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

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 2 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.


The King of Chu is followed by a thousand chariots, but this is not because he is wise. The superior man eats a simple diet of beans and water, but this is not because he is foolish. These are coincidences. As for the the will to cultivate one’s self: be strong in virtue, have the clarity of wisdom, live in the present and set your will on the old ways – this is what the self can control. Therefore, the superior man is respectfully attentive to his self, and does not ponder heaven. The lesser man abandons the matters of his self, and ponders heaven, degenerating day by day. The superior man’s progression and the lesser man’s degeneration share the same reason[their relationship with self and heaven](1). It is here that the distance between the superior man and the lesser man is found.

(1) Literally: “Therefore the superior man progressing everyday and the lesser man degenerating everday is ‘one’.”


Stars fall and wood cries out, causing the people to fear. I say: What is this? I say: It’s nothing! These are the changes of the world, fluctuations in yin and yang. It’s simply rarely occurring physical phenomena. To think it strange is acceptable, but to fear it is not. The eclipses of the sun and the moon, the unpredictable wind and rains, the occasional sighting of a strange star, there is not a generation that does not often see these things. If the leadership is enlightened and the policies are fair, then even if several of these phenomena occur, there will be no harm. If the leadership is lost in the dark and the policies lead to disaster, then even if none of these phenomena occur, there will be no benefit. The falling of stars, the crying of wood, these are the changes of the world, the fluctuations of yin and yang. It’s simply rarely occurring physical phenomena. To think it strange is acceptable, but to be fear it is not.


Of the things that do occur, the abnormal behavior of men can be feared. A poor job of plowing will hurt the crops, a poor job of weeding will hurt the harvest, a dangerous policy will result in the loss of the people’s trust. If the fields are degraded and the crops are poor, then grain will be expensive and the people will go hungry. People will die along the roads. This is called “abnormal behavior of men.” If the policies are not wise, plans do not have a schedule, the work of agriculture is not handled with reason and corvee labor has no set time, then cows and horses will breed with each other(2), and the six types of livestock(3) will become strange. This is called “abnormal behavior of men.” If proper etiquette is not cultivated, then there is no difference between those within and those without, men and women will act wantonly, father and son will look on each other with suspicion, the higher ranked and the lower ranked will deviate from propriety, and bandits and disasters will simultaneously occur. This is called “abnormal behavior of men.”

Abnormality is born out of chaos. When these many abnormal behaviors of men mix together, the state cannot be at peace. Although this logic is simple, the disasters that result will be terrible. When corvee labor has no set time, then cows and horses will breed with each other, and the six types of livestock will become strange. This can be thought strange, and it may also be feared. It has been said, “The supernatural is not discussed by the classics.“ Useless discussions and unimportant researches should be put aside and abandoned. As for the proper ways of ruler and official, relationships of father and son, distinction of husband and wife, these things should be studied constantly and never put aside.

(2) There is likely some sort of mistranscription here. Although the greater point of chaos resulting from man’s improper actions is still clear, the logical connection between the aforementioned errors and the mixed breeding of animals is weak.

(3) The six types are: pig, ox, goat, horse, fowl and dog.


To pray for rain and see it come, what is this? I say: It is nothing. If you do not pray for rain, it will still rain. When the sun and moon eclipse, we take action to save them(4). When heaven causes drought, we pray for rain, when great decisions of state must be made, we perform augury. We do not think that we will get what we seek, we do this as a “decoration.” So the superior man does this for decoration, and the common man thinks it is the work of the supernatural. To think it decoration is fortune, and to think it is divine is misfortune.

(4) There is a phrase in Chinese, “天狗食日” (heavenly dog eats the son), that refers to an eclipse. By banging pots and making noise the dog could be scared off, and the sun saved.


In heaven, nothing is brighter than the sun and the moon. On the ground, nothing is brighter than water and fire. Of things, nothing is brighter than pearl and jade. Of men, nothing is brighter than proper etiquette. Therefore, when the sun and the moon are not up high, they do not shine brightly. When water and fire are thin and shallow, their light does not shine far. When pearl and jade do not shine on the outside, kings and princes do not see it as a treasure. When proper etiquette is not a part of the state, then achievements and reputations are not clear. So people’s lives are determined by heaven, and states’ destinies are determined by proper etiquette. As for the men who rule others: those who uphold etiquette and respect wisdom will be virtuous and benevolent kings. Those who emphasize the law and value their subjects will be strong kings. Those who enjoy profit and often lie will be in danger. Those who scheme to overturn [their rivals?] will face dark perils and death.


Respecting heaven and pondering it cannot compare with treating it as cattle to be raised and controlled! Obeying heaven and praising it cannot compare with controlling destiny and making use of it! To watch the passing of time and wait for its coming cannot compare with dealing with time and making use of it! To look at the many things of this world and be in awe of it cannot compare with maximizing potential and changing the world! To ponder physical things and treat them as objects cannot compare with controlling physical things and not losing them! To hope for the creation of things cannot compare with having the completed product of things! So those who put aside human affairs and ponder heaven, will lose the original state of things.


That which did not change over the course of a hundred kingships can be considered consistent reason. Some things go away, others rise up, but using this consistent reason to deal with them, there will be no chaos. Not knowing consistent reason means not knowing how to deal with change. The framework of consistent reason has never gone away.

Chaos is born from error, order lies in meticulous details. This is what is good about reason. Follow the path of impartiality, but do not stray. Evil will lead to disaster. Those who cross rivers must check the depth of the water. If the depth marker is not clear they will fall in the water. Those who govern people must pay attention to reason, if the signs are not clear then there will be chaos. Etiquette is a sign. To stray from etiquette will darken the world. The darkened world is extremely chaotic. So reason is always clear: inside and outside there are different signs, the hidden and displayed are consistent, and the people’s misfortune may be eliminated.


Living things are a part of “the way.” One thing is a part of all living things. A fool is a part of one thing. He thinks he knows “the way,” but he does not. Shen zi understood the “after” but not the “before.” Lao zi understood submission, but not assertion. Mo zi understood equality, but not differences. Song zi understood “less”, but not “more.”

To have “after” but not “before,” then the people will have no path. To have submission but not assertion, then there can be no distinction between the great and the insignificant. If there is equality but no differences, then policies cannot be carried out. If there is “less” desire and no desire for “more,” then the people have no incentive to change. The Shang Shu says, “Do not cherish too greatly, follow the path of the virtuous king. Do not detest too greatly, follow the road of the virtuous king.” It was talking about this type of situation.

Published in: on March 30, 2008 at 4:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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