Reply To: Chinese philosophy

  • Encyclios

    April 2, 2023 at 4:30 PM

    Cosmological reflection

    Although in some mythical Chinese representations of the world one can trace germinal elements of the subsequent philosophical-cosmological reflection, it was only in the very first perception of the Universe that the Chinese fixed an ordered system of correspondences, harmonious and necessary, between the human body, political body and celestial bodies or, more generally, between natural entities, Earth and Heaven. It is a correspondence that invests the whole, from small to large, often represented in numbers, in articulated parts of a whole, in species, etc.; it recurs in the classical texts of the Chinese tradition, where it is not infrequently referred even to ordinary moments of human life and continually recalled to guide, as if it were an imperative, the action of man, especially that of the sovereign: «He who governs – said Confucius – by means of his virtue can be compared to the pole-star, fixed in its place while all the lesser stars pay homage to it» (Lunyu, Dialogues, II, 1).

    Moreover, the correspondence between man and the elements of the natural order was the subject of extensive discussion in some works of the Han era (3rd century B.C. – 3rd A.D.), such as for example, to mention just two, in the Huainanzi («Book of the Huainan Master») and in the Chunqiu fanlu («The Luxuriant Dew of the Spring and Autumn Annal»), attributed to Dong Zhongshu. Impressive, in fact, is the detailed correspondence, developed in the Huainanzi, between the four seasons, the five phases, the nine sections and the 366 days of the sky, on the one hand, and the four limbs, the five organs, the nine orifices and the 366 joints of the human body, on the other. It is precisely this profound correspondence between cosmos and man that prompted Dong Zhongshu to consider man as the superior being par excellence. Not only is the man in and of himself a microcosm, but every ordered form of his action bears the same disposition, manifests the same nature. Thus, the State in general, as the regulated and organized form of human life, and in particular the Imperial State and administration, are themselves microcosm and therefore in direct correspondence with the cosmos. Even this conception had antecedents in the Shang era (18th-11th century B.C.), but it reached its full formulation only during the Han Dynasty, precisely to legitimize its system and administrative functions. Offices and functions found a correspondence with the five directions of space, as we read in the Huainanzi, and more generally with the structure of cosmic space and time.

    A further extension of this correspondence, which offered fixed models of relation, was that which correlated the territories of Earth with the celestial ones and then also with the units of the celestial administration. And indeed, since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), almost every city or administrative unit had its patron deity, whose functions in the celestial administration corresponded exactly to those performed by the earthly magistrate. It is therefore evident that in this cosmos all the parts are, without any prescription and in a completely natural way, disposed to mutual reaction, remaining in a state of spontaneity and immediate sympathy. And within musical harmony, the Chinese found the most convincing empirical demonstration of the profound cosmic register. It is not surprising, then, that some series of numbers (five, eight and twelve) recurrent in cosmological doctrines partly refer to similar numerical series belonging to music (five notes, eight voices, etc.), nor that they have also been applied to other fields, such as meteorology and medicine and the art of good government; so that every entity or phenomenon of the natural order reacts with favor or adversity to the way it is exercised. Similarly, the Chinese character qi was also used to indicate the primordial substance of the cosmos, which forms solid bodies by aggregating, and the ephemeral ones by disintegrating.

    Qi can also differentiate itself and become yin, yang, or one of the «five phases» (wu xing), thus facilitating bonds and mutual actions everywhere, because it can be both the material foundation of action and the action itself. Each process develops according to an active (yang) and latent (yin) movement of phases, as it appears in the slow but constant succession of the seasons of the year. Even in the most powerful condition of yang the yin bud is preserved, and vice versa. Thus, for example, an old man can be yang in relation to a woman, but at the same time yin in relation to a young man. A duality, that of yin-yang, which was soon assumed as a principle of classification, and applied to philosophy as much as to social relations, medicine, and more. However, it served above all to represent and explain the dynamism of certain recurring processes: the succession of the seasons, the natural cycle of human life, the rise and fall of the dynasties.

    Change in the world and of the world is a complex of changes, better understood and described in detail as «five phases». Phases that are a process of mutual production: wood (mu) produces fire (huo), fire produces earth (tu), earth produces metal (jin), metal produces water (shui), water produces wood, etc. The identification, moreover, of each phase is not so much with the natural element materially given, or with its substance, but rather with its quality or with a certain kind of action or activity. This philosophy or thought of correspondence has for centuries provided ideas and concepts that were essential to the development of certain knowledge, even proto-scientific ones, such as astronomy, medicine, divination, alchemy, geomancy, etc. The Chinese doctrine of alchemy, for example, was generally based on ideas of correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm, and thus practitioners used to consider materials, tools, and even individual operations, as the vivid and perceptible expression of the microcosm, where every entity, every change and therefore every reaction was precisely similar to the work or daily processes of nature.

    The analysis of human nature. The Chinese interest in human nature derived from the need to understand the intimate constitution of mankind, both to better orient its ethical-political conduct in the world and to specify its role and function in the order of the Universe. The Chinese term xing, often translated as «nature», derives from sheng (which means «life; to be born; to produce»); the term ren is equivalent to «human being» (or «human beings»), hence the habit of referring to «human nature» with the expression renxing or, more simply, xing. Human nature can be understood in a biological sense, as Yang Zhu does in the 4th century B.C., when he speaks of «keeping one’s life intact» (quan sheng) or «one’s nature»” (quan xing), referring to human health and longevity. Similarly, Gaozi, a contemporary of Mencius, seems to refer to xing taking into account the only sheng, that is, what perhaps gives life to human beings; for him, human nature is preserved in the individual through the instinct to feed, and over time through the innate tendency to reproduce.

    In the Guanzi, a work whose main nucleus was formed around 250 B.C., sheng is the bodily activity of man, that is, the sensory and emotional life. But human nature can also be understood in a more limited sense, with reference only to man’s desires. Thus, in the 5th century B.C. Mozi, in dealing with the basic human constitution, often dwells only on certain desires, those of life, material well-being, and honors. Having received life as a gift from Heaven, men in their natural state are moved exclusively by their own desires, without caring for their fellow human beings or family members. A similar use is found, in the 4th-3rd century B.C., in Xunzi, though he sometimes seems to recognize a benevolent disposition for beings of his own kind in man, considered in his natural state. In the ethical inclinations shared by all men, one can also see the peculiarity of human nature; thus Mencius subtly argues about righteousness, the sense of justice (yi) that the human heart (xin) has in itself, putting this before the instinct to feed and reproduce, remarked instead by Gaozi. In this way, he opposes any idea of benefit, of advantage (li), as an effect of a selfish impulse, both in the sense of Yang Zhu, that is, of what is useful for the sole preservation of one’s own life or nature, and in the sense of Mozi, that is, of what is legitimate only after having benefited others. Mencius also considers human nature as a condition, a state that needs to be constantly cultivated and therefore developed. Moreover, in some texts, e.g. in Zhuangzi, a Taoist work of the 3rd-2nd century B.C., human nature, although not bearing any particular connotation or specificity, reveals one disposition of man, his spontaneity. In every circumstance, or event, or fact, man must react spontaneously, although doctrines or ethical principles do not fail to exert their influence.

    The empty heart (xu), devoid of any preconception, will then be like the clear mirror or water that reflects everything without the slightest distortion. Thus man can restore his original natural state. From Mencius obviously originates the idea of human nature professed by the Confucians of the Song-Ming era (10th-17th century A.D.), such as Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, who thought of the heart as the source of ethical inclinations and dispositions; if however, inclinations had to be continually cultivated in Mencius’ doctrine in order to develop ethical principles, these Confucians consider these principles as already active in the human heart. Therefore, man’s action must strive to restore the original state of the heart, so that both ethical principles and his behavior, in general, may manifest themselves naturally and without impediment. Various other and more eclectic conceptions of human nature have taken place over the centuries. There was, for example, that of some philosophers of the Han era who, well aware of the doctrines of Mencius and Xunzi, affirmed, respectively, the original goodness and wickedness of human nature.

    Dong Zhongshu believes that there are seeds of both goodness and evil in human nature, and that man, like Heaven working through yang and yin, subordinating this to that, must, therefore, subject evil to good. Yang Xiong (active between the 1st-century B.C. and 1st-century A.D.) considers human nature as a mixture of goodness and evil; and Wang Chong, in the 1st century A.D., concludes that the diversity of humans expresses a diversity of nature and that the different idea of human nature of Mencius, Xunzi and Yang Xiong reveals precisely the variety of the human species. And other Confucian thinkers of the Tang (7th-10th century) and Song (10th-13th century) era also speak of various degrees of human nature. On the other hand, every conception of human nature is more or less intimately connected with the perception of the Universe. Mencius considers tian (the «Heaven») as a supreme entity, which originally gave the man a peculiar nature, already ethically predisposed and oriented. So man has nothing else to do but follow that orientation, visible sign of the celestial will: man serves Heaven, manifesting a wholly natural fidelity. Moreover, tian, as the supernal source of all richness and regularity of the natural order, entrusts to man, according to Xunzi, the continuation, and completion of his creative and life-giving work. A work which also affects the social life of man, since the norms which order and regulate his conduct are in truth also a human completion of the heavenly work. Both Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, Confucians of the Song Age, also understand human nature from the metaphysics of the li («principle») and qi («vital energy» or «material energy»). In fact, man’s nature is good as a moral nature and it is so because of the action of li alone, but as a mixture of li and qi it can be as good as it is bad since the action of qi can differ qualitatively from man to man.