Xunzi’s Dark Will
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).