Making real the unreal
“The man of noble mind,” wrote China’s most famous philosopher Confucius “seeks to achieve the good in others and not their evil. The little-minded man is the reverse of this.” In many societies, the debate of what constitutes evil is often attached to legality and religious morality. Particularly true for Western societies, the starting point in the debate over what is “evil” is arguing how a person can actually become “evil.” Mistakenly, this makes blind assumptions of right and wrong, good and bad, purity and evil. Intellectual circles are increasingly gravitating towards Chinese philosophy to redirect the nature of the debate over the philosophy of evil. Although Chinese philosophy encapsulates various branches of philosophy and time periods, there exists a common trend to the Chinese approach to discussing “evil.” Rather than assuming there are entrenched forces of benevolence and malevolence in our rules and beliefs, Chinese philosophy stresses the importance of developing oneself and cultivating an individual belief system of what is good and evil through education and experience. Eastern and Chinese philosophy has grown increasingly favorable to Westerners that rebel against the fatalism and subjectivity they view ravages their system of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Evil in Chinese philosophy recognizes the subjectivity involved in what is evil and good, and therefore promotes evil as a learned condition, rather than an inflexible and universal concept.
There are numerous Chinese philosophic branches that offer their own interpretations to understanding good and evil. An appropriate starting point in analyzing Chinese ethical and philosophical systems view on evil would be Confucianism. Although Confucianism was adopted as the official state philosophy and religion for centuries in China, unlike other state religions such as Christianity and Islam, Confucianism never spoke of any metaphysical totalitarianism that concretized ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Confucianism did not deal with supposed evil spirits that seduced men to do bad things, but rather stressed the importance of the ‘learned’ experience. However, Confucius philosophy does promote ‘virtue’ in many of its branches and texts. If virtue and good exist in Confucius philosophy, then it is logical that some form of malevolence does too. As a foundation for the virtuous life, Confucius promoted virtues such as sincerity, the insatiable pursuit of knowledge, self-restraint, and benevolence in the form of charitable behavior. Confucius philosophy on evil was that evil was the result of the failure to cultivate the soul and these virtues. In Confucius philosophy, there are shameful and horrifying behaviors, but inherently everything is amoral. Evil actions are bred from ignorance, bad surroundings, and reckless role models. Though he never spoke of morality, losing control of your spirit was as close a person may reach to being evil.
Other Confucius philosophers sought to extend on this Chinese philosophy on evil. Among the most prominent post-Confucius Confucianism teachers were Meng Tzu (372 – 289 BC) and Xun Zi (312–230 BC). Their argument lay in their philosophy on what it meant to be human and how it affected good and evil. Meng Tzu asserted that human nature and the order of society was inherently good. Thus, evil arose when individuals starting straying from the straight and narrow path due to external pressures. By contrast, Xun Zi was cynical of human nature believing it to be self-serving and egoist. Thus, it was the role of the society to embed artificial virtues into the soul of people to make them good. The origin of good and evil are different within branches of Confucius philosophy.
Confucius’ life coincided with the life of the Buddha. Buddhism also has had a profound influence in Chinese philosophy, particularly in communities’ understandings of evil. Similar to Confucianism, Buddhism restrains from giving evil real meaning. However, based on cornerstones of Buddhist philosophy, some conclusions can be drawn on its understanding of evil that parallel it to Confucius philosophy. Buddhism does not pass judgment on legal or behavioral evil because it does not concern itself with these limitations. For Buddhists, the ultimate transformation in a human’s life is one from painful ignorance to blissful enlightenment by achieving nirvana. What this requires are similar virtues as espoused by other Chinese philosophy: avoiding ignorance by seeking knowledge, self-reflection, benevolence, and self-restraint. Through deductive logic, evil in Buddhist philosophy is everything that enlightenment is not. It is the ignorance we are born with, it is the suffering we endure while we live in this ignorance, and it is the behavior of excess we celebrate in enlightenment’s emptiness. Its philosophy of evil is that we are required to shake our evil human nature and to become something better.
Chinese philosophy of evil contradicts many of Western society’s held truism concerning right and wrong. Perhaps that is part of its appeal. It makes unreal what our knowledge convinces us is real. Being wrong has never been as enlightening.