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Warring States Confucianism

Until the time of Mencius (Mengzi; c. 371–c. 289 B.C.E.) the principal proponents of Confucian learning resided in Lu, where they studied and taught the ancient texts and proper performance of the rites. The text that bears the name Mencius confirms historians' judgments that this era, the height of the Warring States period, witnessed a rapid change in the ethos of the ruling class. The rulers of the larger states all appropriated the title of king for themselves. They accelerated the development of institutions of direct taxation and conscription within their borders and belligerently applied new technologies in their efforts to expand beyond these borders. They actively sought advice on how to develop, defend, and expand their states, inviting scholars from throughout the known world to participate. Two opposing tendencies appear to have defined a new discourse involving a "Hundred Schools of Thought." On the one side were ideas that reflected and further encouraged the standardization of institutions and laws, the simplification and clarification of administrative methods, and the realistic pursuit of political goals. On the other side were ideas that reflected and further encouraged belief in divine retribution, spiritual intervention, and the Mandate of Heaven. Mencius revived the early Confucians' concepts of conscience, duty, ritual performance, and wisdom within this discourse.

The Confucius of the Analects answered a question about the meaning of wisdom by advising the questioner to "revere the spirits but keep them at a distance." He had very little to say about heaven. The Warring States discourse defines the domain of man as the space between heaven and earth. In this domain there is a Way (dao) —a set of principles and/or activities—that parallels, follows, approximates, resonates with, or reflects the "Way of Heaven and Earth." In Mencius the "Way of Man" is moral and the "gentleman" is its agent. The Warring States discourse also anticipates a reappearance of the spiritual forces that were manifest in the Zhou Mandate of Heaven. In Mencius the Mandate of Heaven appears at two levels. At one level Mencius advises kings and lesser rulers as to how they must act if they expect to receive the mandate and become a "true" king. At another level the text defines the "gentleman" as one who is able to grasp and hold onto the original moral "mind," or "heart" (xin), which was heaven's mandate to each individual human, and thereby to "transform the environment through which he passes and invest with spirituality (shen) the place in which he resides." At both levels, the idea of the Mandate of Heaven is inseparable from the idea that in the mind of every person originally there are the seeds both of benevolence and of the duty to spread it in the domain of humanity.

In political thinking the idea of a world ordered by ritual was being displaced by the idea of a world ordered by law, or rewards and punishments. Yet proper performance of the rites remained important to the ruling elite, who still sought to legitimize their status by showing respect for their dead parents and ancestors as well as reverence for the gods of local communities over which they ruled. Mencius included the rites among the four virtues that were seeded by heaven in the human mind, but the Legalists—those who would reform the world by enforcing new laws—dismissed them as artifacts of a world that was no more, while the Daoists, for whom the Way was not moral but natural, regarded them as the last means of moral suasion before a ruler resorted to force. In the middle of the next century, as the powerful state of Qin mounted its conquest of the world, Xunzi (c. 298–c. 230 B.C.E.)—the last of the great Warring States scholars to apply the early Confucians' concepts—revived the concept of ritual with a stunning attack on the Legalists, the Daoists, and Mencius alike.

Xunzi argued that in the absence of benevolent rulers, it was the principles inherent in the performance of the rites that preserved the wisdom of the ancients and provided the means by which the "gentleman" could transform the world. The Daoists were right about heaven; it was neither moral nor responsive to human pleas for help. But, in addition, it was the origin of all life, and it provided man with a mind capable of learning by observing nature and by moderating the natural drive toward self-gratification. Human nature could not be distinguished from animal nature by its goodness, as Mencius had argued. Humans could understand the meaning of the word "good" because humans had invented it to contrast with the natural urge to gratify their desires. This natural urge was enhanced by emotions that, if allowed to prevail, led to ever increasing conflict and ultimate self-destruction. Social order, in short, was invented by the sages, and the rites were their means of channeling the emotions between the extremes that would destroy that order. For Xunzi, ordinary men find benevolence unattractive because they are naturally inclined to pursue pleasure and profit, leaving benevolence to the sages, but everyone benefits from a social order that keeps our angry and acquisitive urges at bay.

Xunzi replaces the moral mind of Mencius with a mind that is "empty, unified, and still." Like the Daoists, Xunzi argues that reasoning—moving the mind, filling it with things, and analyzing them—forces us to make distinctions that lead us away from first principles and into petty disputes. Because the "gentleman" understands the principles behind the rites, an understanding that guides him to the middle ground between keeping to form and releasing the feelings, he finds comfort in carrying them out. Officials only maintain them, while ordinary people perform them because they are customary and believe they have something to do with spirits. As for laws and regulations, or rewards and punishments, these are necessary but not sufficient tools for governing. "Although there can be disorder where the laws are good, I have never heard of a case of disorder where the ruler was a 'gentleman.'"

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshConfucianism - Confucius, Warring States Confucianism, Han Confucianism, Neo-confucianism, Modern Confucianism, Bibliography