Xunzi and the Aesthetic-Moral Value Fusion
So, among other things, I’m working on a longish paper on aesthetic value and its fusion in early China with what we would consider to be moral value. There are portions of this I’ll be presenting in Hong Kong next week (“Aesthetic Pleasure as Early Confucian Happiness”) and at the end of March at the Pacific APA meeting in San Francisco (“Gentlemen Prefer Bronze: Aesthetic Sensibility as Moral Sense in the Analects“). This is part of my discussion on Xunzi (which I will not be presenting anywhere), that aims for an aesthetic-value consequentialism reading:
What ties together much of Xunzi’s work is his emphasis on the transformative effects of education and self-cultivation, largely through the poetry, music, and rituals of Confucian life, incorporating traditional texts, forms, and activities. This is the backbone of Xunzi’s thought. In education and self-cultivation, it is the refined and noble quality of a person’s demeanor, inner psychological state, and activity that justifies the program of education and regimen of self-cultivation. The knowledge contained in the Zhou-derived rituals, music, odes, historical documents and records, according to Xunzi, enters the heart, disperses throughout the body, and is manifested both in activity and in rest (Xunzi 1).
In books 19 and 20, Xunzi argues that both at the individual level and at the social level, the transformative effects of music and ritual are not only desirable but also absolutely necessary for social life. They are needed in order to turn potential, individual psychological turmoil as well as public, social chaos into something orderly, effective, and refined.
What it is that makes the refinement and nobility of the educated and self-cultivated gentleman desirable, reveals the underpinning of Xunzi’s views. There is a deeply aesthetic sensibility underlying Xunzi’s theory of value, not unlike the one that often surfaces in Aristotle’s—and the ancient Greeks’ more generally—view of what is good: the fine or beautiful (kalon). This is most evident in Xunzi’s discussions of human nature in book 23. The nature (xing) of humans is bad (e), according to Xunzi. A more accurate rendering of e translates to the view that human nature is “ugly” or “repulsive.” This rendering is borne out by Xunzi’s analysis. The reason that human nature is bad is because natural human tendencies are driven by desires that, if indulged, would cause complete chaos (luan). They would do so because they are, in their untutored state, blind to important social distinctions that divide objects of desire into categories of acceptable and unacceptable, and into ranked orderings of distribution based on seniority of honor and age. Much as in Hobbesian moral theory, the “state of nature” for Xunzi is one that is fearful, and more importantly, disorderly. According to Xunzi, from the ancients to his own day what everyone has called good is what is upright, patterned, peaceful, and regimented (23.3).
I’m interested in what you think. I think I know what Dan Robins thinks, at least in his Xunzi entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
In early Chinese philosophy, conseqentialist arguments typically appeal to the material well-being of a state’s people, as well as to sociopolitical order (zhi) more generally. This is certainly true of Xunzi, as we see in his complaints that a lack of ritual leads to contention, disorder, and poverty. It remains an important question how much he builds into his conception of order, and of the good more generally.
It is actually quite surprising how little Xunzi builds into his conception of the good, at least in these normative arguments. The Mohist argument against music, sketched above, assumes that the enjoyment produced by music does not count as a good, and we naturally expect Xunzi to reject this assumption. But he does not reject it; indeed, he treats enjoyment as a possible source of disorder, and defends music on the grounds that it helps avert that disorder. Similarly, we might expect Xunzi to appeal to the aesthetic properties of music, which the Mohists simply ignored, as a source of value. But he does no such thing. His arguments imply that music’s aesthetic properties have value only insofar as they contribute to its non-aesthetic effects. (The same is true in his defence of ritual: though there are passages that make it clear that Xunzi had a profound aesthetic appreciation for ritual, this plays no role in his normative arguments.) In these arguments, Xunzi rejects the Mohists’ arguments, but does not dispute the rather narrow conception of the good that they are based on; he implicitly agrees that music (and ritual) should be judged solely on the basis of its practical consequences.
Your thoughts and questions are welcome.