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Asian ThoughtHuman Nature: Good Or Evil?, Revival Of The Tradition, Zhu Xi And The Study Of Principle

Philosophy in East Asia generally avoids abstract metaphysical speculation and focuses on practical questions. Discussions of human nature tend to be related to concerns about social problems and how to solve them. This practical orientation can be seen in the thought of Confucius (Kong fuzi, 551–479 B.C.E.), China's most influential philosopher, who lived during a time of social strife and whose life was dedicated to reforming China and returning it to the paradigms of the past as he understood them.

Confucius's study of ancient Chinese classics led him to believe that during the reigns of the "sage kings" Yao and Shun, China had been well governed and harmony had prevailed throughout their realms. This was accomplished not through harsh punishments or excessive regulations, but by the moral force of their personalities and their attention to social rituals. They are extolled as examples of "noble men" (junzi), who embodied the best of human virtues and whose good qualities prompted others to strive for moral excellence themselves. Confucius believed that the presence of such people in a society is the key to social harmony and that all men have the capacity to become perfect exemplars of virtue. He was, however, a product of his time, and his writings indicate that he did not view women as having the same capacities as men. All of his students and close associates were men, and the few instances of mentions of women indicate that he mainly saw them as wives and supporters of men striving to perfect themselves.

For Confucius, education is the key to moral development. Although humans have the capacity to become "noble men," only those who study diligently and actively pursue this ideal are able to reach it. He urged his students to study the classics in order to discern for themselves the eternal paradigms that guide sages. A true sage, in his conception, is one who has learned to discipline his mind and body, whose outward comportment is always appropriate and whose thoughts are oriented toward the betterment of society. Such a person is resolute in the pursuit of virtue but not rigid, learned but not boastful, deeply moral without being moralistic, courageous but not reckless, and always strives to practice what is right in any given situation.

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