A Ku Indeed!

Xunzi’s Dark Will

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, virtue ethics, Xunzi by Chris on August 18, 2008

I find questions of motivation intriguing. How is it that some people have the ability to simply “latch on” to a goal and doggedly pursue it, whereas others either have an inability to latch on at all to a goal, or have the ability but weakly so — any number of frustrations will suffice to derail the pursuit of the goal.

Of course, this question is, as far as I can tell, central to an understanding of early Confucianism. The reason is evident: the goal of Confucianism is, for the most part, either unattainable or unattainable for the vast majority of people (the reasons for this I’ll leave to the side). For Confucius, it’s being ren; one never “arrives” at the state, but rather works endlessly towards the ideal, coming closer and closer (hopefully) with each step (of course, ren can be read as the very state _of_ continual striving). For Xunzi, it is the attainment of sage-hood — becoming an Yao or Shun. Either way, it’s pretty clear that these are difficult — if not the most difficult — goals to orient one’s life around.

Xunzi talks about the kind of effort a person needs to be able to muster in order to “learn”, which is itself required to attain sage-hood, as “a dark and dogged will.” He says that a person who has learned to direct themselves by means of such a will has achieved a kind of Yi (oneness) that is opposed to “going off in all directions”. Simply, it is a necessary condition for sagehood that a person be passionately resolved.

As the passage around that notion (of the will) suggests, however, attaining oneness is extremely difficult. Most people, given the fact that as one proceeds one only achieves small gains (if anything), give up and wind up actually “achieving” nothing at all. The reason for this, Xunzi suggests, is that “achievement consists in never giving up.”

But “never giving up” is a pretty tall order, especially in the face of frustration and failure. Especially given Xunzi’s own seeming admission that it is our nature to strive for the objects of our desires. We strive for satisfaction, so one would think that if we don’t get what our desires aim at (pretty consistently), we’ll give up. So given that the path of ren is so difficult, how can anyone “never give up” on seeking it out?

I wonder if part of what Xunzi means when he suggests that we must “transform” ourselves to become sages is this: that we must learn to slide over from a way of experiencing out desires as acquisitive to experiencing (at least the life-guiding) desires as expressive. In other words, if what I strive for is always to acquire something outside of me, such that the success or failure conditions of “acquiring” it do not fully rest on my own skill and ability (luck is always looming in the background), then I will open up my life to a continual stream of frustration and failure, and a guaranteed “giving up” at some point (at least insofar as some desire more easily satisfied will eventually roll around).

Contrast this with expression. If I can retrain my desire, say, from “assuring that my daughter is not in pain” to “assuring that I am a good father” (the latter of which includes aiming at the former, though not necessarily defeated by a failure to acquire the target of that goal), then I can give myself a desire-structure within which I can receive enough continual satisfaction (in theory, given effort, which is always mine to give, and cannot be defeated by external sources) to “never give up.” It is always within my power to be a better and better father, even if it is not always in my power to acquire the targets that good fathers aim to acquire.

I’m not sure if this is right — just a thought at this point. But basically the idea is this: to have a goal that one must “never give up on” would seem to require a shift in motivation structure away from acquisition and towards expression. It would require a shift away from being oriented, perhaps, towards the world and instead being oriented towards the self, even if the self _has_ the external objects as its own targets (so good fathers have their children’s safety as their concerns, say).

If this is right, and I’m not sure it is, then it would look, at least on one level, as if the Xunzian virtuous agent has as his primary virtuous disposition a kind of desire to bond with himself (the rites structure life so that I am convinced that part of what I am is a father, though I can fall away from this, and so to bond with myself requires expressing what I am in my relational connections), a bond that can always be satisfied, and thus a goal that can always be worked towards in a way that one can maintain the constant resolve or “dark will” or “oneness” that entails that one does not “ever give up.” The Xunzian “dark will” would be a desire, then, for self-cultivation, for being this-or-that kind of person.

Perhaps, by these lights, the sage-kings of old (who create the rites), succeed in teaching people to transform their love for themselves (their desire towards the fulfillment of their own satisfaction) into a true self-love (a desire aimed at the expression of what one is, as opposed to pointed towards a more primitive satisfaction of acquiring external targeted goods).



4 Responses

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  1. Alexus McLeod said, on August 18, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    Very interesting stuff.
    This might indeed be what Xunzi has in mind. One problem with this view of motivation, though, is that sometimes it seems like the expressive is dependent on the acquisitive. The “being a good father” case you mention is a perfect example. Xunzi might be right that focusing on the internal, the “being a good father”, rather than on making sure one’s child isn’t in pain (the external focus) is more conducive to not giving up. But it seems also like my sense of how good a father I am is going to be conditioned by external factors, regardless of what I do. If I do all the things a good father can be expected to do, and my son still suffers a horrible childhood due to external factors (even if these are completely outside my control), it seems to me I’d probably still consider myself a bad father, regardless of the quality of my own actions. This same thing seems to happen in the cases of people involved in accidents in which another person is harmed–the person can feel guilty about harming the other person involved even if they were not at fault. “Survivors’ guilt” is a variety of this kind of thing.

    I think your reading of Xunzi is a plausible one–I guess my disagreement here would be with Xunzi (and Confucius as well, as the Analects could be plausibly read as offering the position you lay out also)–the feeling of failure of being a good father I would have if my son were unhappy or harmed (or the feeling of being a bad friend that the person with “survivor’s guilt” would have) would seem to allow for the kind of frustration and failure that would lead in some cases to quitting. And the source of this would be external–it would just be failure based on external factors in a less direct sense, internalized.

  2. Chris said, on August 19, 2008 at 6:18 am


    I think you are right to bring this up — I was thinking about it myself while typing this post. I think, though, that there are two issues here, one we might be able to get around, and another that is more difficult.

    1. Being a father (and other relations) have external success conditions.
    2. Ren has external success conditions.

    Problem (1) might be dealt with by simply claiming that it should not have such conditions, and that the intuitions we have that it does are wrong. It could be that our intuitions about (1) are not in accord with a healthy respect for ming, perhaps, and such a desire to “control” what is not properly ours to control is not expressive of a virtuous state.

    Problem (2) is different, because unlike (1), I think (2) has some textual support (in the Analects, not sure about Xunzi), not just intuitive support. I’m not yet sure how to deal with (2). At the very least, (2) appears to me to rub up against the many textual passages in the Analects that differentiate the junzi from the xiao ren in terms of the latter suffering from anxiety and the former not. As far as the text seems to suggest, suffering from anxiety is a matter of tying the quality of one’s life to attempts to the need to control what is properly within the field of ming (what is external, so the xiao ren are anxious because they worry about their money, say, when stock market crashes are not things they can control).

    One way around this would be a reading of the “success condition” of ren that would make what is external to the agent not actually under the control of ming. I have some thoughts about how to perhaps do this, but I’ll hold off for now, and just leave it at this point at a statement of those two options (1) and (2).

    What do you think?

  3. Alexus McLeod said, on August 19, 2008 at 8:16 am

    I think Xunzi would have a pretty hard time dislodging the intuition about (1), even in ancient China. He’d need some pretty good argument for it, because it would have been startling even there. In fact, the view seems to run into a second intuition–not only would I feel like a failure as a father if my son were unhappy or harmed, but I’d feel that a father who could feel like a successful father if their child were unhappy or harmed was sociopathic. In a sense, to be able to feel successful given bad enough external conditions would itself seem to violate the proper responses one would be expected to have in given relationships. Could it really be part of the li (or characteristic responses) of fatherhood not to have the responses of feeling like a failure given the unhappiness or harm of one’s child? Wouldn’t a father who didn’t have such feelings count as one who is deficiently playing the role of father? I suspect Confucius would say so–Analects 2.6, for example, talks about “giving your parents no worries other than that you might become sick” (or “they might become sick”, depending on translation choices). To take external factors out of evaluations of success or failure would then require a radical rethinking of what it is to be a father, even for Confucius–and I’m not sure the end result would be something Confucius (or Xunzi) would be satisfied with. One problem with completely internalizing the success conditions for things like ren or fatherhood is that one could be a good father while all kinds of shameful things happen to their child, a good son while their parents suffer and are mistreated, and a ren person while society completely falls apart. If Confucius wants to avoid an extreme “self-centeredness” problem similar to ones aimed at some conceptions of virtue ethics, then the virtuous person will have to have enough of an investment in external factors to feel unsuccessful given certain external situations–that is, they will (necessarily and rightly, it seems) tie in their own success with certain external conditions.

    As far as Analects 7.37–Joel often beats me over the head with this passage also :). I don’t have a problem with reading Confucius as in part internalist, but I think it’s extreme to extend the claim in 7.37 fully, so that the junzi resembles the Buddhist arahant, who has reached nirvana. The junzi might be calm in a way that the xiao ren is not because the xiao ren is either 1) overly concerned with external factors–while the junzi then may still be affected by them, he won’t be affected by them to the same extent the xiao ren is. The xiao ren, for example, might whine and cause a ruckus when they stub their toe or don’t get the dinner they wanted, whereas the junzi’s perturbation will be for much more important things and those only (that one’s child is killed, or that the ruler becomes a tyrant).
    or 2) the petty person is always looking for personal gain and position, is always in competition and so the world is against him and he struggles with it and hates it, whereas the junzi has a genuine concern for others and wants simply to do the right thing, so his relations with others will be less strained, selfish, and hateful.

    These are just two options on 7.37–I tend to hold more to the former, but they could both be going on there (and more on top of that). I think that the comparison here is the key factor. To say the junzi is calm, at peace, in any situation, compared to anyone, would be like equating him with the arahant. But I suspect there are certain situations Confucius would want to say the junzi would be more perturbed than the xiao ren in–the blatant and offensive violation of an important ritual, for example. The xiao ren might be completely at ease with the Ji clan’s use of 8 rows of dancers (Analects 3.1), whereas a junzi (especially one who’s a member of the Ji clan) might lose sleep over it.

  4. Chris said, on August 19, 2008 at 10:12 am


    Good objections — all the right ones, I think, especially on the self-centered objection typically thrown at virtue ethics.

    First, I don’t want to make the junzi (or sheng jen) into an arahant, I think that pushes things too far. I certainly don’t want to say that the junzi is “tranquil” at all times, and so is “appropriately” distant from the world emotionally. Instead, I think “anxiety” is more narrow, and is focused on inappropriate orientation towards (instead of no emotional reaction to) what is under the rule of ming; specifically, tying one’s status as a good person to things that one cannot control.

    For example, I think you are certainly right that the junzi father should be very upset (and appropriately so!) if his child is harmed. It may even be natural, and virtuous, to ask “did I do enough?” in any given situation where one’s children are harmed. This is cause for worry (you don’t want to see your children harmed), but not cause for anxiety (whether your children are harmed does not immediate impact your status as a good person). But I think that virtuous emotional responsiveness in such a case would have to specific to situation, no?

    Ex. 1: Child dies in car accident.

    Here it would be odd to think one was a bad father due to the demise of the child (unless, of course, one taught the child to drive badly). Instead, it seems that grief is appropriate. To worry excessively in such a situation that one was a bad father seems itself to be too arrogant, because it makes “fatherhood” more causally efficacious than it really is.

    Ex. 2: Child does shameful things.

    Here I think we have some crossover with the issue of the success conditions for ren. Confucius (and perhaps Xunzi) see virtue as power, so the lack of virtue of a child could indeed be seen as a lack of virtue (power) on the part of the father. As a result, ren seems to have at least some external success conditions.

    But here’s a thought. Say that you child does shameful thing X. You say “ah, this means that I am a bad father, my “de” lacks efficacy in this situation”. What’s important here is that fixing the situation is an internal matter. It means locating whatever it is that you think, in your way of interacting with the child, you messed up. And you fix it, and that itself seems internal.

    Perhaps what this might mean is this: in some cases, external conditions are reliable markers regarding the success of certain kinds of expression. An example: whether I love or honor my wife is a matter of expression, which seems wholly “up to me” — but I can be reminded about possible failures in my attempts to express those things if certain external persons fail to respond to me in certain ways. So, if my wife thinks I don’t love her, that may well be a good reason for me to wonder if I am indeed expressing love correctly. Still, it might seem odd to say that if my wife thinks I don’t love her, then I don’t.

    Similarly, the failure of a child to be virtuous may well be an external sign that I have failed in my attempts to express myself as a good father (which has the production of virtuous children as a target). But should it mean that the failure of a child _is_ by definition a certain sign that the father failed in his role responsibilities? Even if de is power, you also have to keep in mind that a person’s character is affected by “what he/she rubs up against” (to paraphrase Xunzi), and to think that one’s own de is the only efficacious factor in the eventual virtuous development of a child seems to over-reach.

    Just some thoughts, I’ll stop here since the reply is getting long.

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