Xunzi on Intellectual Fixations

Many people are intellectually like fertilized eggs: one sperm manages to get in, and the egg seals off to all the others. Idealogues and fundamentalists tend to be like this, usually after reading one book at a susceptible phase in their lives; if they could be persuaded to read other books they might become less closed, but by then it is often too late. Xunzi includes this closed-mindedness in his notion of 蔽 (bì), “blinding obsession.” In his famous essay on “Dispelling 蔽,” he gives us a useful survey of some of the narrow idealogues of his period, incidentally reminding us just how fertile and varied ancient Chinese philosophy must have been before the culture was straitjacketed into a mere handful of views:

Among the itinerant philosophers of former times there were men who were obsessed; the followers of pernicious doctrines are an example. Mozi was obsessed by utilitarian considerations and did not understand the beauties of form. Songzi was obsessed by the need to lessen desires, for he did not understand how they could be satisfied. Shenzi was obsessed with the concept of law and did not understand the part to be played by worthy men. Shen Buhai was obsessed by the power of circumstance and did not understand the role of human intelligence. Huizi was obsessed by words and did not understand the truth that lies behind them. Zhuangzi was obsessed by thoughts of Heaven [i.e., Nature] and did not understand the importance of man. He who thinks only of utilitarian concerns will take the Way to be wholly a matter of material profit. He who thinks only of desires will take the Way to be wholly a matter of physical satisfaction. He who thinks only of law will take the Way to be wholly a matter of policy. He who thinks only of circumstance will take the Way to be wholly a matter of expedience. He who thinks only of words will take the Way to be wholly a matter of logic. He who thinks only of Heaven will take the Way to be wholly a matter of harmonizing with natural forces. These various doctrines comprehend only one small corner of the Way, but the true Way must embody constant principles [patterns] and be capable of embracing all changes. A single corner of it will not suffice. These men with their limited understanding saw only one corner of the Way and, failing to understand that it was only a corner, they considered it sufficient and proceeded to expound it in engaging terms. Such men bring chaos to themselves and delusion to others; if they are in a superior position, they inflict their obsessions upon their inferiors; and if an inferior position, they inflict them upon their superiors. Such are the disasters that come from obsession and a closed mind.  (Tr. Watson, 125-6)
Chinese thinkers do not often assert “You are wrong, I am right.” Instead, the tendency is to point out that the opponent is partially right but does not see the whole picture. This tendency is grounded on two insights about human thinking. 1) In matters of opinion or interpretation, people are very seldom simply right or wrong, and in any argument between two people the more fruitful and interesting approach is to wonder in what way each side might be right or wrong; only thus is there hope of attaining any kind of reconciliation, or of moving beyond head-butting towards new insights. 2) All intelligent people have some genuine insights, but the professional philosopher will want to take his own insights and have them make sense about the whole of everything. This may be why in the great systematic thinkers like Kant and Hegel there are insights of shattering profundity but also many passages of opaque scaffolding that strain to connect the real insights.

    In traditional Hindu philosophy, each “school” builds an entire philosophy of life on a narrow set of thoughts — one god, two gods, many gods, or no gods — and ends up with a detailed structure of argumentation in which all the other schools are proven wrong. The value of such extreme rationalizations for us is that we get to see all the arguments for a given position lucidly exposed, but the seeker in need of emotional reassurance and stability will want to latch onto one view to the exclusion of all else so that no doubts or disturbances can ever arise again. The Buddha, weary of all the squabbling, would consistently point out the dangers of attachment to merely “speculative” views that shed no light on the true causes of unhappiness. G.K. Chesterton describes arguing with an intellectual idealogue or fanatic — one who has meticulously thought through all the ins and outs of his position, and in his mind has worked out all the objections and counter-objections — as a bit like arguing with a madman:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by clarity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

   This fixation, a chronic closing of the mind, is what Xunzi means by 蔽 (bì) here. It is more than just “having a theory,” although in each of us “having a theory” can subtly shade into being gruffly dismissive of other theories. We see this every day when proponents of different sides of a given issue cannot listen to one another without anger or derision. To Xunzi, a statesman and anybody else in a position of leadership cannot afford to be rigidly narrow like this, just because the whole — of which they have charge — is composed of people with different views in tension with one another. Even in a single family, when siblings fight about something serious, a parent cannot simply side with one child but must somehow bring each of them to understand where the others are coming from; partiality makes the greater harmony impossible. Moreover, as Xunzi notes, things change: a theory might work well today but not tomorrow,  in one situation but not in another. A wise person needs to be accurate in his understanding of different situations and supple in his response. It is not that one must have no theories about things, but that in responding to a complex, dynamic whole, experience shows us every day that no single theory will be the key to everything.

On Loving Virtue More Than Sex


The Master said, “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as he loves sex.” (Analects, 9.18)

The character 色, translated “sex” here, is literally “color” and therefore can also be extended to mean “good looks” and “appearance.” Thus, the sentence has been translated: “I have yet to meet a man who loves virtue as much as feminine beauty” — hence “sexual attractiveness,” and then “sex.”  It can also be translated: “I have yet to meet a person who loves virtue as much as the appearance of virtue” — which sounds like La Rochefoucauld. The alternative translations strike me as less punchy and incisive than simply “sex,” which holds a straightforward, down-to-earth insight into the relation of our ideals to our all-too-human desires. While I am fairly certain that Confucius is exaggerating a little, is his observation not generally true? It reveals a grimly realistic side to a sage who has often been faulted for his idealism. He is well aware of the power of the erotic to destabilize even a good person.

   That irrational, quasi-physical responses of attraction and aversion can usually override rational valuations and idealistic attachments is a fact we are all well acquainted with. Nietzsche’s version of this has to do with smell: What separates two people most profoundly is a different sense and degree of cleanliness. What avails all decency and mutual usefulness and good will toward each other — in the end the fact remains: “They can’t stand each other’s smell!” (Beyond Good and Evil, 271) 

   However, Confucius is not only commenting on the relative powers of these two tendencies in ourselves; he is also wondering why it is that in most people the commitment to virtue is not as natural or spontaneous as sexual attraction. The 11th century Confucian thinker Xie Liangzuo suggests that this Analect is in fact an exhortation to cultivate sincerity: Loving a beautiful woman or hating a foul smell — these are examples of sincerity. If one could only love Virtue the way one loves female beauty, this would mean sincerely loving Virtue. Unfortunately, few among the people are able to do this. (Slingerland, p.93)


Voices from Antiquity

They speak to us across two thousand years, and we still listen: Confucius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Gautama, Nagarjuna, Heraclitus, Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many others. Even across oceans and through translations, somehow their voices still sound clear and distinctive, and they still have the power to get us to see things and understand ourselves a little better. Their words deserve and repay continued mulling. Even — perhaps especially — after many readings, they are able to surprise and instruct us. This is why they grow better as we age, and why readers of each century find new layers to the old books.

In this blog, I’ll be posting one or two sentences of ancient wisdom a few times a week. They wIll be somewhat more demanding than “ancient memes,” and they will be actual selections from the books and not quotations made up by one of our contemporaries to sound like something the Buddha or Plato might have said. They will be sentences that resonate through my day, and I hope they will be richly resonant for you too. I will say a few words about why the day’s sentences have moved me to share them with you — and above all, I will keep it brief! Your thoughts and comments, if you have time to write any, will always be appreciated. At the very least I hope that these pages will turn out to be a useful anthology of wonderful passages.

Today — March 30, 2017 — I have been re-reading Confucius…