Confucius famously said, "I am a transmitter, not an innovator." Less famously, he also said, "One who can rekindle the past while understanding the contemporary situation, may be taken as a teacher." Clearly, Confucius may be taken as just such a teacher, for in his effort to provide a workable moral-political theory, he was both a transmitter and an innovator. In particular, while emphasizing pre-existing categories, he significantly modified their meanings. Thus, for example, the term junzi, which had been a political category, came to be a moral one. Confucius changed its meaning from "prince" to "exemplary person," that is, one who is a model of exemplary conduct and is thus worthy of holding office. He also emphasized the importance of ritual propriety (li), and the proper use of language (zhengming). For his ethical ideal Confucius used the word "ren." It was an idea so unfamiliar to his followers that they asked him about it repeatedly. And, though it is one of the most common key words in the Analects, one passage asserts that ren was among the topics Confucius rarely talked about.
Though not as well known as Laozi and Zhuangzi, it was Mozi who was Confucius' chief rival. Mozi criticized Confucianism (or Ruism) for its extravagance, particularly its advocacy of extravagant funerals and a three year morning period. Mozi is often cast as the classical Chinese tradition's utilitarian. This is because he rejected Confucianism's idea of graduated affection (caring most for one's parents), and instead advocated impartial caring. Further, though Mozi was not exactly trying to maximize "happiness," he was a consequentialist who valued what might be called "utility" in a mundane sense. Xunzi would later argue that that Mozi's understanding of utility was too limited, that he could not appreciate the value of elegant form---which for Xunzi had intrinsic as well as instrumental value.
The second great Confucian, sometimes called the "Second Sage," was Mencius (Mengzi). Mencius defended Confucianism against new rivals while clarifying positions that Confucius left ambiguous. For example, Confucius said that people are similar by birth, but grow apart by virtue of habit. However, it was unstated whether this original similarity should be characterized as an original goodness or an original badness. Mencius says people's nature is good. According to Mencius, it is only when their nature has been damaged, or their natural growth has been stunted by outside forces, that people may become bad. Xunzi criticized Mencius for this characterization of human nature. For Xunzi, human nature is crude and unadorned (we have desires which if unchecked lead us to wrangling and strife), and that is precisely why we need the teachings of the sages and the artifice (such as norms of ritual propriety) that they created. Xunzi insists that it is by intelligently guided effort, not by following our nature, that we can become good.
There is considerable doubt over whether a person named Laozi ever existed, or whether the Laozi (also called the Dao De Jing) was written primarily by a single author. Legend has it that Laozi was the older contemporary of Confucius. However, many scholars believe that the passages that form the Laozi were composed (possibly by many hands) and compiled sometime after Confucius died.
The Laozi is a notoriously difficult text to translate. There are over 100 English translations and all of them are different. The trouble starts from the very first line, which states, "Dao can dao, it is not a constant dao." Does this imply that there is some constant ineffable dao? Should it be thought of as a metaphysical entity? Scholars disagree on the answers to these questions (see the "Dao Debate"). In any case, the philosophy of the Laozi represents an alternative to, and critique of, the Ruist tradition, which Confucius sought to "transmit." From the Laozi's point of view, any effort to formalize dao was misguided. Rather, the "way" to make the best of one's life was to harmonize with the "way" of nature. In particular, this meant skillful yielding, what the Laozi calls wu-wei (literally, "non-action"). The premise is that the natural tendencies of the world flow back and forth, like the movement of yin and yang. Thus, if one rises too high, one's fall will be mighty hard. The Laozi is also suspicious of conceptual distinctions. When one fixes one way of parsing the world, one misses the subtleties. Thus, the Laozi advocates keeping one's focus on what is not highlighted in the dominant discourse.
See Steve Coutinho's brief interpretation of Zhuangzi's inner chapters (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)
Xunzi, who was arguably one of the two most brilliant thinkers of China's classical period (along with Zhuangzi), was chronologically third of the three great Confucian philosophers of that time (after Confucius and Mencius). He is most famous (or infamous) for his rejection of Mencius' view that human nature is good. "Original human nature is crude (xing e )," writes Xunzi, by which he means: we are born with a problematic set of desires, and thus we need a means of reshaping our motivational structure in order to beautify it. He believed "ritual" (li) to be the best means to that end.
Last Date Modified: 08/21/2007
Kurtis Hagen, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org