Xun zi: Discussion of Heaven – 荀子:天論 (1/2)

This is an essay on the nature of heaven written by the Warring States era Confucian scholar Xun Zi (300-230 BCE), taken from the book of the same name. In the essay, Xun zi criticizes those who see Heaven as a deterministic force that controls the outcome of events. He argues that the outcome of events is determined solely by the acts of men. Heaven (or nature) operates on consistent principles – such as the regular cycle of the four seasons – and if man makes use of his knowledge of these principles he can control his world. This is part 1 of 2 as partitioned in this weblog.

Text source: http://chinese.dsturgeon.net/index.html
Reference: 王忠林. 新譯荀子讀本. Taipei: 三民書局, 1978.

天行有常,不為堯存,不為桀亡。應之以治則吉,應之以亂則凶。彊本而節用,則天不能貧;養備而動時,則天不能病;脩道而不貳,則天不能禍。故水旱不能使之 飢,寒暑不能使之疾,祆怪不能使之凶。本荒而用侈,則天不能使之富;養略而動罕,則天不能使之全;倍道而妄行,則天不能使之吉。故水旱未至而飢,寒暑未薄 而疾,祆怪未至而凶--受時與治世同,而殃禍與治世異,不可以怨天,其道然也。故明於天人之分,則可謂至人矣。

Heaven operates on consistent principles. These principles did not exist for the sake of Yao, and did not die away for the sake of Jie(1). To respond to these principles with orderly governance brings fortune, to respond to these principles with chaos brings misfortune. If you strengthen agriculture and use resources sparingly, then heaven cannot make you poor. If you take care of your body and take action at the appropriate times, heaven cannot make you sick. If you cultivate your virtue and are not distracted from your goal, then heaven cannot bring you to disaster. Therefore, neither drought nor flood will cause famine, neither cold nor heat will cause illness, and strange phenomena will not cause misfortune.

If agriculture is neglected and resources are used extravagantly, then heaven cannot make you rich. If you do not take care of your body and rarely take action, heaven cannot make you healthy. If you turn your back on virtue and act rashly, then heaven cannot bring you fortune. Therefore, even though floods and droughts have not occurred, you will experience famine. Though cold and heat have not arrived, you will be ill. Though strange phenomena have not occurred, you will experience misfortune. All the opportunities were the same as the properly managed society, but the disasters experienced are different. Heaven cannot be blamed for this; This is its way. Therefore, those who understand the different roles of heaven and men can be said to be great men of reason.

(1) Yao and Jie – Yao is the archetype of a good monarch, while Jie is the archetype of a bad monarch.

不為而成,不求而得,夫是之謂天職。如是者,雖深、其人不加慮焉;雖大、不加能焉;雖精、不加察焉,夫是之謂不與天爭職。天有其時,地有其財,人有其治,夫是之謂能參。舍其所以參,而願其所參,則惑矣。 列星隨旋,日月遞炤,四時代御,陰陽大化,風雨博施,萬物各得其和以生,各得其養以成,不見其事,而見其功,夫是之謂神。皆知其所以成,莫知其無形,夫是之謂天功。唯聖人為不求知天。

To not act but have success, to not seek but obtain, this is the work of heaven. In this way, although man’s intellect may be great, he may not use it to contemplate heaven. Although man’s ability is great, he may not use it to influence heaven. Although he may understand much, he should not investigate the nature of heaven. This would be competing with heaven for its role. Heaven has time, earth has resources, men have control, these are the things that each can contribute. To give up what one can contribute, and to cherish what has been contributed, is to be confused.

The stars follow each other and rotate, the sun and moon exchange places and illuminate. The four seasons move forward and replace each other. Yin and yang fluctuate greatly, wind and rain arrive over vast areas, all living things are in harmony and are therefore able to live and grow, the work of heaven is invisible, but the fruits of its labor are visible. This is what we refer to as “divine (神).” All things know the results of the work, but none are able to understand the parts they do not see, this is the achievement of heaven’s labor. Only great sages know not to seek an understanding of heaven.


Heaven came into existence, its achievements were completed, physical entities took form and spirit was born. Fondness, hate, joy, anger, sadness and pleasure were laid forth. These are the emotions given by heaven. Ears, eyes, nose and mouth all have their functions, and cannot replace each other; these are the sense given by heaven. The heart is in the middle of the chest, it controls the five senses; this is the heart given to us by heaven. To control things outside of one’s own category to nourish and care for one’s own; this is the nourishment of heaven. Going along with one’s own category is called fortune, going against them is called disaster; this is called the politics of heaven. To darken the heavenly heart, to bring chaos to the heavenly senses, to abandon heavenly care and nourishment, to go against the politics of heaven, to turn one’s back on the emotions of heaven – this will result in the lost of heaven’s contributions. It is called great misfortune.
The great sage will clear his heart, rectify his senses, properly attend to care and nourishment, follow the politics of heaven, nourish his emotions – this will result in the completeness of heaven’s contributions. In this way, if they know what they should do, and if they know what they should not do, then they will control their world and all things will work for them. To manage affairs meticulously, to nourish and care for in a proper and conscientious manner, to causes no harm – This is called “understanding heaven.”


Therefore, there is great fortune in not taking action, and great wisdom in not pondering. When observing heaven, take note of its phenomena and what can be expected from them. When observing the land, take note of its suitability and whether or not it is a good place for settling. When observing the four seasons, take note of the days and months, and what time is suitable for what work. When observing yin and yang, take note of how things become balanced, and how they may be used to manage the world. Those who govern must keep an eye on heaven, while others may just pay attention to their own path.

治亂,天邪?曰:日月星辰瑞厤,是禹桀之所同也,禹以治,桀以亂;治亂非天也。 時邪?曰:繁啟蕃長於春夏,畜積收臧於秋冬,是禹桀之所同也,禹以治,桀以亂;治亂非時也。 地邪?曰:得地則生,失地則死,是又禹桀之所同也,禹以治,桀以亂;治亂非地也。《詩》曰:“天作高山,大王荒之。彼作矣,文王康之。”此之謂也。

Order and chaos – is this the work of heaven? I say: the sun, moon and stars - movements of the heavenly bodies – they are the same as they were in the era of Yu(2) and Jie. Yu brought order. Jie brought chaos. Order and chaos is not the work of heaven. What of time? I say: Things come to life and grow in spring and summer. Crops are harvested and stored in fall and water. This is just as it was in the era of Yu and Jie. Yu brought order. Jie brought chaos. Order and chaos is not determined by time. What of the land? I say: That which has land will live and grow, that which does not will die. This is the same as the era of Yu and Jie. Yu brought order. Jie brought chaos. Order and chaos is not determined by land. The Shi Jing says, “Heaven made the great Mount Qi, the King Tai of Zhou made it his own. King Tai began the work, and King Wen of Zhou made it prosperous.” It is referring to this type of situation.

(2) Yu – another archetypal good monarch.


Heaven does not stop the coming of winter because it is detested by man. The land will not grow smaller because man hates great distances. The superior man does not change his behavior because of the prattling of lesser men. Heaven has consistent principles, land has consistent reason, the superior man has a consistent path. The superior man acts according to these consistent principles, while the lesser man calculates the benefits of a particular action. The Shi Jing says, “If you have not offended proper etiquette, then why care about the words of others!” It was referring to this type of situation.

Published in: on March 29, 2008 at 5:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://classicalchinese.wordpress.com/2008/03/29/xun-zi-discussion-of-heaven-%e8%8d%80%e5%ad%90%ef%bc%9a%e5%a4%a9%e8%ab%96-12/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: