Musings about iOS development and life

The Xunzi

“To honor rites and seek to achieve merit is the highest order of action”.

I discovered the Xunzi as a student in university during a course that I shall never forget entitled “Introduction to East Asia 101”. That professor, god bless his soul wherever he may be, gave the most memorable lecture about how an obscure Chinese thinker was able to turn Confucianism on its head, strip the supernatural out of it, and produce a rock solid unifying theory about human nature and the organization of human societies which to this day, in my humble opinion, remains unrivaled. It was then that we had this most delightful conversation: talking about the meaning of the word “thing”.


Xunzi was a Chinese philosopher who lived towards the end of the Warring States period (453-221 BCE). He famously rejected the prevailing notion that man was good by nature and instead argued that man’s behavior should be molded by training, learning and discipline (which he calls rites) in order to overcome animalistic urges and make him righteous and to produce well ordered and prosperous societies led by enlightened and benevolent rulers.

As such his work transcends the ages as the earliest documented proponent of the realist doctrine (which argues that the world is the product of friction between competing sources of power), and his reasoning is guided by coherent, methodical analysis of empirical data and scorns superstition, dogma and naivety, as it seeks to uncover the workings of what makes human societies successful and what drives interactions between them, going as far as analyzing the purpose of music and the proper use of words.

His work is truly revolutionary for someone who lived in a time when science and technology were in their very early stages, and remains relevant, maybe now more than ever, as a blueprint for personal growth, leadership and organization.

Without further ado, here it is, the original masterpiece in its raw glory, albeit in a slightly condensed format, with a pinch of Sun Tzu’s “the Art of War”.

Chapter 1: Encouraging learning

Multiple examples as to why education enhances your reach:

  • If you climb in a tree you can see farther.
  • Water runs downhill.

Be selective in who you associate with.

  • Perfume laced in urine finds no buyers.
  • Do not break bread with people who are beneath you.

Examples about “baby steps” or “how do you eat an elephant (by cutting it into small pieces)”.

“Achievement consists of never giving up”

Bind yourself to oneness.

”Learning continues until death and only then does it cease”

  • The Book of Documents: record of government affairs.
  • The Odes: the repository of correct sounds.
  • The rituals: basis of law and foundation of precedents.

Learning should be accomplished not by only studying but also

  • by associating with learned men.
  • By practicing the rituals.

Constancy of virtue, the discipline to only engage in things which are worthy of the Way.

Chapter 2: Improving yourself

Be receptive to feedback, both good and bad.

“They league together, they slander,

It fills me with sorrow,

When advice is good

They all oppose it.

When advice is bad,

They follow all together.”

The Odes

Importance of rituals as a roadmap to discipline for day-to-day activities.

What things are called:

To make use of good to lead others education
To make use of bad betrayal
To make use of good To achieve harmony with others amenity
To make use of bad sycophancy
To treat right/wrong As right/wrong wisdom
As wrong/right stupidity
To speak ill of good men slander
To do harm to good men brigandage
To call right right and wrong wrong honesty
To steal goods robbery
To act on the sly deceit
To go back on your word perfidy
To be without a fixed standard inconstancy
To cling to profit and cast aside righteousness the height of depravity
To have heard much broad
To have heard little shallow
To have seen much practiced
To have seen little uncouth
To have difficulty advancing laggard
To forget easily leaky brain
Actions are few and well principled orderly
Actions are many and disorderly chaotic

What to do if:

Temperament too strong and stubborn soften it with harmony
Intellect too deep and withdrawn unify it with mild sincerity
Too courageous and fierce orderly compliance
Too hasty and flippant restraint
Too constrained and petty liberality
Low minded, lethargic and petty high ambition
Mediocre, dull and diffuse teachers and friends
Stupidly sincere and ploddingly honest Rites and music

Reflections upon inner wealth vs outer disposition.

“Look well inside yourself and you may look lightly upon outside things”

Follow the righteous path, even if it is not the easy path, or the most profitable path.

These qualities will make you welcome wherever you go:

  • Integrity
  • Kindness
  • Hard working

But these will make you unwelcome:

  • Arrogant
  • Deceitful
  • Inconsistent
  • Lazy
  • Chasing pleasure

Don’t walk like you are scared to dirty your shoes, or keep your head low, or lower your gaze when meeting people. Only look to improve yourself and preserve others.

Thoughts on being consistent instead of rushing.

  • Order
  • Will
  • Insight

One must not only abide by the rules but understand their significance.

Importance of ritual and teacher.

The closing paragraph has to do with being even tempered.

  • The weak and the tired should be spared.
  • Good deeds should be accomplished without incentives.

Regardless of his condition, the righteous man will deliver the same performance:

  • Presentable
  • Open minded
  • Humble
  • Calculating

Chapter 3: The regulations of a king

“In the case of worthy and able men, promote them without waiting for their turn to come up. In the case of inferior and incompetent men, dismiss them without hesitation. In the case of incorrigibly evil men, punish them without trying to reform them. In the case of people of average capacity, teach them what is right without attempting to force them into goodness.”

“Thus, even where rank has not been fixed, the distinction between good and bad will be as clear as that between the left and right ancestors in the mortuary temple.”

“If a man comes forward in good faith, treat him according to ritual; if he comes forward in bad faith, meet him with punishment. In this way the two categories will be clearly distinguished, worthy and unworthy men will not be thrown together, and right and wrong will not be confused”.

Definition of what is right and what is wrong must be crystal clear. Importance of:

  • Incentives
  • Accountability (give credit on the record, dish out punishment on the record)

Note, A similar concept can be found in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”:

“When the general is weak

And lacking in severity,

When his orders

Are not clear,

When neither officers nor men

Have fixed rules

And troops

Are slovenly,

The outcome is


“Although a man may be the descendant of kings, dukes, or high court ministers, if he cannot adhere to ritual principles, he should be ranked among the commoners. Although a man may be the descendant of commoners, if he has acquired learning, is upright in conduct, and can adhere to ritual principles, he should be promoted to the post of prime minister or high court official”.

Basically meritocracy. Identify high potential candidates regardless of their background:

  • Problem solvers
  • Ambitious
  • Creative

When it comes to men of dubious repute, give them one chance.

In the case of the handicapped, the elderly, protect them, and give them whatever work they can handle.

Anybody caught engaged in deceit should be put to death mercilessly.

When listening to your direct reports,

  • If you are too strict they will avoid you and important information will be missed.
  • If you are too friendly they will distract you with their gossip.

“If there are laws, but in actual practice they do not prove to be of general applicability, then points not specifically covered by the laws are bound to be left undecided. If men are appointed to posts but they have no overall understanding of their duties, then matters which do not specifically fall within their jurisdiction are bound to be neglected. Therefore there must be laws that prove applicable in practice and men in office who have an overall understanding of their duties. There must be no hidden counsels or overlooked ability on the lower levels and all matters must proceed without error.”

“Where laws exist, to carry them out; where they do not exist, to act in the spirit of precedence and analogy.”

The following paragraph deals with the rationale for hierarchy.

  • When ranks are all equal there will be not enough resources to go around.
  • When power is evenly distributed there will be fragmentation.
  • When there is equality amongst the masses they will be uncontrollable.

When two men are of equal rank they will inevitably quarrel, because one cannot report to the other and vice versa (disputing claim to the legitimate use of force). The concept of Heaven and Earth implies higher and lower. That is why the wise rulers of old have implemented ritual and rank.

The analogy of the boat being rocked by rough seas, of the carriage being rocked by frightened horses. If the people are scared, soothe them with kindness:

  • Promote righteous men to positions of leadership.
  • Encourage filial piety and brotherly love.
  • Look out for the weak and the defenseless: the orphans, the widows, the poor.
To achieve safety Govern fairly and love the people
To achieve glory Honor ritual and treat men of breeding with respect
To achieve fame and merit Promote the worthy and employ men of ability.
A king Enriches his people Acquires men Wins the allegiance of the feudal lords
A dictator Enriches his soldiers Acquires allies Wins the friendship of the feudal lords.
A state that is barely managing to survive Enriches its high officers
A doomed state Enriches only its coffers (the peril of too much taxes)
A ruler who relies on force Acquires territories Incurs the enmity of the feudal lords (the dangers of becoming overextended)

“One who truly understands how to use force does not rely upon force.”

  • He is careful to follow the commands of the nominal king.
  • Builds up his might.
  • Builds a fund of goodwill.

“With an authority that cannot be opposed, abetted by ways which win men’s allegiance, he gains victory without battle and acquires territory without attack.”

  • The king’s regulations: Clothing type, dwelling size, number of servants, vessels used in ceremonies, music, decorations.
  • The king’s judgment: clear incentives and accountability.
  • The king’s laws: taxes and logistics.

A reference to hierarchy theory:

“One starts with general categories and moves to particular ones; one starts with unity and moves to plurality”

The enlightened ruler forms a trinity with Heaven and Earth.

The enlightened ruler -> Ritual principles -> Order -> Heaven and Earth (the world in its raw form).

He is the custodian of heaven and earth. This is called “The great foundation”. Manifest destiny.

Men are able to conquer all because they use hierarchical divisions and have a sense of duty.

“If he employs his sense of duty to set up hierarchical divisions, then there will be harmony. Where there is harmony there will be unity; where is there is unity there will be strength; and where there is strength there will be the power to conquer all things”.

Some details about breeding animals, about woodcutting, about fisheries.

The list of officials:

  • Master of titles, ceremonial events.
  • Minister of the interior, clan regulations, fortifications, standardization of utensils.
  • Minister of war, troop division, weapons, military campaigns.
  • Chief director of music.
  • Minister of works, waterways.
  • Administrator of the fields, agriculture.
  • Director of resources, resource management.
  • Director of communities, civil society.
  • Director of artisans.
  • Director of markets, channels of trade.
  • Minister of justice, fight crime.
  • Prime minister. Regulatory, reporting, personnel.
  • High officials, morality.
  • Heavenly king, “Unite the world in the fullest degree of order”.

Closing section emphasizes that the enlightened ruler does not need to try hard to be victorious. He derives his authority from position, simply because his kingdom is well organized and bountiful and his reputation is solid. By having streamlined the infrastructure of his power, by providing clear incentives, by holding his subordinates accountable, by promoting men of talent and integrity, he has created a natural gravitational pull which extends far beyond his walls and causes men to seek him out instead of fighting him.

Sun Tzu has a similar concept in “the Art of War”, he calls it indirect warfare.

“The warrior skilled

In indirect warfare

Is infinite

As heaven and Earth


As river and sea

He ends and begins again

Like sun and moon

Dies and is born again

Like the Four Seasons”

Chapter 4: Debating military affairs

Xunzi and others debating military affairs. Once again Heaven and Earth. The first advisor is advocating a traditional “physical” approach, strike where the enemy is weakest, move under the cover of the night etc.


  • Heaven is that which cannot be changed, a religious reference.
  • Earth is information and logistics.

Xunzi argues that victory starts much earlier than that, it starts with the unification of the people (inner game).

The argument he makes is that the deception tactics will not work against a well integrated society.

  • Because its influence will extend far beyond its borders.
  • Their intrinsic competence will stave off any assault, no matter how devious.
  • The attackers will loose their motivation to fight.

The enlightened ruler wins conflict by imposing the perspective of his own victory, giving people little choice but to make a survival decision about which side to pick “The circumstances which insure safety or invite danger”.

How to evaluate a opposing sides:

Strong Weak
Ordered Disordered
Superiors command respect etc.
Treats officers well
Loves his people
Issues government decrees which are trusted
Unified people
Generous rewards
Awesome punishments
Supplies and armament well stocked
Using soldiers sparingly
Coherent strategy

Enumerate states which terrorize their population. A better way is to imbue the people with a sense of moral obligation (duty) through education. Anything else is behaving like bandits.

How to become a good general

The six arts:

In knowledge Discard what is doubtful
In regulations and command Strive for strictness and authority
In action Avoid mistakes
In undertakings Be without regrets
In regulations and commands Strive for strictness and authority
In rewards and punishments Strive for consistency
In establishing encampments and depots Make them well guarded and secure
Troop movements Gravity and deliberateness yet alert and rapid
Intelligence Seek out high quality of information and verify
In battle Operate based on what you know, not what you doubt

The five expedients:

  • Do not fear loosing your job
  • Do loose sight of defeat
  • Do not be too stern with your men and despise your enemy
  • Be aware of both gains and losses
  • Seek ripeness in your plans and liberality in your supplies (don’t proceed with a half baked plan, don’t hesitate to invest in significant upgrades)

The three extremities (conditions under which its okay to refuse to follow an order):

  • When ordered to take up a position which is untenable
  • When ordered to attack when there is no hope of victory
  • When ordered to deceive the common people

Planning and circumspection:

“Be as careful as you are about the beginning as you are about the end”.

Circumspection vs carelessness.

Planning vs personal desire.

  • Fight as though you were only holding your ground.
  • March as though you were already in battle.
  • Regard any success as merely lucky.

5 things which must never be neglected:

  • Strategy
  • Undertakings
  • Dealing with officers
  • Using your men
  • The enemy

The regulations of the king’s army

Everybody dies at their post. Obedience to orders has priority over heroism.

Spare the weak. Do not plunder. Does not retaliate against those who surrender, but be merciless against those who resist. Punish the leaders not the commoners, unless they participate in the hostilities.

Xunzi goes on to argue that the enlightened ruler does not seek out conquest, but builds a reputation of benevolence, thus letting gravity do the heavy lifting without friction.

Chen Xiao interjects, asking how the enlightened ruler is expected to gain ground if he does not seek out conflict.

Xunzi explains that the enlightened leader seeks only conflict against iniquity. Thus he is an avenger who uses force only to restore balance to the world, and thus builds a reputation for goodness which radiates far beyond his walls.

Li Si points out that the Qin dynasty has achieved their supremacy not through benevolence, but through military might and by taking advantage of opportunities.

Xunzi explains that there are in fact opportunities that he speaks of, but that they are opportunity of achieving unity within the state through order and discipline. He points out that the Qin really live in fear of seeing their enemies uniting and wiping them out of existence. He mentions the examples of Tan and King Wu, who did not have to work hard to defeat their enemies because their past deeds and actions had already laid the groundwork.

“Rites are the highest expression of hierarchical order, the basis for strengthening the state, the way by which to create authority, the crux of achievement and fame”.

Military might alone is not enough to achieve lasting victory. Xunzi mentions an idealized past where weapons and fortifications were seldom used because they were not needed, there was synergy between people and their leaders and there was no opportunity for conflict. Punishment only ever had to be used once, it was not a tool in the toolkit of power, but a symbolic constraint.

If behavior was only based on rewards and punishment, then the people will not have the heart to follow orders under difficult conditions.

By building this sense of ownership, then men will self regulate by not tolerating bad behavior amongst themselves and will encourage behavior which leads to being recognized. This approach has the advantage of not only making the incentives more than a formality, but also of having a transformational effect over detractors.

Annexing a neighboring territory

  • By virtue: they will gladly let you in at no additional cost.
  • By force: they fear you but are unaffected by your virtue. You will need to garrison the territory with extra soldiers and thus your army will be weaker.
  • By wealth: they respect neither your military might, neither your virtuous reputation, but are hungry. You will need to feed them and wait three years to put faith in their loyalty, your power will decrease and your finances will suffer.

If one can hold on to annexed territory with ritual and good governance, then the way will fulfilled.

Chapter 5: A discussion of Heaven

A reminder: In Chinese mythology, Heaven is a reference to what westerners would call Fate, Destiny, God. The invisible hand which guides our destiny towards its ultimate outcome. The Great Mystery. It is often used in conjunction with Earth, which represents all things physical and quantifiable, and thus is the designated counterpoint to Heaven.

The triad of man, earth and heaven.

The notion that when one’s house is order, then Heaven shall be propitious.

“All things obtain what is congenial to them and come to life, receive what is nourishing to them and grow to completion. One does not see the process take place, but only sees the results. Thus it is called godlike.”

Heavenly emotions, heavenly faculties.

A notion that even the enlightened ruler should not seek to understand, or control Heaven, but rather cohabitate with it.

“When he turns his thoughts to Heaven, he seeks to understand only those phenomena which can be regularly expected”

The enlightened ruler should behave like Heaven in steadfastness and consistency. The cycle of seasons does not halt because winter is cold, the enlightened man does not fret over gossip.

“If you have no faults of conduct,

Why be distressed at what others say?”

The enlightened man knows the difference between things which he can change and things he cant change (Heaven’s things). The petty man does not make progress because he doesn’t know the difference. For example people who don’t match means to ends (“I want to become a millionaire”, “the opportunity of a lifetime”).

The enlightened one is unaffected by freak occurrences because he sees them for what they are: outliers.

The only thing to fear is not things which we cannot control, but “human portents” (mismanagement).

  • Sloppy work produces bad quality deliveries.
  • When the wrong decisions are made.
  • When process is not followed, and the lines are blurred.

That is why freak occurrences should be ignored, but order should be tended to daily.

“You pray for rain and it rains. Why? For no particular reason I say. It’s just as though you had not prayed for rain and it rained anyways.”


To grasp the mandate of Heaven (manifest destiny).

“When men wade across a river, they mark the deep places; but if the markers are not clear, those who come after will fall in. He who governs the people marks the Way; but if the markers are not clear, disorder will result. Rites are the markers.”

Chapter 6: A discussion of Rites

The origins of rites as a resources allocations mechanism. Man’s desires are limitless, and if he moves to fulfill them in a vacuum he will eventually come into conflict with other men, which will cause disorder and exhaustion. Rites act as a conflict resolution mechanism.

Follows an elaborate description of rites in motion:

A prince travels with his caravan,

  • He lays on soft mattresses for comfort
  • Perfumes and moldings satisfy the senses
  • The sound of bells and music satisfy his ear. Different themes for different paces
  • The banners flapping in the wind provide symbolism
  • Paintings of epic scenes provide a dramatic effect
  • The horses are of utmost pedigree and upbringing providing safety
Action Satisfies Reversal Result
To advance in the face of death and to value honor the desire for life To preserve life at all cost death
To spend and supply according to needs a desire for wealth Profit at all cost loss
To have respect and humility safety Indolence and idleness Danger
To obey the rules emotions Gratifying emotions destruction

Three vectors:

  • Heaven and earth: basis of life
  • Ancestors: basis of family
  • Rulers and teachers: basis for order

A discussion of who is and isn’t allowed to have a ceremonial temple.

“The rites distinguish and make clear that the merit accumulated over the generations is great”.

Follows a description of various rites, wedding, sacrifices.

The rites provide a comprehensive interpretation of the world which all can agree on and within which all can find fulfillment.

The rites provide strength because they expose the posers, the fakes.

When the instrument is well calibrated, there can be no doubt about its readings. If a person is well versed in rites, then he cannot be fooled by deceit. 2 + 2 = 4, that we know for sure.

Heaven is the vector of loftiness. Earth is the vector of depth, the boundless the vector of breadth (?) and the sage the vector of the Way.

“Their rites and ceremonies are entirely according to rule,

Their laughter and talk are entirely appropriate.”

“Rites trim what is too long and stretch out what is too short, eliminate surplus and repair deficiency, extend the forms of love and reverence, and step by step bring to fulfillment the beauties of proper conduct”.

The middle state

What To what purpose But not
Beauty music and joy To induce tranquility Sensuousness or seductiveness
Ugliness, weeping and sorrow To induce distress Starvation and self injury
  • Facial expressions, body language
  • Songs, laughter, weeping, lamentation
  • The food
  • The clothes
  • The interiors

Funeral rites

  • The range of the invitation denotes rank.
  • A criminal is not entitled to a decent funeral.
  • A wait period of three days must be observed to ensure the person is truly dead.
  • The body is gradually moved further and further away, and is decorated to not inspire disgust.
  • The deceased will be equipped with symbolic samples of his belongings, yet the items will be rendered inoperable to emphasize that, even though it seems like he is moving out, the items he is taking with him will in fact never be used. As such the loop is closed, there is no misunderstanding about this particular trip (it is important to distinguish between sending off the living, and sending off the dead).

A detailed description of the three years mourning period. Extending the period past three years would be impractical.

The sacrificial rites (some kind of ceremony) serve as an outlet for spontaneous moments of depression that arise from loss, even outside of the mourning period.

Chapter 7: A discussion of Music

“Music is joy […] Man must have his joy, and joy must have its expression, but if that expression is not guided by the principles of the way, then it will inevitably become disordered. The former kings hated that disorder, and therefore they created the musical forms of the odes and hymns in order to guide it. In this way they made certain that the voice would fully express the feelings of joy without becoming wild and abandoned, that the form would be well ordered but not unduly restrictive, that the directness, complexity, intensity, and tempo of the musical performance would be the proper degree to arouse the best in man’s nature, and that evil and improper sentiments would find no opening to enter by”.

When music is performed in The crowd Feels
The ancestral temple of the ruler The ruler, his ministers, superiors, inferiors Harmonious reverence
The household Father, sons, siblings Harmonious kinship
The community Old and young people Harmonious obedience

Music as an opportunity to learn how to walk in military formation. Also as an opportunity to get along with each other.

“Hence music the great arbiter of the world, the key to central harmony, and a necessary requirement of human emotion”.

Music is very potent, therefore:

When music is People will be Then
Moderate and tranquil Harmonious and shun excess Troops will be keen on striking power

Cities well guarded

Common pple will dwell in safety

Take delight in their communities

Look up to their superiors with satisfaction

Stern and majestic Well behaved and shun disorder
Seductive and depraved Abandoned and ill mannered and will resort to disorder and quarrelling Troops will be weak

Cities will revolt

Common pple will feel no safety

Will be resentful of their superiors

Different types of music:

Sound Causes
Fasting and mourning garments and laments The heart to be sad
Buckling on armors and helmets, military marching songs The heart to be stirred to valor
Seductive looks and the songs of Zheng and Wei The heart to grow licentious
The Shao dance, the Wu song The heart to feel brave and majestic

Three things to avoid:

  • Listen to licentious sounds
  • To look at seductive beauty
  • To speak evil words

Music works alongside rites to “illuminate truth and do away with what is false”.

Xunzi describes in detail the reception of a guest of honor to illustrate how music is incorporated into rites to enforce socially normative behavior.

“These are the signs of a disordered age: men wear bright colored clothing, […] their customs are lascivious, their minds are set on profit, their conduct is erratic, their music is depraved, and their decorative arts are vile and garish. In satisfying the desires of the living they observe no limits, but in burying the dead they are mean and niggardly. They despise ritual principles and value daring and shows of strength. If they are poor, they steal and if they are rich they commit outrages. A well-ordered age is just the opposite of this.”

Chapter 8: Dispelling obsession

“The thing that all men should fear is that they will become obsessed by a small corner of truth and fail to comprehend its overall principles.”

This is a problem of conflicting versions of the truth. The truth painted by obsession, and the truth of reality.

“There are no two Ways in the world; the sage is never of two minds.”

Obsession leads to destruction because:

  • Subordinates become driven by selfishness
  • The common people are resentful and refuse to obey
  • Men of true talent jump ship.

Because they were not able to predict their future accurately and no one knocked some sense into them.

Various examples of historical figures consumed by obsession.

Who Obsession missed
Mozi Utilitarian considerations The beauty of form
Songzi Lessen desires Satisfaction
Shenzi Law The role played by worthy men
Shen Buhai Power of circumstances Human intelligence
Zhuangzi Heaven The importance of man
Utilitarian concerns Everything except material profit
Desires Everything but physical satisfaction
Law Everything but policy
Circumstances Everything but expedience
Words Everything but logic
Heaven Everything but harmonizing with natural forces

Those things only encompass but a small corner of the Way. A man who has embraced the Way is immune to obsession, whereas a man who has rejected it will sink further and further in denial, by associating with men who are also in denial for example.

The sequence is as follows:

Understand the way > Approve the Way > Abide by it

Emptiness, unity, stillness

  • The mind is constantly storing new things, yet it is empty. Because the existing data does not prevent the understanding of new data.
  • The mind is marked by diversity yet it is unified. Because it does not allow the understanding of one fact to contradict the understanding of another.
  • The mind is constantly moving, yet it is still, because it doesn’t get distracted from the main program.

  • There should be no creatures which are not identified, understood and classified.
  • Things across space and time should be correlated.
  • The guiding principles behind success and failure should be understood.

When omniscience is achieved: who knows the limits of this man, how could obsession ever afflict him?

Clarity of purpose is achieved and the outcome is optimal. Those well versed in facts do well as specialists, but those well versed in the way do well in managing them. The mind is like a body of water, undisturbed it becomes clear, but if it is stirred it becomes opaque.

Importance of not becoming overextended, achieve clarity by focusing on one thing at a time.

Various real life examples of how judgment is worthless when our senses are deceived (distance, blindness, drunkenness, rushing water, darkness). Decisions made without clarity are destructive.

Learning must be not be strictly vertical, else one risks wasting his life away delving ever deeper into the same subject. Therefore the framework of learning should be ”the point of complete sufficiency”:

  • The understanding of the sage: mastery of all moral principles.
  • The understanding of the king: mastery of all regulations of society.

“The gentleman despises those who consider perception to consist merely in the analysis of words, or discrimination to consist merely in the description of objects. The gentleman despises men of broad learning and powerful memory who yet do not conform to the regulations of the king.”

Reject anything that does not fulfill a purpose, do not regret the past, do not worry about the future, and do not let anxiety cloud your judgment. Act at the right time, handle things one at a time, evaluate situations, and you will experience clarity.

Chapter 9: Rectifying names

This chapter is about the importance of semantics.

“The way of the true kings of later times […] made certain that such names could be used in distant regions whose customs are different, so that a common means of communication could be established thereby.”

Nature > Emotions > Thought > Action

Knowledge: the faculty which allows man to have understanding.

Ability: knowledge which makes a man capable of something.

The practice of regulating names to achieve unity.

Anyone caught splitting names and making up new names will sow confusion and conflict and must be punished as one would if he was caught tampering with the tare at a weight station.

Nowadays there is a disconnect between names and reality and between right and wrong. Men invent names according to their disposition and the information is no longer properly communicated and understood.

How one goes about naming things

By relying on the senses and differentiating between things which are similar and things which are different. It is not enough to differentiate between things, one must also check against the existing body of knowledge.

“Things which are the same should have the same name and things which are different should have different names”.

Meaning of the word “things”. Hierarchy theory.

Names are only effective if they are agreed upon by all parties.

Names > Combination of names > Explanations > Discourses

Practical function of names.

Esthetic function of names.

Discourse is that by which the Way is given form.

The proper way to communicate

“When one listens to the words of others, one should bring them into accord with the proper forms.

When one discourses on one’s own ideas, one should give a complete explanation of one’s reasons.

If one employs the correct way in order to distinguish what is false, just as one stretches a line to distinguish between crooked and straight, then pernicious theories will be powerless to cause confusion and the doctrines of the hundred schools will have nowhere to hide.”

  • Wisdom shall not be flaunted.
  • He keeps bad words out of his mouth.
  • He shares his ideas benevolently, listens with an open mind, and passes judgment in a neutral way.
  • He is not swayed by censure or praise. He remains steadfast in his integrity under all circumstances.
  • He explains himself clearly and knows when to stop talking. Since his words are clear he does not need to repeat himself.

A notable example of Xunzi’s rhetorical flourish, the debate about desires, in which he demonstrates the consequences of using the wrong words (arguing that desires should be eliminated):

It is wrong to say that desires must be eliminated/reduced instead of saying that desires should be guided/controlled because only the dead have no desires, therefore absence of desires have nothing to do with good governance. Desires originate from natural disposition, and can be redirected by the mind. If the mind is healthy then the desires are not a threat to good governance. Therefore good governance depends on the health of the mind, not on the absence of desires.

Desires are intrinsic to the living condition, the intellect is what guides their fulfillment. The mind can formulate plans to fulfill desires, and even if not all desires will be fulfilled, it will not abandon its course, thus if men abide by the Way and seek it out, then they cannot be forsaken.

If a scale is not properly calibrated, then heavy objects will seem light and vice versa, and men will become deluded. The same goes for the Way, if it is not properly articulated, then men will mistake good fortune for bad and vice versa, and they will go down the path of destruction.

To give in to the temptation of immediate gratification instead of long term growth. That is the consequence of using the wrong names.

Men who do not use the proper names get distracted by unremarkable things, which leads to anxiety, which leads to being at the mercy of external forces, which leads to terror. A man who’s mind is filled with terror will never be in a position to recognize, let alone enjoy the important things in life. And such a man, even if he wears expensive clothes and is surrounded by wealth, will be no different than a beggar. This is called “allowing the self to be the slave of things”.

But if the mind is at ease, then even the most subtle details are appreciated, and there is a high potential for growth. This is called “to value the self and make other things work for you”.

Chapter 10: Man’s nature is evil

“Therefore it is said that human nature is the raw material, and conscious activity is responsible for what is adorned, ordered and flourishing”

This is the culmination of Xunzi’s philosophy. Throughout he has been describing how the world in its raw nature was random and unpredictable (uncontrolled emotions/impulses, Heaven and Earth) and that enlightenment can be achieved through discipline, process and learning (rites, form, names etc.). The logical corollary to that reasoning is that man himself is feral and unkempt in its original form, and that he needs reformation to fulfill his potential.

Man is born with Which leads to
A fondness for profits Wrangling and strife, loss of sense of courtesy and humility.
Feelings of envy and hate Violence and crime, loss of sense of loyalty and good faith.
Desires of the eyes and ears License and wantonness, loss of ritual principles and form.

Examples of raw material becoming finished products.

Most of this chapter consists of Xunzi methodically tearing down Mencius’ assertion that man is good by nature and that evil arises when he looses his primordial goodness (Mencius is the second most important philosopher of Confucianism, after Confucius himself).

Emotional nature Conscious activity
innate behavior must be worked for
cannot be acquired (sight, hearing cannot be learned)
Wanting to eat when feeling hungry Letting the elders eat first
Seeking warmth when feeling cold
Resting when feeling tired Relieving others of the burden of work
Respecting seniority (Filial piety)
Ritual principles
Courtesy and humility
These things actually run against human nature.
The eye’s fondness for beautiful forms
The mouth’s fondness for delicious flavors
Love of profit and gain
The body’s fondness for pleasure and ease
Instinctive spontaneous
No effort required
Squabbling over division of wealth Yielding even to a stranger
The clay The pot (not inherent to the clay, result of an external intervention)
The wood is knotty and crooked by nature Tools are required to straighten it. If the wood was straight by nature why would there be a need for such tools?
The strong prey on the weak, extortion, terrorism, chaos and destruction Government, hierarchies, disciplinary measures. If man was good by nature why do they exist at all?

If man’s nature is evil then where do ritual principles come from? Are ritual principles not themselves part of human nature? No. Otherwise we would all be equally enlightened. The pot is not the automatic outcome of the clay. It is not because it is in his nature that the potter molds clay.

Any man can become enlightened if he works hard enough, therefore ritual principles and learning are transferrable, and not an innate ability.

After that glorious rebuttal of Mencius’ philosophy, Xunzi concludes with a recap of what makes a man good and what doesn’t, with a special emphasis on people he loathes, the logicians.

The understanding of the sage Speaks graceful and well ordered words, all his reasons are united around a single principle.
The understanding of the gentleman Speaks little but when does he is brief and to the point.
The understanding of the petty man Flattery, irresponsible actions, prone to mistakes.
The understanding of the menial man (the logicians) Words are rapid and shrill but never to the point. Many talents but none with practical use. Full of subtle distinctions and eloquent without serving any practical purpose. Does not think right and wrong is important or worth discussing. Only seeks to win arguments.
Superior valor Middle type of valor Inferior valor
To bring one’s conduct in accordance with the Way To be humble and well intentioned. To act recklessly in the pursuit of wealth.
To refuse to obey if needed. To value integrity over material possessions. To talk your way out of situations.
To accept poverty and hardships if needed. To honor the worthy and cast away the unworthy. To count on luck.
To reject wealth and celebrity if needed. To ignore right and wrong, and seek only to win an argument.
To not seek external validation.

Nothing was ever born great, greatness is the result of craftsmanship.

Parting words:

“Environment is the important thing!”

Categorised in: Books, Recent

1 Response »

  1. Very interesting.
    Compare and contrast (probably not too much to contrast) with The Prince.
    Chapter 9 is all you need to deal with fake news. But then again, how would you justify that many Professors of fake news lectures if all you had to do is re-read one chapter of a book written 2500 years ago.


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