. Just for this reason, he wanted to set up the supremacy of man apart from unnecessary complication with Nature, which is nothing more than a neutral order with physical energies in store for human utilization. [18]

Without mentioning Xunzi specifically, Changzai, centuries later, diagnosed this problem succinctly:

When the Way of Heaven and the nature of man function separately, there cannot be sincerity. When there is a difference between the knowledge obtained by following Heaven and that obtained by following man, there cannot be perfect enlightenment... And when the nature of man the Way of



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Heaven are united in harmony, they will be preserved and abide in sincerity. [19]

Xunzi's critics would argue that he overreacted to Mencius by strictly separating the partners of the cosmic triad. As a result he did not fully appreciate the moral and aesthetic powers of Heaven and Earth nor completely understand their interactive harmonies. Returning to the poetic lines quoted above, we should, contrary to Xunzi's apparent advice to regulate it, simply admire Heaven as great; and, instead of genetic engineering, we should allow species to "multiply by themselves"; and we should stand in awe of Heaven and Earth rather than exploiting them for our own use. The cosmic trinity can be sustained, as the Doctrine of the Mean says, only if human beings "assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth." [20]

    In order to avoid the anthropomorphism he found in Mencius, Xunzi's critics claim that he still preserves an anthropocentrism that leads him to treat Heaven and Earth more like objects rather than subjects in their own right. This is contrary to the Confucian tradition, as Tu Wei-ming believes:

Confucian humanism is therefore fundamentally different from anthropocentrism because it professes the unity of man and Heaven rather than the imposition of the human will on nature. In fact, the anthropocentric assumption that man is put on earth to pursue knowledge and, as knowledge expands, so does man's domination over earth, is quite different from the Confucian perception of the pursuit of knowledge as an integral part of one's self-cultivation. [21]

Please note that, technological exploitation aside, the spiritual Titans of India might be said to have the same agenda. The earth and our bodies are viewed as not ends in themselves, but as means to a liberation that exceeds even the gods. Neither Heaven, especially in Buddhaghosa's



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doctrine of celestial destruction where the gods are forced into the human realm, [22] nor Earth can maintain their integrity or value in such a view.

    Benjamin Schwartz sums up this traditional view of Xunzi by claiming that he represents a "paradigm of the positivist-technological orientation" and is the best Chinese example of the "scientific humanism" of the West. [23] Since Xunzi lacks an appreciation of basic theoretical investigation, he is more like Francis Bacon than Galileo Galilei. There is more than a hint of Bacon's "knowledge is power" in the lines above. Tu Wei-Ming essentially agrees with this assessment of Xunzi, but he does add an important caveat at the end of this insightful passage:

To be sure, the belief that knowledge implies power is not totally absent in the Confucian tradition. Xunzi, for example, strongly advocates the position that since culture is man-made, the human transformation of nature is not only necessary but also highly desirable. Yet, what Xunzi proposes is hardly a form of aggressive scientism. Indeed, he is so painfully aware of the principle of scarcity that his general attitude towards natural resources is not manipulative but conservationist. [24]

In this regard Chan observes that whereas Mencius idolized sage kings Yao and Shun, Xunzi preferred Yu, who was famous for his engineering feats, specifically the diversion of nine rivers to prevent flooding. [25]



    Machle believes that the view of Xunzi as a prototechnologist is not supported either by the famous poem or in his philosophy as a whole. Let me first present his translation of this passage and then I will reconstruct his rebuttal.

When "magnifying Tian," which is better:
(merely) to contemplate it,



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or to turn things into wealth by nurturing them?
When "following Tian," which is better:
to sing its praises, or 
to make use of what occurs by conforming it to a pattern?
When "attending to the seasons," which is better:
(merely) to await them, or 
to employ them productively by responding to them?
When "harmonizing with things," which is better:
(merely) to prize them, or
to transform them by manifesting their potential?
When "thinking about things." which is better:
(merely) to notice what they are on their own, or to avoid losing them, by 
making them conform to their underlying rationale (li)?
(In short) which is better: to direct your concern toward that
which gives birth to things, or to assist what brings existing things to full completion.

The most controversial phrase in the beginning of this poem is "zhi tian ming er yong zhi," which Chan translates as "control the Mandate of Heaven and use it" and Hu renders as "control Nature's course and use it." Since Xunzi does not use the phrase tian ming and because the line has one too many words, Machle believes that tian is an editorial insertion. Machle justifies his own translation by noting the contextual use of tian in the same chapter and Chapter XXII of the Xunzi. Machle's translation is "make use of what occurs by conforming it to a pattern." The final zhi in the phrase, according to Xunzi's normal usage, indicates that we should use what occurs naturally as a "pattern" for cultural institutions. Machle concludes that "Xunzi's aim is not 'to control nature's course' but 'to assist things in finding their place,' so as not 'to lose their essence.'" [26]

    The prose passages dealing with government and Li before and after the poetic passage definitely suggest that the transformation Xunzi calls



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for is not technological but spiritual and cultural. Machle has it just right:

Order at the bottom or the cosmic hierarchy is not only not by nature, but is attainable only through highly cultivated humans. It is not brought about by purely technological means, for Xun[zi] admits that the farmer knows more about farming than does the junzi -- any technologist knows more about his specialty than does the junzi -- but it is still the junzi, following the sage. who sets things in order. [27]

Xunzi's warning not "to neglect human effort and admire Heaven" (right after the poetic lines) is not a call for the control or exploitation of nature, but an exhortation for the junzi to fulfill a spiritual obligation. This is what Confucius meant by his cryptic saying "the junzi is not an implement" (Analects 2:12). Likewise, Xunzi is saying that nature is not a mere instrument either. We do not use Heaven and Earth for our own ends (the rites are not propitiatory; the prayers are not petitionary), but we celebrate and fulfill them for their own sake and value.

    The human function, specifically the sage, in the cosmic triad is to complete the work of Tian, which "produces" but "cannot order." Tian produces a cosmos that has "veins" of li, like the veins of a piece of jade. One is reminded of Plato's logos, which he analogues as the joints of a carcass. The true dialectician is like the expert butcher who knows exactly where to cut up the body of reality. [28] Similarly, the Confucian sage is like the master carver who knows that not to follow the veins is to destroy a good piece of stone. Therefore, as opposed to the Taoist sage, the Confucian sage is activist and exploitive in the good sense. The sage has a sacred duty to transform Tian's natural constancies (xing) into patterns of culture (wen), certainly not machines or factories. In short, the sages transform cosmic li (Machle's "underlying rationale") into cultural Li. (I endorse Machle's convention of leaving li as the Chinese logos in italics and always indicating the ritual li as Li.)

    If we take a closer look at Xunzi's view that the mind (xin) is the



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"ruler" of the body, we find that this phrase has been misinterpreted. The human mind, located in the "central cavity" and still close to the heart, is produced by Tian to rule the five senses ("sensibilities" in Machle's translation). (By correlation, the emperor's job, as the "son" and "mind" of Tian, is to rule the people's sensibilities.) Xunzi's concept of mind is obviously not separated from a person's affective or moral dimensions, because for him our moral faculties (yi) are found in our xin. [29] Xunzi believes that the sage's mind enables him to understand the Dao, and this mind is anything but manipulative and calculative. The sagely mind understands the Dao by its "emptiness, unity, and stillness." [30] Xunzi's activism appears to begin in Taoist passivity, not in a desire for exploitation.

    Whereas the yogi's goal is to discover the power of the universe and then use it as a means to liberating himself from all constraints -- both natural and cultural -- the Confucian sage's goal is just the opposite -- integrative and embracing. Machle correctly sees that the sage's mandate is very different from the Indian view described by Karl Potter: "Indian philosophy does in fact elevate power, control or freedom to a supereminent position ... the ultimate value ... is not morality but freedom ... complete control over one's environment." [31] Potter has described the essence of Indian Titanism beautifully and the Confucian sage stands as the most constructive response to this form of radical humanism.



    In their excellent book, Thinking Through Confucius, Roger Ames and David Hall reformulate Confucius' genius in a brilliant way, especially with regard to the issue of aesthetic ordering. But it is both disappointing and puzzling to read that Ames and Hall want to deify Confucius, something most Confucian philosophers always resisted. Their argument, interestingly enough, is not taken from Confucius himself, where obviously no argument can be found, but from Mencius and the Doctrine of the Mean. [32] From the Mencius, Ames translates the following: "being sage,



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to be unfathomable, is called 'divinity'" (7b25). In another article, [33] I have demonstrated that Ames has probably mistranslated this passage, for the character shen is most likely predicative not substantive. A standard dictionary stipulates that, if shen is predicative, the sage is "wonderful, marvelous, miraculous," not divine. [34]

    Tu Wei-ming quotes this passage from the Lau translation ("to be a sage ... is called 'divine'"), but qualifies it by observing that "the idea of spiritual in this connection by no means signifies a 'spiritual being' (shen-ren) which rises above the sage." [35] Even if Mencius actually meant to divinize the sage, this is clearly not the original position of Confucius. It is consistent with his position to call the sage "goodness itself," but neither the Analects nor the other early literature support the deification at the sage.

    Ames and Hall's use of the Doctrine of the Mean is also problematic. They quote the famous passage: "So earnest and sincere -- he is humanity! How deep and unfathomable -- he is abyss! How vast and great -- he is Heaven (tian). Who can know him except he who really has quickness of apprehension, intelligence, sageliness, and wisdom, and understands (the) character of Heaven?" [36] Ames and Hall's interpretation goes wrong for at least two reasons: (1) they ignore the obviously figurative nature of this passage; and (2) they do not read the passage in its own context or the context of traditional and contemporary commentary. The immediate context, the preceding section and especially the sentence following the crucial one, indicates that the sage has human qualities not divine attributes. More importantly, the passage is obviously figurative. Just as we are not to believe that the sage is actually an abyss -- he is only "deep and unfathomable" as an abyss -- we are not to think that the sage is literally Heaven.

    Tu Wei-ming, even though cited favorably by Ames and Hall, offers t less monistic, less pantheistic view of the cosmic triad of Heaven, Earth, and human beings. For Tu human beings constitute a trinity with Heaven and Earth, in which they "form a coincidence with Heaven," but they maintain a "conceptual separation" within "an unbreakable organismic



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continuum." [37] I believe that Tu has the correct view of the cosmic triad. "Coincidence" and "conceptual separation" clearly do not indicate identity of any kind. Ames and Hall ever quote Tu's warning that the Doctrine of the Mean "does not mean to suggest that Confucius is, in a sense, being 'deified.'" [38] Nevertheless, Ames and Hall, going against the texts and the tradition, claim that "the fact is, however, that Confucius is deified, or rather deifies himself." [39] Ironically, Ames and Hall fight gallantly against the Christian idea of transcendence all throughout their book; but then, by raising the issue of deification, which makes sense only within a view of divine transcendence, they undercut their otherwise innovative reinterpretation of Confucius.

    Machle's brilliant rereading of Xunzi is also marred by his view that the sage is a supernatural being. "The sages may thus justly be considered gods -- and greater gods than most, since a sage is 'equal to Tian and Earth.'" [40] Machle claims that "such an apotheosis of human into godhead is, of course, no great problem for Chinese culture," [41] but my own research has revealed that there was a general waxing and waning of the elevation of Confucius and the other sages. Most important, however, is that the philosophers themselves, except for Kang Youwei, Chen Huan Chang, and Yen Fu early in this century, resisted the deification of Confucius. Not one of the medieval Confucian scholars, for example, supported such a notion. Buddhist and Christian philosophers appeared to have no problem with the deification of their respective figures, but Confucian philosophers obviously did. On this issue especially it is important to keep Chinese popular culture and religion separate from Confucian philosophy.

    Machle shows that previous commentators have underplayed the use of the words shen and shenming in the text of the Xunzi. The shen or divinity of Tian is shown only indirectly in the cycles of the heavens and the seasons. As the Xunzi states: "It is to be called shen because though we do not see its workings, we see its effectiveness." [42] Machle is again able to distinguish between Tian and nature: the former is the invisible spiritual force behind nature. As there is no plural in Chinese, shen can



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be seen as both the singular divinity Tian and the plurality of its spiritual effects. "Not seeing the actual workings, we see the effects, and for this reason [the agents] are properly called spirit (shen)." [43] But surely we are not to call these spiritual effects either God or gods. If we are to use the word "God," we should reserve it exclusively for Tian, which according to Machle is at the "top of the cosmic hierarchy, as perfect yang and as preeminent shen." [44]

    As in the Hebrew uses of ruah (spirit) and nephesh (lit. "breath"), the Chinese soul can also be called shen, this time "human spirit" not a divine being. (Machle correctly relates this usage to the Greek psyche.) Therefore, Xunzi has no problem celebrating departed shen, but he does reject superstitions about ghosts (gui). One could say, contrary to the received views, that Xunzi is less agnostic than Confucius about both Tian and spiritual things. But it is clear that in stating that the natural effects of Tian, including the actions of the sage, are shen, Xunzi is in no way saying that there are divine beings. This conclusion is consistent with Machle's insistence, in dispute with Robert Eno, [45] that Tian and the sage kings must be seen as distinct beings (This criticism also applies to Ames' and Hall's monistic tendencies to identify or merge Tian and the sage.)

    The parallel to the Hebrews and the Greeks is instructive: neither human nephesh nor psyche can be called divine beings. A Christian parallel is also appropriate: Confucians are born with the shen of Tian in the same way that Christians are created in the image of God. Tian gives humans mind (xin), sensibilities, and feelings, and the Christian God gives reason, conscience, and righteousness, but the resultant being is not a deity, either as saint or as sage. (The Christians are closer to Mencius on the presence of conscience in the human soul.) Sages then become "host[s] of a divine manifestation (shenming)" [46] so they can do Tian's work on earth. (Consistent with Xunzi's empiricism, they do this by learning, not by original divine endowment or by grace.) But in neither does the knowledge of God-Tian result in becoming God, especially since in both traditions true knowledge of God is impossible.

    A grammatical analysis of the Xunzi also supports my position, and



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Machle himself supplies the data. In Xunzi's usage of shen, it "is often more adjectival in force (eight times) or part of an adjectival or adverbial phrase (eight times); twice, as a noun, it refers to one's vital functionings. The rest of the time it clearly indicates 'supernatural' beings or forces..." [47] We have already discussed Mencius' use of shen as a predicate adjective, so we must use the meanings "wonderful, marvelous, miraculous" -- not "divine" -- for the adjectival uses that Machle finds in the Xunzi. If Tian's natural effects are shen, then that means that its effects and the sage's actions are "spiritual," just as "Tian in us" or the "image of God" might be called our "spiritual" natures. Therefore, the claim that the sage is "the equal of Tian and Earth" is not to say that he is the same as Heaven; rather, it means that each of the members of the cosmic triad are equally valuable, although Heaven and Earth can claim supremacy in the fact that they both produce human beings. On the other hand, Heaven and Earth cannot be truly fulfilled without the sage. "Tian-and-Earth produce the junzi ... (who) is the 'general manager' (ling) of the myriad things." [48]

    Although I understand his reasons for using the first two terms, I reject as misleading Machle's characterization of the sage as "unnatural, artificial, and indeed, supernatural." [49] Machle's defense of Xunzi against Mencius and his later Confucian supporters is a compelling one. Mencius believed that the sage was a natural development from innate potentials in human nature. Xunzi rejected this potential goodness, and his critics were justified in asking about how the sage could ever come about. Machle, after presenting the deficiencies of the Mencian position, [50] believes that the answer to this question is implied but obvious: the Confucian sages learned virtue from the great sage-kings. This, then, is the reason for the two misleading terms "unnatural" and "artificial" to describe the sage's education. Machle believes that the sage is "supernatural" in part because "Xun[zi]'s idea of the sage's 'transforming like a god' goes far beyond mere "model-emulation." [51] Machle does not give a reference for "transforming like a god," so I was unable to check the context, but the simile ("as if he were a god" is another unreferenced



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phrase) [52] obviously weakens the attribution of divinity in the same way that it does in the passage from the Doctrine of the Mean discussed above Furthermore, when Machle refers to "nothing is more divine than to be transformed according to the Dao," [53] I suspect that the adjective shen would be better translated as "wonderful, marvelous, or miraculous." Finally, without much more evidence for the divinity of the sage, we must stand by "model-emulation" as the essential foundation of Chinese virtue ethics.

    The Confucian sages Yao and Shun were not gods, rather, they were great humans, who ordered themselves according to the seasons, shone like the heavens, and attuned themselves with the cosmic harmonies. They were mighty like Heaven, not Heaven themselves. In the Doctrine of the Mean we read, following Ames' translation, that "the highest integrity is 'god-like'. ... Integrity is not simply completing oneself, it is the means of completing things and events" ( 24). Again great persons are not gods, but simply leaders who have the wisdom and the perspicacity to get things done and to expand their influence in the world. This is the meaning of Mencius' profound remark that "everything is complete here in me. Can there be any greater joy than in plumbing oneself and finding oneself true?" (7a4, Ames trans.). What Mencius means is that all of us in our original natures have the potential of "completing things and events", we all have the potential of becoming sages, but not gods. Confucius is "cosmic" only in the sense of the extent of his influence, not because of any special divine nature. The lives of the sages are, like nature, expansive and productive, and this is a key to understanding a crucial text in the Analects: "II is man who is capable of broadening the Way. It is not the Way that is capable of broadening man" (15.29, Lau trans.)

University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho



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    I would like to acknowledge the constructive comments from Edward Machle.






1. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, ed. Joseph Campbell (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1956), pp. 231-2.

2. See my "Hindu Titanism," Philosophy East and West 45:1 (January, 1995), pp. 73-96.

3. The Portable Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), p. 139.

4. Ibid., p. 125.

5. Zarathustra's advice to the cripples is not to beg for miracle cures, but to perform the greatest "miracle" themselves: viz., to use their own wills to overcome their handicaps. (See The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 249-50; see Chapter Five of the Zhuangzi for an amazing Taoist parallel.) The Confucian junzi or a Taoist zhi ren would be completely at ease with themselves, like children. The laughing, playing child also plays a significant role in both Nietzsche and Zhuangzi. In an otherwise excellent article, Graham Parkes fails to notice these important parallels. See his "The Wandering Dance: Chuang Tzu and Zarathustra," Philosophy East and West 33:3 (July, 1983), pp. 235-250.

6. Edward Machle, Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), p. 176.

7. Ibid., p. 155.

8. The Xunzi, chap. vii, trans. in ibid., p 111.

9. The Xunzi, Chapter 17, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, trans. and ed. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 117,119. Fung Yu-lan alternative translations are in brackets. See Fung, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: Free Press, 1966). p. 144.

10. Machle, p. 86.

11. Source Book, p. 117.

12. Machle, p. l82.



p. 150

13. Ibid., p 138.

14. Ibid., p. 120.

15. Source Book, p. 122. Chan's commentary is integrated in the text, so I choose not to footnote it.

16. See Machle, pp. l85-87; and R. J. Ivanhoe, "Human Nature and Moral Understanding in Xunzi," International Philosophical Quarterly 34:2 (June, 1994), pp. 167-76.

17. Tang Xuni implies that the Chinese language itself forestalled such difficulties. "The Chinese translation of the words 'subject' and 'object' of Indian and western philosophy are 'chu' and 'pin.' ... Originally 'chu' means host, and 'pin' means guest. ... It is quite clear that there is no dualism between host and guest. This metaphor is the best symbol for Chinese thought about the relation of the subjective individual and the objective world as mutually immanent and transcendent in an ultimate harmony." ("The Individual and the World in Chinese Methodology" in The Chinese Mind, ed. Charles A. Moore [Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1967], p. 281).

18. Thomé H. Fang, "The World and the Individual in Chinese Metaphysics" in The Chinese mind, p. 242.

19. Source Book, p. 107.

20. The Doctrine of the Mean 22, trans. Chan in the Source Book, p. 108.

21. Tu Wei-Ming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), p. 75.

22. See The World of the Buddha, ed. Lucian Stryk (New York: Grove Press, 1968), pp. 163-69.

23. Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 310. Schwartz qualifies Xunzi's utilitarianism as a method dictated primarily by the exigencies of his period. Under better conditions, argues Schwartz, Xunzi would agree with Confucius and Mencius that the virtuous person should be internally motivated father than be guided by external reward or punishment. Xunzi is especially emphatic about pursuing music and the holy rites as ends in themselves.

24. Tu Wei-ming, Confucian Thought, p 75.

25. Source Book, p. 134.

26. Machle, p. 127.

27. Ibid., pp. 148-49.

28. See Protagoras 333.

29. See chapter ix of the Xunzi.

30. The Xunzi, chap xxi, trans. in Machle, p. 151.



p. 151

31. Karl Potter, Presuppositions of Indian Philosophies (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963), p. 3.

32. David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (Albany: SUNY Press, 1967), p. 242-3.

33. See my "On the Deification of Confucius," Asian Philosophy 1:3 (1993), pp. 43-54.

34. A Chinese-English Dictionary (Beijing: Commercial Press, 1980), p. 608. I am grateful to Chen Lai of Beijing University and Tang Yi of Beijing's Institute of World Religions for making me aware of this alternative translation.

35. Tu Wei-ming, Confucian Thought, p. 152. Tu calls on the authority of Chu Hsi on this point.

36. The Doctrine of the Mean, 32, Source Book, p 112.

37. Tu Wei Ming, Confucian Thought, 129. Earlier Tu makes it clear that "this godlike creativity of Confucius must be not conceived as the demonstration of some superhuman quality inherent in his nature. Far from being superhuman, what Confucius was able to manifest can be characterized as a 'refinement' of his humanity." (Centrality and Community: An Essay on the Chung-Yung (Albany: SUNY Press, 1985), p 86).

38. Tu, Confucian Thought., p. l35.

39. Hall and Ames, op. cit., p. 243.

40. Machle, p. 162.

41. Ibid., p. 163.

42. The Xunzi, chap. xvii, quoted in ibid., p. 168.

43. Ibid., p. 92.

44. Ibid., p. 152.

45. Ibid., p. 21.

46. The Xunzi, chap. ix, trans. in ibid., pp. 150-51.

47. Machle, p. 168.

48. The Xunzi, chap. ix., trans. in ibid., pp. 150-51.

49. Machle, p. 155.

50. Ibid., pp. 185-87.

51. Ibid., p.103.

52. Ibid., p. 133. In a personal communication Machle mentioned several more phrases like this in chapter 10, 11, 14, 16, 18, 22, 24, and 26.

53. The Xunzi chap. i, trans. in ibid., p. 161.