March 11, 2007 at 8:55 pm #21633
This is a letter written by the mediaeval Chinese scholar Ouyang Xiu, or Ou-yang Hsiu, (1007-1072) to his protege Li Xu. Ouyang Xiu was one of the greatest minds of the Song dynasty, he has produced significant works in nearly all fields of contemporary scholarship. In addition, he was also a prominent politician. In the letter below, he is advising a young fellow scholar on what is important and what is not. Although the message is already a thousand years old, it still has relevance today.
Ouyang Xiu to protege Li Xu!
The book you submitted to me before and the three chapters of the Xingquan reveal that you are fond of learning, good at dispute and your writing completely expresses what you want to say. There are many people today who talk about human nature (xing). This raises some problems and I would like to exhaust this matter with you.
It worries me that there are many scholars today who talk about human nature, therefore I always say: “Human nature is what those who are not scholars are extremely interested in but what the sages rarely talk about.” The sixty-four hexagrams of the Book of Changes do not discuss human nature; what they discuss is the common patterns of movement and stillness, gain and loss, luck and misfortune. The two hundred forty years of the Annals of the Spring and Autumn do not discuss human nature; what they discuss is the authentic records of good and evil, right and wrong. The three hundred and five songs of the Book of Songs do not discuss human nature; what they discuss is the fine criticism of government and instruction. The fifty-nine chapters of the Book of History do not discuss human nature; what they discuss is the order and chaos during the reigns of Yao, Shun, and the three dynasties. The writings of Liji and Yueyi, although incomplete, appear here and there in Confucianist records; their main concern is the ways of governing the state and cultivating the self. What the six classics record are all human affairs in the world: this is what they discuss in great detail. Not one or two out of ten of these writings really talk about human nature; some mention it but do not discuss it specifically as human nature, therefore, although they mention it, they do not exhaust the matter.
When I say, “do not discuss,” I do not mean that they do not talk about it at all, but that they seldom mention it and do not discuss human nature as being the main subject. The questions of the seventy-two disciples in the Confucian Analects address the issues of filial piety, loyalty, humaneness and propriety rites and music, self-cultivation, government of a state, friendship, ghosts and spirits; but they never ask about human nature. Confucius’ instructions towards his student altogether amount to several thousand sayings and only once human nature is mentioned. That is why I say: “It is what those who are not scholars are extremely interested in but it is what the sages rarely talk about.”
The Book of History says: “to complete practice and nature,” the Confucian Analects says: “by nature, man are alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart.” These words admonish people to be cautious with what they put into practice and what they say. The Doctrine of the Mean says: “what the mandate of Heaven gives is human nature, what the disciplining of human nature produces is the Dao” elucidates that human nature is not constant and must be disciplined. The Yueji also says: “being influenced by external things is the aspiration of human nature;” this phrase elucidates that man cannot avoid being`influenced by external things. Therefore, these documents ultimately do not discuss whether human nature is good or evi, but admonish people to be cautious with what they put into practice and what they are influenced by and animate what is used too disciple human nature. That is why I say: “although they mention it, they do not exhaust the matter.”
When I was young, I was fond of studying. I know that studying is hard. Out of the records of the six classics and the questions of the seventy disciples, although you might study them all your life, some still cannot be understood. Out of what you have understood, although you might practice them all your life, some still cannot be perfectly realized. I have devoted myself to this and did not wander blindly among other things; because I know that the seventy two disciples also devoted themselves to this and did not wander blindly; I also know that the sages instructed the people for later generations, they dedicated themselves to this and did not wander blindly among other things. The scholars of today, devoting themselves to what the sages and worthies of antiquity were involved with, study and practice these things. Yet some of them, not having reached one tenth or two tenth of what they were saying, like to discuss human nature in order to cover exhaustively what the sages rarely discussed and never discussed in full.
Some people ask: “Then, after all, is it not worth learning about human nature?” I say: “Human nature is something that is born together with the body and it is what all men have. To be a gentleman, you have to cultivate your body and discipline yourself, there is no need to be involved with whether human nature is bad or good. For if human nature is really good, you still have to cultivate your body, you still have to discipline yourself. If human nature is really evil, you still have to cultivate your body, you still have to discipline yourself. When one does not cultivate his body, even if he is a gentleman by nature, he will be a petty person.
The lines in the Book of History, “If one cannot fix his mind on goodness, he will be a madman” refer to this. When one is capable of cultivating himself, even if he is a xiaoren by nature, he will be a gentleman. The lines in the Book of History, “If a madman can fix his mind [on goodness], he will be a sage” refer to this. If one completes the Dao of discipline, then his self will be good. The lines of the Book of History, saying, “The common people are in harmony with the changing of the seasons” refer to this. If one loses the Dao of discipline, then his self will be evil. The lines of the Book of History saying “yin wan min” and “the old impure customs” refer to this. Therefore, if one is to become a gentleman, he should be concerned about cultivating his body and disciplining himself, instead of exhaust the matter of human nature and talk about it. The seventy two disciples do not ask about human nature, the six classics do not discuss it as a main subject, and even when they discuss it they do not elaborate on it. This omission must have a reason to it!
Some people ask: “If this is the case, then were the three philosophers incorrect?” I reply: “No, they were not.” “How are they different [in discussing the matter]?” “They are different in the beginning but in the end they are the same. Suppose that Mengzi, saying that human nature is good, only forgave but did not educate: in this case he we would have been incorrect. Suppose that Xunzi, saying that human nature is evil, only rejected but did not educate: in this case he would have been incorrect. Suppose that Yang Xiong, saying that human nature is confused, only left it without intervening and did not educate, in this case he would have been incorrect. Thus being the case, the three philosophers were roaming all over and teaching the feudal lords to practice their Dao, they were wrote books with hundreds of thousands of words to instruct the later generations, they never changed their undivided attitude in being involved with righteousness, the rites, and music. They meant that if you are good but do not educate yourself for one day, you will be at mistake and will be turning evil; if you are evil but diligently educate yourself, you can make [your human nature] to reach goodness; if you are confused but cleanse and educate yourself, you can eliminate evil and approach goodness. Their teachings are in accord with the Book of History’s “to complete practice and nature,” the Confucian Analects’ “by nature, man are alike,” the Doctrine of the Mean’s “possesses in order to discipline it,” and the Yueji’s “be aware of not letting yourself being influenced.”
The words of the three philosophers, if you judge on the basis of their words, are different; but if you examine their inner intention, then they are identical. Therefore, I think that they were not incorrect and, although they are different in the beginning, in the end they are the same. Every time we discuss the three philosophers, people agree with me on this point and the debate can rest.
This is what I wanted to say, please think about it.
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