Determinism and “Completion of Character” in Lunheng

This is the most strongly worded statement of something like behavioral determinism I’ve found in Lunheng.  Interestingly enough, it comes in a chapter on government (治期 Zhi qi), and I suspect this is the reason the statement is as stark as it is.  Let’s jump right in (my rough translation follows below-I haven’t tackled Zhi qi yet in my Lunheng translation, though it’s next on my list):

穀足食多,禮義之心生;禮豐義重,平安之基立矣。故饑歲之春,不食親戚,穰歲之秋,召及四鄰。不食親戚,惡行 也;召及四鄰,善義也。為善惡之行,不在人質性,在於歲之饑穰
“When there is sufficient grain and abundant food, the heart of ritual and righteousness (liyi) grows.  When ritual flourishes and righteousness is taken seriously, the foundations of peaceful order are established.  Therefore in the spring of a famine year, one does not feed one’s relatives, while in the autumn harvest of an year of abundant yield, one calls together one’s neighbors (to eat).  Not feeding one’s relatives is bad conduct.  Calling together one’s neighbors to eat is good conduct.  Production of good or bad conduct is not a matter of the substance and nature (zhi xing) of persons, rather it is a matter of whether the year is one of famine or abundance.”


Lest I get too carried away, though–the context of this quote is important.  Wang is arguing against (as he so often is) the view that virtuous rulership is effective (in some way) in creating virtuous subjects, a revered Confucian position.  Wang argues that this cannot be the case, as there can be virtuous rulers whose states are in disorder and whose subjects are unvirtuous.  He offers a number of historical examples and examples from the classic literature to demonstrate this.  He then turns to an explanation for this disconnect–what accounts for the moral quality of human behavior is the external situation, such as whether or not food is abundant.  Of course, there are difficulties for this view as there are for any behaviorist/situationist view (what explains heroics, altruism in stressful situations, etc.), but what is so startling about this is that Wang says something like this, given his seeming commitment elsewhere to the efficacy of deliberate effort in creating virtuous character.

He talks in the essay 率性 Shuai xing, for example, about the “completion of character” (成為性 cheng wei xing), claiming that this completion happens through either instruction (for those with initially deficient/bad character), or preservation (in the case of those with initially good character (kind of a mix of the Mencian and Xunzian positions it seems).  Interestingly, there are really two senses of xing here–that which one has naturally as a result of being born with it, and that which is “completed”.  The “completed” xing sounds closest to what we generally mean by “character”, and human effort in some sense is necessary for attaining it (whether through education or actively guarding), while the raw xing is independent of human activity and given (spontaneously, of course) by 天tian.

What is interesting here is that it seems like Wang wants to be a determinist/situationist as well as to uphold the efficacy of character.  But how can he do this?  What differences are there between the person of good completed xing and the person of bad completed xing in a situation of famine, for example?  Will it be the case that both of them will fail to feed their relatives?  The above passage from Zhi qi seems to suggest so.  And if this is the case more generally for external situations, how can xing play any role at all in behavior, completed or not?

I haven’t yet found any proposed solution to this in Lunheng, or even an indication that Wang is aware of the problem.  It could be, of course, that he was overstating the case for determinism in order to make a broader point about rulership, and that this statement from the Zhi qi should be thought of as having the invisible preface “generally speaking…”

3 responses to “Determinism and “Completion of Character” in Lunheng

  1. Maybe Wang is trying trying to illustrate the difference between true and false righteousness. False, righteousness is dependent on external conditions, but true righteousness is internal. By writing in the manner he does, he is leading the reader to feel the worthlessness (or vanity) of false righteousness dependent on external conditions in hopes of instilling in the reader a desire for true, internal righteousness. In other words, the reader feels at the end of this section that there must be something more than this, something better. This longing for something better is perhaps cultivation of the ground so that seed of wisdom that are planted later are able to sprout.

  2. Hi Alexus, here’s a guess at a solution. Might it work?

    By 質性, Wang means raw xìng. The passage presupposes that famine years are far less common than adequately abundant years, so that the adequately abundant times normally last long enough to grow ritual and peace. Much of his point in the passage is that circumstance affects the development and staying-power of completed xìng. That is not to say that good practice is ineffective in the development of completed xìng; nor is it to say that completed xìng is ineffective: on the contrary, these are essential links in the causal chain by which abundance generates peace. It is, however, to say that there are limits to the staying-power of completed xìng.

  3. Does the passage appear in the context of an argument that government policy should support agriculture and keep taxes low? So that “famine” might be misleading in suggesting a dearth with natural causes?

    I’m thinking of Kant’s point that social cause-and-effect at the statistical level doesn’t disprove freewill. The final statement in the passage may be talking about the general or average level of conduct across a society.

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