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.

楚王後車千乘,非知也;君子啜菽飲水,非愚也;是節然也。若夫志意脩,德行厚,知慮明,生於今而志乎古,則是其在我者也。故君子敬其在己者,而不慕其在天者;小人錯其在己者,而慕其在天者。君子敬其在己者,而不慕其在天者,是以日進也;小人錯其在己者,而慕其在天者,是以日退也。故君子之所以日進,與小人之所以日退,一也。君子小人之所以相縣者,在此耳。

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’.”

星隊木鳴,國人皆恐。曰:是何也?曰:無何也!是天地之變,陰陽之化,物之罕至者也。怪之,可也;而畏之,非也。夫日月之有蝕,風雨之不時,怪星之黨見,是無世而不常有之。上明而政平,則是雖並世起,無傷也;上闇而政險,則是雖無一至者,無益也。夫星之隊,木之鳴,是天地之變,陰陽之化,物之罕至者也;怪之,可也;而畏之,非也。

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.

物之已至者,人祆則可畏也:楛耕傷稼,楛耨失歲,政險失民;田薉稼惡,糴貴民飢,道路有死人:夫是之謂人祆。政令不明,舉錯不時,本事不理,勉力不時,則牛馬相生,六畜作祆:夫是之謂人祆。禮義不脩,內外無別,男女淫亂,則父子相疑,上下乖離,寇難並至:夫是之謂人祆。祆是生於亂。三者錯,無安國。其說甚爾,其菑甚慘。勉力不時,則牛馬相生,六畜作祆,可怪也,而亦可畏也。傳曰:“萬物之怪書不說。”無用之辯,不急之察,棄而不治。若夫君臣之義,父子之親,夫婦之別,則日切瑳而不舍也。

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.

雩而雨,何也?曰:無何也,猶不雩而雨也。日月食而救之,天旱而雩,卜筮然後決大事,非以為得求也,以文之也。故君子以為文,而百姓以為神。以為文則吉,以為神則凶也。

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.

在天者莫明於日月,在地者莫明於水火,在物者莫明於珠玉,在人者莫明於禮義。故日月不高,則光明不赫;水火不積,則暉潤不博;珠玉不睹乎外,則王公不以為寶;禮義不加於國家,則功名不白。故人之命在天,國之命在禮。君人者,隆禮尊賢而王,重法愛民而霸,好利多詐而危,權謀傾覆幽險而亡矣。

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.

大天而思之,孰與物畜而制之!從天而頌之,孰與制天命而用之!望時而待之,孰與應時而使之!因物而多之,孰與騁能而化之!思物而物之,孰與理物而勿失之也!願於物之所以生,孰與有物之所以成!故錯人而思天,則失萬物之情。

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.

百王之無變,足以為道貫。一廢一起,應之以貫,理貫不亂。不知貫,不知應變。貫之大體未嘗亡也。亂生其差,治盡其詳。故道之所善,中則可從,畸則不可為,匿則大惑。水行者表深,表不明則陷。治民者表道,表不明則亂。禮者,表也。非禮,昏世也;昏世,大亂也。故道無不明,外內異表,隱顯有常,民陷乃去。

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.

萬物為道一偏,一物為萬物一偏。愚者為一物一偏,而自以為知道,無知也。慎子有見於後,無見於先。老子有見於詘,無見於信。墨子有見於齊,無見於畸。宋子有見於少,無見於多。有後而無先,則群眾無門。有詘而無信,則貴賤不分。有齊而無畸,則政令不施,有少而無多,則群眾不化。《書》曰:“無有作好,遵王之道;無有作惡,遵王之路。”此之謂也。

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.

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

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