chapter  16
14 Pages

Xunzi’s vision of society: harmony by justice

Harmony (he 和, also xie 諧, tiao 調, mu 睦) undoubtedly belongs to the important topoi of Confucian socio-political thinking. Nevertheless, its ranking in the normative vocabulary of Confucian texts is not uniform. While it is not a conspicuous issue in the Mengzi, in the Xunzi he frequently appears as a main concept. I suppose that this difference is not without significance. Certainly, a harmonious society is a shared goal of these two Confucian thinkers. But, while for Mengzi (Mencius) it is probably a by-product of the spontaneous work of the ‘good’ impulses of the human being, provided they are ‘extended’ and allowed to develop freely, Xunzi is much more concerned with achieving harmony as a difficult and constructive political activity aimed at establishing a ‘just’ society. This is certainly due to Xunzi’s sceptical anthropology (or, better, to the sceptical part of his anthropology), which has to take into account that human beings are not by natural inclination on the side of order. In what follows, I will outline Xunzi’s conception of a just society in order to show that justice, not harmony, is the fundamental category of his political philosophy. At first glance, Xunzi’s scepticism with regard to natural spontaneity leads him to an exclusively top-down model of establishing and maintaining order: Sage rulers invented standards of behaviour as well as a social system that keep human desires under control and regulate access to scarce resources:

Whence does propriety arise? I say: By birth man has desires. If he desires something and does not get it, then he cannot but seek for it. If he seeks for it without knowing measures and limits, quarrel will be inevitable. Quarrel leads to chaos and chaos to misery. The early kings hated this chaos. They therefore established propriety (li 禮) and justice (yi 義) in order to set up a division [of roles between men], to meet their desires and to satisfy their demands. They saw to it that desires were not restrained by [the scarcity of] things and things were not used up by desires, but that both could grow, supporting each other.1