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12

STRUCTURING IDEAS

GOOD IDEAS, EVEN WELL STATED, do not guarantee a good essay. Ideas, no matter how brilliant, must be organized effectively and presented intelligently so they can be understood by a reader. The previous two chapters focused on ways that you interact with both the ideas that you read and the ideas that you generate in response to your reading; both chapters dealt only with you and a text. This chapter will show you how to structure your ideas so that they can be read and appreciated by someone else.

Important structural elements of academic essays include thesis statements, introductions, transitions, and conclusions. This chapter will define these elements and offer techniques to help you use them effectively. Understanding these structural conventions will not only help you produce the kinds of essays that many of your instructors want to receive, it will also help you improve both your thinking and your writing.

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In many ways, academic essays that adhere strictly to these guidelines are artificial creations rarely found outside the college classroom—and even in college classes, many teachers will expect you to move beyond these traditional academic writing techniques. But much can be said for the traditional thesis statement and the structural apparatus that supports it. Learning to use them properly can help you stay focused on a single idea and marshal evidence to support a claim, which are essential abilities for every kind of writing: academic, creative, or professional.

However, important as they are, mastering these techniques should not be your goal. They are designed simply to help you reach the ultimate goal of communicating your ideas to someone else. As the ancient Zen masters understood, the methods designed to lead people to enlightenment are not the same thing as enlightenment itself. As you progress as a student and a writer, keep your goal of communication separate from the techniques that you use to achieve it. Intelligent, thoughtful communication is more important than slavish devotion to technique, and these guidelines should be followed only to the extent that they help you reach that goal.

THESIS STATEMENTS

What Is a Thesis?

People can mean two different things when they talk about a “thesis.” On the one hand, a thesis is the basic argument that a particular piece of writing makes—the point that an author wants to get across. Most writers, in most circumstances, want to communicate something to an audience; therefore, most writing has a thesis. On the other hand, when writing instructors use the word “thesis,” they are usually referring to a thesis statement, a single sentence that summarizes or encapsulates an essay’s main argument. Thesis statements of this sort are not required of every kind of writing, nor are they always found in the works of the best professional writers. These writers have learned how to advance a thesis (in the first sense of the word) without creating a single sentence to sum up the argument.

However, composing a thesis statement can be a very useful exercise for developing an argument. It accomplishes several important tasks: (1) it helps you clarify exactly what you are trying to say, which makes the writing process smoother and easier; (2) it serves as a reference point that you can use to eliminate ideas that do not support the main point of the essay; and (3) it tells the reader what kinds of arguments to expect and forecasts what follows.

One common misconception is that a thesis statement should summarize an essay rather than an argument. The difference is crucial. A thesis statement designed to summarize an essay will usually try to provide a miniature outline and can very quickly become unwieldy. Consider the following example:

There are many differences between Hsün Tzu and Seneca. Hsün Tzu was from ancient China, and Seneca was from ancient Rome; Hsün Tzu was a paid teacher, and Seneca was an aristocrat; and Hsün Tzu wrote about all kinds of education, while Seneca wrote only about what he called “liberal education.”

While this sentence may be a good one-sentence summary of a three-to-five-page essay, it does not make a good thesis statement because it does not make an argument. In attempting to summarize everything that the essay says, this sentence does not actually have a point. A better thesis statement would try to summarize less about the essay and more clearly state a major claim:

Hsün Tzu’s “Encouraging Learning” has more practical applications than Seneca’s “On Liberal and Vocational Studies” because Hsün Tzu’s essay concerns how to learn while Seneca’s letter concerns what to learn.

This sentence boils down all of the various ideas in the first example into a single, coherent, focused argument that can serve as the main point that the essay will make.

The Thesis Statement as an Argument

Any argument must have two elements: a claim and support for that claim. Because a thesis statement is always, at some level, an argument, it should also include these two elements. The following sentences would not make good thesis statements because they contain only a claim and do not support that claim:

Gandhi had a better understanding of poverty than Malthus.

True objectivity in science can never be achieved.

Liberal general education is a good idea.

To turn these claims into arguments, and therefore thesis statements, you would have to add a “because clause” (which may or may not contain the word “because”), or a brief statement of support that gives the rationale for the claim:

Gandhi’s understanding of poverty, which takes into account the spiritual side of human nature, is better than that of Malthus, whose analysis is solely economic.

True objectivity in science requires something that never can be achieved: the presence of a purely unbiased observer.

Liberal general education is a good idea because it prepares people for a variety of different careers rather than for a single job.

Refining Your Thesis Statement

When you view the thesis statement as an argument, with both a claim and support for that claim, you can use it to test whether your essay’s argument works. If the thesis statement is a weak argument, then the chances are very good that the essay is also weak. Keep refining your thesis statement until you are reasonably sure that it is a good argument, and then make sure your essay properly addresses the point of your thesis statement.

Revising a thesis statement is really the same thing as revising the ideas in your essay. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you revise a thesis statement:

Present an arguable claim

While this requirement is covered at greater length in the previous chapter (see “Construct a debatable position,” p. 556), it is worth repeating that an essay topic—and therefore a thesis statement, which presents the essay topic—needs to be debatable. A thesis statement should present a claim that a reasonable person could disagree with.

Present a single, focused argument

An essay should have a single argument and a focused thesis statement. Unfortunately, the formula for a “five-paragraph essay,” the first kind of essay most people learn to write, can often lead to three (or more) separate ideas that are linked together under a common heading. Consider this example:

Christianity and Islam are similar to each other in their worship of a single God, their belief in a single holy book, and their strong belief in caring for the poor.

While this might appear at first glance to be a workable thesis statement, it actually offers three arguments instead of one—each similarity between Christianity and Islam could be the focus of an entire essay. Consider how this thesis statement could be broken into three more-specific thesis statements:

Christianity and Islam are similar to each other because both assert the existence of a single, all-powerful deity who stands outside the natural world.

The most important similarity between Christianity and Islam is that both religions’ followers believe that God has spoken to them through a single book rather than through a long tradition of oral narratives.

The moral codes of Christianity and Islam are nearly identical in that each religion preaches the spiritually destructive nature of material wealth and the importance of taking care of the poor.

Each of these thesis statements could produce an interesting, focused essay, and each would be more effective and interesting than the essay produced by the first example. This kind of streamlining does not mean that an argument cannot have subpoints or that different paragraphs should not treat different parts of a general assertion. But you have a responsibility as a writer to make very clear how each assertion supports the main thesis.

Make sure your thesis is open enough to allow for further discussion

Consider the following thesis statement:

Machiavelli’s philosophy could never work because he advocates lying and liars always get caught.

A statement such as this would support only a single paragraph or two of argument after the introduction. The problem, of course, is not with the thesis statement but with the ideas in the essay—the author has not thought of enough to say. Consider the following revision:

While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his own day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

This statement opens up many more possibilities for analysis, discussion, expansion, and examples of the phenomenon that the writer wants to discuss. This thesis, in fact, will serve as the basis for the full sample essay toward the end of this chapter.

Make sure your thesis can be reasonably supported in the assigned essay

While some theses are too focused to allow for further discussion, others are too expansive to be covered in a short essay. For example:

Lao Tzu’s philosophy in the Tao Te Ching is so comprehensive that it encompasses every important aspect of what it means to be human.

This thesis might be defensible in a five-hundred-page book, but no writer could adequately defend such a sweeping statement in a three-to-five-page essay. Narrowing the thesis to a manageable assertion will vastly improve the essay. In the example above, choosing one aspect of human nature and exploring how it is treated in the Tao Te Ching creates a much more focused thesis statement, which will lead to a much more manageable and interesting essay:

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu captures an important paradox of human nature: inaction is often more productive than action.

The most important thing to remember when you are writing your thesis statement is that the claim that you make in it, and the support that you provide for that claim, set the parameters for the rest of your essay. You must be able to tie every assertion that you make in your essay back to the argument that you articulate in your thesis statement.

INTRODUCTIONS

The Introductory Paragraph

The introductory paragraph is where you make your first impression as a writer, and, just as in relationships, first impressions in reading are very difficult to overcome. This is why many experienced writers spend as much time on the first paragraph of an essay as they do on the rest of the essay. (The way that introductory paragraphs affect a writer’s “ethos,” or credibility, is covered in detail in Chapter 13, p. 588.)

A good introductory paragraph should do three things:

Introduce the purpose of the essay and any important concepts

If your paper is about Anzaldua’s and Nussbaum’s views on education, your introduction should briefly introduce Anzaldua and Nussbaum and explain, in very basic terms, their views on education. Your goal in the introduction should not be to begin your argument outright, but to clarify all the concepts that you will use in your argument, so that when you use them in the body of your essay, the reader will be familiar with them.

Capture the reader’s interest

The introduction should interest the reader in the rest of the essay. It needs to entice the reader to continue reading and convince him or her that something interesting is going to happen in the rest of the essay, that he or she will be educated or entertained or both. (Strategies for doing this are discussed below.)

Provide a platform for any thesis statement

Many writing instructors advise students to place the thesis statement somewhere in the first paragraph, often at or near the end. A thesis statement does not have to go in the introduction, but, if you do choose (or have been instructed) to place it there, it should flow naturally from the introduction. Even if you do not place your thesis statement there, the introduction needs to lay the groundwork for your essential argument, which is summarized in the thesis statement.

Strategies for Beginning

The strategies below can help make your introductory paragraph more effective. All the examples are based on the thesis statement on Machiavelli in the previous section (p. 562); the thesis statement is in bold in each example.

Give historical context

An introduction that offers a meaningful discussion of any key concepts can help orient readers to your argument:

In the early sixteenth century, a prince had absolute power over his state. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, therefore, he set out to teach potential leaders how to best utilize the tyrannical power at their disposal. His advice was clear, concise, and very effective for its time; however, much has changed in the past five hundred years. Since the late eighteenth century—when in their new Constitution America’s Founding Fathers experimented with a radical idea called the “separation of powers doctrine”—most of the industrialized democracies in the world have adopted some form of power sharing between their executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

Build your introduction around a key definition

Many times, your essay will introduce, or even revolve around, a key definition that actually defines the argument that you are making. In such cases, it is often a good idea to organize your introduction around this definition:

One of the most innovative features of the American Constitution is the doctrine known as the “separation of powers.” According to this doctrine, the various forms of government authority—legislative, executive, and judicial—should never be concentrated in the same hands, and there should be a system of checks and balances to make sure that no single individual or group obtains enough power to exercise control as a dictator. Without the power of a dictatorship, American rulers have had a very difficult time heeding the advice of the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, whose political theories are based on the notion of absolute power that he saw as necessary to the effective running of a state. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

Lead directly into the thesis statement

One of the main purposes of the introduction is to set up the thesis statement. If you keep this in mind as you construct your introductory paragraph, you can often write it in such a way that nearly every sentence in it leads directly into the thesis, thus creating the kind of smooth transition that makes readers feel comfortable moving from your introduction to the body of your paper:

The absolute power that princes had in Niccolò Machiavelli’s time was not entirely a bad thing. In a feudal system of government, a strong ruler with great power can be a good thing for a country, while a weak ruler can cause devastating problems. However, in a society that is no longer feudal, a leader with dictatorial power is no longer so desirable. When America’s Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they realized this and included a requirement that federal powers be separated into different branches of government; since the late eighteenth century, many other nations have adopted similar measures. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

Start with a question or a quote

A good quotation can hook readers into your essay by presenting them with something interesting to read right off the bat. Interesting questions addressed directly to the reader have much the same effect. If used skillfully, such an opening hook can be used as the basis for a very effective introductory paragraph. However, keep in mind that this approach can easily become a cliché; use quotes sparingly in your introduction, and only when they apply directly to your topic.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton in 1887, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton’s famous maxim is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in sixteenth-century Italy, where political power was the ultimate prize in a deadly game that often involved rebellion, assassination, treason, insurrection, and military conquest. When Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, he set out to tell political rulers exactly how to get the kind of absolute power that Acton warned of. In the America of today, however, people have learned well the lesson that Acton spent much of his life trying to teach. Since the founding of the American democracy, political power has been separated into three different areas—executive, legislative, and judicial—that are never allowed to fall into the same hands. Thus, while Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

TRANSITIONS

One of the most important things you can do to communicate your ideas to a reader is to provide transitions between all of the ideas and support that you use to prove your thesis. An effective transition shows how ideas connect and relate to each other; it also smooths the shift between one idea and another. There are three main kinds of transitions in academic writing:

Transitions within a paragraph. An effective paragraph is organized logically, so that the information at the beginning of the paragraph leads logically to the information at the end of the paragraph. Each sentence in a paragraph should flow from the previous sentence and lead directly into the following one. Otherwise, readers can become confused and alienated from your argument. Consider the following two paragraphs:

The ideas of Confucius have been responsible for one of the most important religions in the world: Confucianism. It would be more accurate to characterize Confucius as an “ethical philosopher” rather than as a “prophet” or a “religious figure.” Confucius said nothing about the kinds of issues that religions usually deal with: divine beings, miracles, revelation, and the afterlife. He was concerned with constructing an ethical system that people could use to determine correct behavior in any situation.

The ideas of Confucius have been responsible for one of the most important religions in the world: Confucianism. However, Confucius himself said nothing about the kinds of issues that religions usually deal with: divine beings, miracles, revelation, and the afterlife. Instead, he was concerned with constructing an ethical system that people could use to determine correct behavior in any situation. It would, therefore, be more accurate to characterize Confucius as an “ethical philosopher” rather than as a “prophet” or a “religious figure.”

Even though the ideas presented in the two paragraphs are identical, the second paragraph is much easier to read. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is structural: in the first example, the second sentence presents an unfamiliar claim (that Confucius should be considered a philosopher rather than a religious figure) that seems to contradict the claim in the first sentence (that the ideas of Confucius have been responsible for an important world religion). Such abrupt changes of thought tend to take readers by surprise. The second paragraph, by contrast, gives the evidence first and proceeds, step by step, to the conclusion, which, by the end of the paragraph, seems natural, logical, and even inevitable. Arranging ideas in a logical order helps you move smoothly from idea to idea.

The second reason that most readers would prefer the second paragraph is that it uses transition words such as “however,” “instead,” and “therefore” to show how ideas are related to each other within the paragraph. These transition words serve as cues that the reader can use to follow the writer’s chain of reasoning and see logical relationships between different assertions. Good transition words should reflect the logical relationship between ideas that you are conveying. Some common transition words and phrases include:

ADDITION

In addition to

Also

Furthermore

Moreover

CAUSATION

Consequently

Because of

Thus

Therefore

As a result of

Hence

Then

In effect

COMPARISON

Similarly

In comparison

In the same way

Compared to

CONTRAST

In contrast

By contrast

However

Nevertheless

Conversely

On the one hand

On the other hand

Instead

Transitions between paragraphs. A well-written paragraph generally centers on a single idea or claim. It is therefore extremely important to demonstrate how the information in one paragraph relates to the information in the next—otherwise, you end up with interchangeable paragraphs that make good points individually but do not add up to a coherent argument.

Transitions to the overall argument. It is not enough simply to show how the ideas in a paragraph relate to ideas in other paragraphs; you must also show how they relate to your overall argument—the argument encapsulated in your thesis statement. Each time you make a new claim, you should demonstrate how this new information relates to the overall thesis of the essay. A transition can link one claim to the thesis statement, and to the next claim.

For an example of the importance of these last two kinds of transitions, read the following sample essay carefully and try to determine how the ideas in it are connected to each other and to the overall thesis statement (which is the same thesis statement that we used when discussing introductions earlier in this chapter).

Machiavelli: Ideas Whose Time Has Come . . . and Gone

In the early sixteenth century, a prince had absolute power over his state. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, therefore, he set out to teach potential leaders how to best utilize the tyrannical power at their disposal. His advice was clear, concise, and very effective for its time; however, much has changed in the past five hundred years. Since the late eighteenth century—when in their new Constitution America’s Founding Fathers experimented with a radical idea called the “separation of powers doctrine”—most of the industrialized democracies in the world have adopted some form of power sharing between their executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his own day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

Machiavelli argues that a leader must constantly prepare for war. While it is certainly true that a modern head of state must be concerned with the defense of the nation, it is no longer the case that he or she alone can make any final decisions about either war or preparation for war. Thus, when George W. Bush decided to send American troops to Iraq, he had to spend weeks lobbying Congress for permission to commit American troops to a foreign engagement and months attempting to raise the money to support them once they were there.

At the heart of Machiavelli’s advice is the assumption that a prince is free to tax the people and spend their money as he or she sees fit. While this was true of all princes in Machiavelli’s day, it is very rarely the case for leaders today. Executive officers, such as presidents, do not normally have the power to tax people or to spend their money—both of these powers now rest with legislative bodies, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate. During his first term, for example, President Bill Clinton attempted to violate one of Machiavelli’s cardinal rules by taxing people heavily in order to finance a generous health care initiative.

Machiavelli’s ideas would not work in most countries today. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule. Many twentieth-century political leaders managed to seize absolute power over their countries—from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the early part of the century to Pinochet, Mobutu, and Hussein in our time. These leaders have repeatedly shown that absolute power concentrated in a single person is not in the best interests of the state.

If you had trouble seeing the relationships between the main ideas in this paragraph, do not be alarmed. They are very difficult to see, because the essay does not have any transitions in it. It relies on the reader to be able to recognize the connections. The last three paragraphs in this essay are also completely interchangeable. If you were so inclined, you could take a pair of scissors and cut these paragraphs out, replace them in the essay in any order, and neither the flow nor the logic of the essay would suffer.

Now, read the same essay with all the transitions in place. You will notice that the transitions (in bold) account for about a third of the paper’s total word count. Also notice that these transitions are not afterthoughts tacked onto each major idea, but integral parts of the structure of each paragraph.

Machiavelli: Ideas Whose Time Has Come . . . and Gone

In the early sixteenth century, a prince had absolute power over his state. When Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513, therefore, he set out to teach potential leaders how to best utilize the tyrannical power at their disposal. His advice was clear, concise, and very effective for its time; however, much has changed in the past five hundred years. Since the late eighteenth century—when in their new Constitution America’s Founding Fathers experimented with a radical idea called the “separation of powers doctrine”—most of the industrialized democracies in the world have adopted some form of power sharing between their executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

One of the most important aspects of the separation of powers doctrine is that it eliminates the ability of any president or prime minister to declare or prepare for war without the consent of a legislative body.Machiavelli argues that a leader must constantly prepare for war and study the art of armed conflict. While it is certainly true that a modern head of state must be concerned with the defense of the nation, it is no longer the case that he or she alone can make any final decisions about either war or preparation for war. In nations that observe the separation of powers principle, both war and peacetime military expenditures have much more to do with budgetary committees than with presidential decrees. Thus, when George W. Bush decided to send American troops to Iraq, he had to spend weeks lobbying Congress for permission to commit American troops to a foreign engagement and months attempting to raise the money to support them once they were there. Machiavelli could not have imagined such a division of power in his day and could hardly have been expected to anticipate it in his advice to princes.

In addition to preventing leaders from going to war whenever they choose, the separation of powers principle also prevents leaders from taking Machiavelli’s advice to avoid lavish expenses and to be content to be considered misers rather than spendthrifts (32–33). At the heart of this advice is the assumption that a prince is free to tax the people and spend their money as he or she sees fit. While this was true of all princes in Machiavelli’s day, it is very rarely the case for leaders today. Executive officers, such as presidents, do not normally have the power to tax people or to spend their money—both of these powers now rest with legislative bodies, such as the House of Representatives and the Senate. During his first term, for example, President Bill Clinton attempted to violate one of Machiavelli’s cardinal rules by taxing people heavily in order to finance a generous health care initiative. He was prevented from doing this by a power that Machiavelli could not have understood: a legislative body that had to approve all new expenditures by the government.

Our experiences with both war and taxation demonstrate that, even though some modern American presidents and European prime ministers have wanted to put Machiavelli’s programs into effect, they have rarely had the concentration of power necessary to be completely Machiavellian.There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule. Many twentieth-century political leaders managed to seize absolute power over their countries—from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the early part of the century to Pinochet, Mobutu, and Hussein in our time. These leaders have repeatedly shown that absolute power concentrated in a single person is not in the best interests of the state, and their examples have caused countries all over the world to incorporate the separation of powers doctrine into their constitutions. This fact makes Machiavelli’s advice increasingly less relevant to our day. Almost all of Machiavelli’s advice assumed a leader with absolute power; wherever nations follow the doctrine of the separation of powers, such advice will be of little use to modern politicians.

These transitions relate the various ideas in the paper both to each other and to the overall thesis of the essay: that Machiavelli’s ideas would not work in a modern democracy because the separation of powers doctrine would prevent anyone from having the power that he ascribes to princes. Each paragraph extends this argument into some realm of contemporary politics and then explicitly explains how it relates back to the overall thesis. As a result, the entire essay comes across as a single, coherent argument about the contemporary relevance of Machiavelli’s political theory.

CONCLUSIONS

Conclusions are important. They give readers a sense of closure and writers the opportunity to tie together various threads of argument into focused assertions or to demonstrate the significance of the cases that they have made in their essays. Consider the conclusion to the sample essay about Machiavelli (p. 570):

Our experiences with both war and taxation demonstrate that, even though some modern American presidents and European prime ministers have wanted to put Machiavelli’s programs into effect, they have rarely had the concentration of power necessary to be completely Machiavellian. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule. Many twentieth-century political leaders managed to seize absolute power over their countries—from Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in the early part of the century to Pinochet, Mobutu, and Hussein in our time. These leaders have repeatedly shown that absolute power concentrated in a single person is not in the best interests of the state, and their examples have caused countries all over the world to incorporate the separation of powers doctrine into their constitutions. This fact makes Machiavelli’s advice increasingly less relevant to our day. Almost all of Machiavelli’s advice assumed a leader with absolute power; wherever nations follow the doctrine of the separation of powers, such advice will be of little use to modern politicians.

This conclusion is designed to take the two major topics (war and taxation) and link them together as different manifestations of the same thing: the limitations imposed on national leaders by the separation of powers doctrine, an idea that goes hand in hand with the overall thesis. But it also has a secondary function, which is to anticipate and correct a potential weakness: the fact that not every government in the world today believes in the separation of powers, and that there are still dictators today who have the kind of absolute power that Machiavelli envisioned in The Prince. By bringing up some of these dictators, the writer demonstrates that he or she has considered this issue and that it does not disprove his or her thesis.

Though there are many ways to bring your essay to a close, below are a few strategies you can employ, along with examples of alternative conclusions to the sample paper that we have been working with:

Refer back to the introduction

If you started your essay with an introductory quotation, question, or historical situation, you can often return to your introduction as the basis for forming a conclusion. Consider the sample introduction on page 566 that begins with a discussion of Watergate as a way to explain the separation of powers. Returning to the story of Nixon’s resignation would be an excellent way to conclude an essay that began with such an introduction:

In Machiavelli’s society, leaders were often rebelled against, occasionally exiled, and, not infrequently, assassinated. But no Italian prince in the sixteenth century would ever have done what Richard Nixon was forced to do in 1974: resign and leave office because of a Supreme Court decision forcing him to turn over incriminating evidence to a congressional committee. Supreme Courts and congressional committees simply were not part of the world that Machiavelli inhabited. The fact that they have become such an important part of the world today, and that leaders in democratic countries are prevented from achieving the kind of power that Machiavelli assumed that a prince would have, makes it difficult to see his advice as relevant to American society in the twenty-first century.

Demonstrate the implications of your argument

Sometimes, you can reach the end of an essay only to discover that your argument has some major implications that you have not addressed. The conclusion can be a good place to show how the fairly focused argument that you have been making has broader and more general applications to other kinds of questions and arguments:

Though America was founded with a separation of powers doctrine designed to prevent any individual from achieving the kind of power that Machiavelli attributed to princes, we have recently been in danger of forgetting what our Founding Fathers did. Recent presidents, from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush, have committed troops to long foreign engagements without ever receiving a declaration of war from Congress; congressional committees are famous for attaching spending bills to completely unrelated pieces of legislation; and, in 2000, the Supreme Court divided along partisan political lines to give the presidency of the United States to someone who had not been elected by a majority of the people. The writings of Niccolò Machiavelli do more than show us what life was like during a particularly violent period of the Italian Renaissance. They warn us what our lives will be like should we ever allow our leaders the power to act unilaterally and with impunity.

Close with a quotation

Just as a quotation can make a good hook for the beginning of an essay, so a quotation can provide an effective way to tie everything together at the end. Furthermore, a well-chosen quotation from someone that the reader recognizes can provide the sense of closure and completeness that should always characterize a concluding paragraph. Beware, however, of using a lengthy quote—another person’s words should not make your argument for you but rather sum up what you have already effectively demonstrated:

Americans often become annoyed at the inefficiency of our political system. Elections are long and drawn out; debates over important issues are held up by political maneuvering; and the courts, Congress, and the president are forever frustrating each other’s plans. The media calls this “gridlock,” but scholars of the Constitution call it “checks and balances”—and it is this very inefficiency that prevents rulers from being able to follow Machiavelli’s advice completely. It is perhaps this element of democratic inefficiency that Winston Churchill had in mind when he reportedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government in the world with the single exception of all the others.”

Give a contextualizing example

If you are writing about something that may seem distant or be unfamiliar to your readers, consider starting with an example that might be more familiar. The example can then become a point of reference you can use throughout the paper to help explain more difficult concepts.

In 1974, Richard Nixon became the first president of the United States to resign from office. While it would be difficult to untangle the complicated web of conspiracy and deceit that brought Nixon to this position, most of the scandals known collectively as Watergate share a single motivation: Nixon wanted more power than the Constitution gave him. Being the chief executive officer of the nation was not enough; he also wanted to control legislation and judicial review and to have the power to gather his own intelligence about political enemies. For much of his career, Nixon was a perfect example of a political Machiavellian. However, in 1974 he became a perfect example of the reason that Machiavelli’s approach is no longer valid. While Machiavelli gave valuable advice to the princes and rulers of his day, the modern notion of the separation of powers makes it unlikely that any leader of a modern democracy could practice these ideas today.

Avoid clichés

Such formulaic introductory phrases as “Throughout history . . . ,” “Since the beginning of time . . . ,” and “Webster’s Dictionary defines . . . ” have been used by so many students, in so many contexts, that they have lost whatever effectiveness they might ever have had as ways to introduce an argument.

MENCIUS

Man’s Nature Is Good

[CIRCA 300 BCE]

OF THE HUNDREDS OF GREAT Chinese philosophers, poets, novelists, and statesmen whose works have been read in the West, only two have been given Latin names: Kung Fu Tzu (551–479 BCE), who is known in the West as Confucius, and Meng Tzu (circa 371–circa 289 BCE), who is known as Mencius. After Confucius himself, Mencius is the most important figure in the development of Confucianism, a system of rites, rituals, and social observances that was the official state religion of China for nearly two thousand years.

Mencius lived and wrote during one of the most spectacular eras of social upheaval that the world has ever known: the Period of Warring States (475–221 BCE). During this period, the area now known as China consisted of numerous smaller states—all remnants of the great Chou Empire—that were constantly at war with each other. Confucianism, Legalism, Moism, and Taoism all emerged during this time as different ways to answer the most important question of the day: what is the best way to ensure political stability? The general Confucian answer to this question is that good government requires good leaders, and good leaders must be good people—people who honor their ancestors, observe the ancient rites, and act toward others with a spirit of rectitude and benevolence.

During Mencius’s lifetime, Confucians were split on the question of human nature. Confucius had been puzzlingly vague on this matter, insisting only that all people had a duty to observe the rites and rituals handed down by their ancestors. Some, such as Mencius, took this to mean that humans were inherently good and, with proper training, could become perfect. Others, such as Hsün Tzu, believed that the Confucian rites were necessary because humans were inherently evil and required rites to keep them in check. Mencius’s arguments ultimately prevailed and influenced future generations of Confucians.

The selection here is drawn from Chapter 21 of Mencius’s major work, called the Mencius, and consists of a series of conversations between Mencius and the philosopher Kao Tzu and his disciples. Kao Tzu believed that human nature was neither inherently good nor inherently evil but a “blank slate” that could be conditioned in both directions. In Kao’s philosophy, the love that people feel toward their relatives stems from internal human nature, but the respect that people show for strangers—and for the rites and traditions that were so important to Confucianism—must be conditioned by external forces. Mencius and his disciple Kung-tu refuse to make this distinction and insist that both love and respect proceed from internal feelings that form part of human beings’ nature.

Mencius’s rhetorical style is somewhat confusing at first because, like Plato in the Gorgias ( p. 121 ), he advances his own arguments in a dialogue with others. Mencius adds another layer of complexity to this dialogue form by filtering Kao’s arguments through a student, Kung-tu, who listens to both Kao and Mencius and tries to determine which of them speaks the truth.

1

Master Kao said: “The nature of things is like willow wood, and Duty is like cups and bowls. Shaping human nature into Humanity and Duty is like shaping willow wood into cups and bowls.”

“Do you follow the nature of willow wood to shape cups and bowls,” replied Mencius, “or do you maul it? If you maul willow wood to make cups and bowls, then I guess you maul human nature to make Humanity and Duty. It’s talk like yours that will lead people to ravage Humanity and Duty throughout all beneath Heaven.”

2

Master Kao said: “The nature of things is like swirling water: channel it east and it flows east, channel it west and it flows west. And human nature too is like water: it doesn’t choose between good and evil any more than water chooses between east and west.”

“It’s true that water doesn’t choose between east and west,” replied Mencius, “but doesn’t it choose between high and low? Human nature is inherently good, just like water flows inherently downhill. There’s no such thing as a person who isn’t good, just as there’s no water that doesn’t flow downhill.

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“Think about water: if you slap it, you can make it jump over your head; and if you push and shove, you can make it stay on a mountain. But what does this have to do with the nature of water? It’s only responding to the forces around it. It’s like that for people too: you can make them evil, but that says nothing about human nature.” . . .

* * *

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Adept Kung-tu 1  said: “Master Kao said: Human nature isn’t good, and it isn’t evil. There are others who say: Human nature can be made good, and it can be made evil. That’s why the people loved goodness when Wen and Wu ruled, and they loved cruelty when Yu and Li ruled. 2  And there are still others who say: Human nature is inborn: some people are good and some evil. That’s why a Hsiang could have Yao as his ruler, a Shun could have Blind Purblind as his father, a Lord Ch’i of Wei and Prince Pi Kan could have the tyrant Chou as their nephew and sovereign. 3

“But you say: Human nature is good. Does that mean all the others are wrong?”

“We are, by constitution, capable of being good,” replied Mencius. “That’s what I mean by good. If someone’s evil, it can’t be blamed on inborn capacities. We all have a heart of compassion and a heart of conscience, a heart of reverence and a heart of right and wrong. In a heart of compassion is Humanity, and in a heart of conscience is Duty. In a heart of reverence is Ritual, and in a heart of right and wrong is wisdom. Humanity, Duty, Ritual, wisdom—these are not external things we meld into us. They’re part of us from the beginning, though we may not realize it. Hence the saying: What you seek you will find, and what you ignore you will lose. Some make more of themselves than others, maybe two or five or countless times more. But that’s only because some people fail to realize their inborn capacities.

“The Songs say:

Heaven gave birth to humankind,

and whatever is has its own laws:

cleaving to what makes us human,

people delight in stately Integrity.

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Of this, Confucius said: Whoever wrote this song knew the Way well. So whatever is must have its own laws, and whenever they cleave to what makes us human, the people must delight in stately Integrity.”

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Mencius said: “In good years, young men are mostly fine. In bad years, they’re mostly cruel and violent. It isn’t that Heaven endows them with such different capacities, only that their hearts are mired in such different situations. Think about barley: if you plant the seeds carefully at the same time and in the same place, they’ll all sprout and grow ripe by summer solstice. If they don’t grow the same—it’s because of inequities in richness of soil, amounts of rainfall, or the care given them by farmers. And so, all members belonging to a given species of thing are the same. Why should humans be the lone exception? The sage and I—surely we belong to the same species of thing.

“That’s why Master Lung said: Even if a cobbler makes a pair of sandals for feet he’s never seen, he certainly won’t make a pair of baskets. Sandals are all alike because feet are the same throughout all beneath Heaven. And all tongues savor the same flavors. Yi Ya 4  was just the first to discover what our tongues savor. If taste differed by nature from person to person, the way horses and dogs differ by species from me, then how is it people throughout all beneath Heaven savor the tastes Yi Ya savored? People throughout all beneath Heaven share Yi Ya’s tastes, therefore people’s tongues are alike throughout all beneath Heaven.

“It’s true for the ear too: people throughout all beneath Heaven share Maestro K’uang’s 5  sense of music, therefore people’s ears are alike throughout all beneath Heaven. And it’s no less true for the eye: no one throughout all beneath Heaven could fail to see the beauty of Lord Tu. If you can’t see his beauty, you simply haven’t eyes.

“Hence it is said: All tongues savor the same flavors, all ears hear the same music, and all eyes see the same beauty. Why should the heart alone not be alike in us all? But what is it about our hearts that is alike? Isn’t it what we call reason and Duty? The sage is just the first to discover what is common to our hearts. Hence, reason and Duty please our hearts just like meat pleases our tongues.”

8

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Mencius said: “The forests were once lovely on Ox Mountain. 6  But as they were near a great city, axes cleared them little by little. Now there’s nothing left of their beauty. They rest day and night, rain and dew falling in plenty, and there’s no lack of fresh sprouts. But people graze oxen and sheep there, so the mountain’s stripped bare. When people see how bare it is, they think that’s all the potential it has. But does that mean this is the nature of Ox Mountain?

“Without the heart of Humanity and Duty alive in us, how can we be human? When we abandon this noble heart, it’s like cutting those forests: a few axe blows each day, and pretty soon there’s nothing left. Then you can rest day and night, take in the clarity of morning’s healing ch’i—but the values that make you human keep thinning away. All day long, you’re tangled in your life. If these tangles keep up day after day, even the clarity of night’s healing ch’i isn’t enough to preserve you. And if the clarity of night’s healing ch’i isn’t enough to preserve you, you aren’t much different from an animal. When people see you’re like an animal, they think that’s all the potential you have. But does that mean this is the human constitution?

“With proper sustenance, anything will grow; and without proper sustenance, anything will fade away. Confucius said: Embrace it and it endures. Forsake it and it dies. It comes and goes without warning, and no one knows its route. He was speaking of the heart.”

UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT

1. What is the rhetorical purpose of the character Kao at the beginning of this selection? How does he set up Mencius’s argument? What kinds of objections to his own theory does this device allow Mencius to anticipate?

2. How does Mencius present the difference between “benevolence” and “righteousness”? Why does Kao Tzu see the first as internal to human nature and the second as external to human nature?

3. What role does human nature, for Mencius, play in the love we show to our family members? What role does it play in the respect that we show to strangers?

4. A great deal of the debate between Mencius and Kao Tzu concerns the origin of propriety, or proper social behavior, which is synonymous in the text with “righteousness.” For Kao Tzu, propriety is a matter of social convention that has nothing to do with human nature. For Mencius, the standards of propriety are based on qualities that are inherently part of human nature. Which of these views do you find more convincing? Why?

5. How might Mencius perceive the nature of evil? If human beings are naturally good, where might evil originate? Support your answer with evidence from the text.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

1. Mencius and Hsün Tzu ( p. 71 ) disagree completely about human nature, yet both are dedicated Confucians. What elements of their respective philosophies justify their inclusion as members of the same school of thought?

2. What does Mencius imply about people who change the appearance of natural phenomena, such as trees or mountains? How is this argument similar to Rachel Carson’s in “The Obligation to Endure” ( p. 247 )?

3. How would you extend Mencius’s view of human nature to answer the question “What is good government?” If human beings are essentially good, then what kind of government serves them best? How does this compare to Lao Tzu’s thoughts on government ( p. 289 )?

WRITING ABOUT THE TEXT

1. Take one of the metaphors that Kao Tzu and Mencius debate—either the willow metaphor or the water metaphor—and use it to support your own view of human nature.

2. Compare Mencius’s and Hsün Tzu’s ( p. 71 ) essays on human nature. How are the two texts similar? How are they different?

3. Examine the role of ritual in contemporary society. Where do social conventions such as manners, dating behavior, dressing and grooming practices, and so on come from? Do they have as their basis anything natural to human beings?

4. What kinds of government best suit, respectively, Mencius’s and Kao Tzu’s assumptions about human nature? Write an essay exploring this question, being sure to explain how different perceptions about the nature of human beings lead to different assumptions about the role of government.

Footnotes

1. Kung-tu: Mencius’s disciple.  Return to reference

2. Yu and Li: kings singled out in the Confucian tradition for their arrogance and recklessness. Wen and Wu: ancient kings who were singled out by Confucius as eminent examples of virtuous rulers. In Mencius’s time, philosophers commonly appealed to well-known ancient kings, good and bad, to support their arguments about statecraft.  Return to reference

3. Yao: an ancient emperor frequently cited by Confucius as the model of a righteous king. Shun: Yao’s handpicked, equally righteous successor. Blind Pureblind: Shun’s wicked father also called Ku-Sau. Lord Ch’i of Wei: a wise man who refused to serve the wicked tyrant Chou, who killed his own uncle Prince Pi Kan. The point of all these examples is to refute Mencius’s major claim—that human nature is essentially good and made bad by environment—by showing that the same environments that produced some of the most righteous people in history also produced some of the worst.  Return to reference

4. Yi Ya: an ancient chef revered for his culinary talents; according to legend, he once cooked his own son for his master’s table.  Return to reference

5. Maestro K’uang: the most revered musician in Chinese history. Mencius makes the point that if everyone likes the cooking of Yi Ya and everyone likes the music of K’uang, then certain preferences in human nature are not subject to individual taste.  Return to reference

6. Ox Mountain: a mountain on the Pearl River Delta, near present-day Hong Kong. Mencius argues that, though it was in the nature of the mountain to have trees and lush vegetation, the human and animal population of the large state made it appear barren. The larger point is that even people’s failure to act benevolently does not mean that they lack a natural disposition toward benevolence.  Return to reference

HSÜN TZU

Man’s Nature Is Evil

[CIRCA 300 BCE]

IN BOTH THE STYLE OF HIS WRITING and the nature of his philosophy, the Chinese scholar Hsün Tzu (circa 300–230 BCE) could not have differed more from his slightly older contemporary Mencius (circa 371–circa 289 BCE). The writings of Mencius consist largely of parables and of what appear to be transcripts of debates that he had with other philosophers. Hsün Tzu wrote sustained, well-developed philosophical arguments that, while they feel quite familiar to the modern reader, were something of an anomaly in his own time.

Both men were Confucians, but Hsün Tzu did not share Mencius’s belief that human nature is inherently good, even divine. Whereas for Mencius the Confucian sense of propriety derived from inclinations that all people possessed, Hsün Tzu saw Confucian rites as valuable because they restrained and redirected humanity’s inherent disposition toward evil. Hsün Tzu believed that strict discipline could make human beings good despite their natural inclinations. Most of his known writings deal with forces that, in his estimation, steered people toward righteousness: education, music, ritual, and law.

Hsün Tzu’s philosophy had an enormous effect on the Chinese philosophy of Legalism. One of his pupils Han Fei Tzu, the major theorist of that school, argued that human beings must be forced into rectitude by strict laws and harsh penalties for disobedience. When the state of Ch’in unified China into a single empire (221 BCE), another of Hsün Tzu’s pupils, Li Ssu, became the prime minister and put the authoritarian principles of Legalism into practice. When the Ch’in Dynasty collapsed—a mere fifteen years after it was established—the backlash against Legalist rule led subsequent regimes to ban Hsün Tzu’s teachings.

The reading included here, “Man’s Nature Is Evil,” is section 23 of the Hsün Tzu, the standard collection of Hsün Tzu’s writings. This essay specifically addresses the arguments about human nature Mencius advanced one generation earlier. Like Mencius, Hsün Tzu argues frequently by analogy, but unlike his predecessor, he uses sustained, developed arguments just as frequently. Like modern writers, he states his thesis early (in the very first sentence), repeats it throughout the essay, and focuses on proving this thesis.

Man’s nature is evil; goodness is the result of conscious activity. The nature of man is such that he is born with a fondness for profit. If he indulges this fondness, it will lead him into wrangling and strife, and all sense of courtesy and humility will disappear. He is born with feelings of envy and hate, and if he indulges these, they will lead him into violence and crime, and all sense of loyalty and good faith will disappear. Man is born with the desires of the eyes and ears, with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds. If he indulges these, they will lead him into license and wantonness, and all ritual principles and correct forms will be lost. Hence, any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles, and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order. It is obvious from this, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

A warped piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape before it can become straight; a piece of blunt metal must wait until it has been whetted on a grindstone before it can become sharp. Similarly, since man’s nature is evil, it must wait for the instructions of a teacher before it can become upright, and for the guidance of ritual principles before it can become orderly. If men have no teachers to instruct them, they will be inclined towards evil and not upright; and if they have no ritual principles to guide them, they will be perverse and violent and lack order. In ancient times the sage kings realized that man’s nature is evil, and that therefore he inclines toward evil and violence and is not upright or orderly. Accordingly they created ritual principles and laid down certain regulations in order to reform man’s emotional nature and make it upright, in order to train and transform it and guide it in the proper channels. In this way they caused all men to become orderly and to conform to the Way.1 Hence, today any man who takes to heart the instructions of his teacher, applies himself to his studies, and abides by ritual principles may become a gentleman, but anyone who gives free rein to his emotional nature, is content to indulge his passions, and disregards ritual principles becomes a petty man. It is obvious from this, therefore, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

Mencius states that man is capable of learning because his nature is good, but I say that this is wrong. It indicates that he has not really understood man’s nature nor distinguished properly between the basic nature and conscious activity. The nature is that which is given by Heaven; you cannot learn it, you cannot acquire it by effort. Ritual principles, on the other hand, are created by sages; you can learn to apply them, you can work to bring them to completion. That part of man which cannot be learned or acquired by effort is called the nature; that part of him which can be acquired by learning and brought to completion by effort is called conscious activity. This is the difference between nature and conscious activity.

It is a part of man’s nature that his eyes can see and his ears can hear. But the faculty of clear sight can never exist separately from the eye, nor can the faculty of keen hearing exist separately from the ear. It is obvious, then, that you cannot acquire clear sight and keen hearing by study. Mencius states that man’s nature is good, and that all evil arises because he loses his original nature. Such a view, I believe, is erroneous. It is the way with man’s nature that as soon as he is born he begins to depart from his original naïveté and simplicity, and therefore he must inevitably lose what Mencius regards as his original nature. It is obvious from this, then, that the nature of man is evil.

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Those who maintain that the nature is good praise and approve whatever has not departed from the original simplicity and naïveté of the child. That is, they consider that beauty belongs to the original simplicity and naïveté and goodness to the original mind in the same way that clear sight is inseparable from the eye and keen hearing from the ear. Hence, they maintain that [the nature possesses goodness] in the same way that the eye possesses clear vision or the ear keenness of hearing. Now it is the nature of man that when he is hungry he will desire satisfaction, when he is cold he will desire warmth, and when he is weary he will desire rest. This is his emotional nature. And yet a man, although he is hungry, will not dare to be the first to eat if he is in the presence of his elders, because he knows that he should yield to them, and although he is weary, he will not dare to demand rest because he knows that he should relieve others of the burden of labor. For a son to yield to his father or a younger brother to yield to his elder brother, for a son to relieve his father of work or a younger brother to relieve his elder brother—acts such as these are all contrary to man’s nature and run counter to his emotions. And yet they represent the way of filial piety and the proper forms enjoined by ritual principles. Hence, if men follow their emotional nature, there will be no courtesy or humility; courtesy and humility in fact run counter to man’s emotional nature. From this it is obvious, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

Someone may ask: if man’s nature is evil, then where do ritual principles come from? I would reply: all ritual principles are produced by the conscious activity of the sages; essentially they are not products of man’s nature. A potter molds clay and makes a vessel, but the vessel is the product of the conscious activity of the potter, not essentially a product of his human nature. A carpenter carves a piece of wood and makes a utensil, but the utensil is the product of the conscious activity of the carpenter, not essentially a product of his human nature. The sage gathers together his thoughts and ideas, experiments with various forms of conscious activity, and so produces ritual principles and sets forth laws and regulations. Hence, these ritual principles and laws are the products of the conscious activity of the sage, not essentially products of his human nature.

Phenomena such as the eye’s fondness for beautiful forms, the ear’s fondness for beautiful sounds, the mouth’s fondness for delicious flavors, the mind’s fondness for profit, or the body’s fondness for pleasure and ease—these are all products of the emotional nature of man. They are instinctive and spontaneous; man does not have to do anything to produce them. But that which does not come into being instinctively but must wait for some activity to bring it into being is called the product of conscious activity. These are the products of the nature and of conscious activity respectively, and the proof that they are not the same. Therefore, the sage transforms his nature and initiates conscious activity; from this conscious activity he produces ritual principles, and when they have been produced he sets up rules and regulations. Hence, ritual principles and rules are produced by the sage. In respect to human nature the sage is the same as all other men and does not surpass them; it is only in his conscious activity that he differs from and surpasses other men.

It is man’s emotional nature to love profit and desire gain. Suppose now that a man has some wealth to be divided. If he indulges his emotional nature, loving profit and desiring gain, then he will quarrel and wrangle even with his own brothers over the division. But if he has been transformed by the proper forms of ritual principle, then he will be capable of yielding even to a complete stranger. Hence, to indulge the emotional nature leads to the quarreling of brothers, but to be transformed by ritual principles makes a man capable of yielding to strangers.

Every man who desires to do good does so precisely because his nature is evil. A man whose accomplishments are meager longs for greatness; an ugly man longs for beauty; a man in cramped quarters longs for spaciousness; a poor man longs for wealth; a humble man longs for eminence. Whatever a man lacks in himself he will seek outside. But if a man is already rich, he will not long for wealth, and if he is already eminent, he will not long for greater power. What a man already possesses in himself he will not bother to look for outside. From this we can see that men desire to do good precisely because their nature is evil. Ritual principles are certainly not a part of man’s original nature. Therefore, he forces himself to study and to seek to possess them. An understanding of ritual principles is not a part of man’s original nature, and therefore he ponders and plans and thereby seeks to understand them. Hence, man in the state in which he is born neither possesses nor understands ritual principles. If he does not possess ritual principles, his behavior will be chaotic, and if he does not understand them, he will be wild and irresponsible. In fact, therefore, man in the state in which he is born possesses this tendency towards chaos and irresponsibility. From this it is obvious, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

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Mencius states that man’s nature is good, but I say that this view is wrong. All men in the world, past and present, agree in defining goodness as that which is upright, reasonable, and orderly, and evil as that which is prejudiced, irresponsible, and chaotic. This is the distinction between good and evil. Now suppose that man’s nature was in fact intrinsically upright, reasonable, and orderly—then what need would there be for sage kings and ritual principles? The existence of sage kings and ritual principles could certainly add nothing to the situation. But because man’s nature is in fact evil, this is not so. Therefore, in ancient times the sages, realizing that man’s nature is evil, that it is prejudiced and not upright, irresponsible and lacking in order, for this reason established the authority of the ruler to control it, elucidated ritual principles to transform it, set up laws and standards to correct it, and meted out strict punishments to restrain it. As a result, all the world achieved order and conformed to goodness. Such is the orderly government of the sage kings and the transforming power of ritual principles. Now let someone try doing away with the authority of the ruler, ignoring the transforming power of ritual principles, rejecting the order that comes from laws and standards, and dispensing with the restrictive power of punishments, and then watch and see how the people of the world treat each other. He will find that the powerful impose upon the weak and rob them, the many terrorize the few and extort from them, and in no time the whole world will be given up to chaos and mutual destruction. It is obvious from this, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

Those who are good at discussing antiquity must demonstrate the validity of what they say in terms of modern times; those who are good at discussing Heaven must show proofs from the human world. In discussions of all kinds, men value what is in accord with the facts and what can be proved to be valid. Hence if a man sits on his mat propounding some theory, he should be able to stand right up and put it into practice, and show that it can be extended over a wide area with equal validity. Now Mencius states that man’s nature is good, but this is neither in accord with the facts, nor can it be proved to be valid. One may sit down and propound such a theory, but he cannot stand up and put it into practice, nor can he extend it over a wide area with any success at all. How, then, could it be anything but erroneous?

If the nature of man were good, we could dispense with sage kings and forget about ritual principles. But if it is evil, then we must go along with the sage kings and honor ritual principles. The straightening board is made because of the warped wood; the plumb line is employed because things are crooked; rulers are set up and ritual principles elucidated because the nature of man is evil. From this it is obvious, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity. A straight piece of wood does not have to wait for the straightening board to become straight; it is straight by nature. But a warped piece of wood must wait until it has been laid against the straightening board, steamed, and forced into shape before it can become straight, because by nature it is warped. Similarly, since man’s nature is evil, he must wait for the ordering power of the sage kings and the transforming power of ritual principles; only then can he achieve order and conform to goodness. From this it is obvious, then, that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

Someone may ask whether ritual principles and concerted conscious activity are not themselves a part of man’s nature, so that for that reason the sage is capable of producing them. But I would answer that this is not so. A potter may mold clay and produce an earthen pot, but surely molding pots out of clay is not a part of the potter’s human nature. A carpenter may carve wood and produce a utensil, but surely carving utensils out of wood is not a part of the carpenter’s human nature. The sage stands in the same relation to ritual principles as the potter to the things he molds and produces. How, then, could ritual principles and concerted conscious activity be a part of man’s basic human nature?

As far as human nature goes, the sages Yao and Shun possessed the same nature as the tyrant Chieh or Robber Chih, and the gentleman possesses the same nature as the petty man.2 Would you still maintain, then, that ritual principles and concerted conscious activity are a part of man’s nature? If you do so, then what reason is there to pay any particular honor to Yao, Shun, or the gentleman? The reason people honor Yao, Shun, and the gentleman is that they are able to transform their nature, apply themselves to conscious activity, and produce ritual principles. The sage, then, must stand in the same relation to ritual principles as the potter to the things he molds and produces. Looking at it this way, how could ritual principles and concerted conscious activity be a part of man’s nature? The reason people despise Chieh, Robber Chih, or the petty man is that they give free rein to their nature, follow their emotions, and are content to indulge their passions, so that their conduct is marked by greed and contentiousness. Therefore, it is clear that man’s nature is evil, and that his goodness is the result of conscious activity.

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Heaven did not bestow any particular favor upon Tseng Tzu, Min Tzu-ch’ien, or Hsiao-i that it withheld from other men.3 And yet these three men among all others proved most capable of carrying out their duties as sons and winning fame for their filial piety. Why? Because of their thorough attention to ritual principles. Heaven has not bestowed any particular favor upon the inhabitants of Ch’i and Lu which it has withheld from the people of Ch’in.4 And yet when it comes to observing the duties of father and son and the separation of roles between husband and wife, the inhabitants of Ch’in cannot match the filial reverence and respect for proper form which marks the people of Ch’i and Lu. Why? Because the people of Ch’in give free rein to their emotional nature, are content to indulge their passions, and are careless of ritual principles. It is certainly not due to any difference in human nature between the two groups.

The man in the street can become a Yü.5 What does this mean? What made the sage emperor Yü a Yü, I would reply, was the fact that he practiced benevolence and righteousness and abided by the proper rules and standards. If this is so, then benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards must be based upon principles which can be known and practiced. Any man in the street has the essential faculties needed to understand benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards, and the potential ability to put them into practice. Therefore it is clear that he can become a Yü.

Would you maintain that benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards are not based upon any principles that can be known and practiced? If so, then even a Yü could not have understood or practiced them. Or would you maintain that the man in the street does not have the essential faculties needed to understand them or the potential ability to put them into practice? If so, then you are saying that the man in the street in his family life cannot understand the duties required of a father or a son and in public life cannot comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. But in fact this is not true. Any man in the street can understand the duties required of a father or a son and can comprehend the correct relationship between ruler and subject. Therefore, it is obvious that the essential faculties needed to understand such ethical principles and the potential ability to put them into practice must be a part of his make-up. Now if he takes these faculties and abilities and applies them to the principles of benevolence and righteousness, which we have already shown to be knowable and practicable, then it is obvious that he can become a Yü. If the man in the street applies himself to training and study, concentrates his mind and will, and considers and examines things carefully, continuing his efforts over a long period of time and accumulating good acts without stop, then he can achieve a godlike understanding and form a triad with Heaven and earth. The sage is a man who has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts.

You have said, someone may object, that the sage has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts. Why is it, then, that everyone is not able to accumulate good acts in the same way? I would reply: everyone is capable of doing so, but not everyone can be made to do so. The petty man is capable of becoming a gentleman, yet he is not willing to do so; the gentleman is capable of becoming a petty man but he is not willing to do so. The petty man and the gentleman are perfectly capable of changing places; the fact that they do not actually do so is what I mean when I say that they are capable of doing so but they cannot be made to do so. Hence, it is correct to say that the man in the street is capable of becoming a Yü but it is not necessarily correct to say that he will in fact find it possible to do so. But although he does not find it possible to do so does not prove that he is incapable of doing so.

A person with two feet is theoretically capable of walking to every corner of the earth, although in fact no one has ever found it possible to do so. Similarly, the artisan, the carpenter, the farmer, and the merchant are theoretically capable of exchanging professions, although in actual practice they find it impossible to do so. From this we can see that, although someone may be theoretically capable of becoming something, he may not in practice find it possible to do so. But although he does not find it possible to do so, this does not prove that he is not capable of doing so. To find it practically possible or impossible to do something and to be capable or incapable of doing something are two entirely different things. It is perfectly clear, then, that a man is theoretically capable of becoming something else.

Paragraph 20

Yao asked Shun, “What are man’s emotions like?” Shun replied, “Man’s emotions are very unlovely things indeed! What need is there to ask any further? Once a man acquires a wife and children, he no longer treats his parents as a filial son should. Once he succeeds in satisfying his cravings and desires, he neglects his duty to his friends. Once he has won a high position and a good stipend, he ceases to serve his sovereign with a loyal heart. Man’s emotions, man’s emotions—they are very unlovely things indeed! What need is there to ask any further? Only the worthy man is different from this.”

There is the understanding of the sage, the understanding of the gentleman and man of breeding, the understanding of the petty man, and the understanding of the menial. He speaks many words but they are graceful and well ordered; all day he discourses on his reasons, employing a thousand different and varied modes of expression, and yet all that he says is united around a single principle: such is the understanding of the sage. He speaks little but what he says is brief and to the point, logical and clearly presented, as though laid out with a plumb line: such is the understanding of the gentleman and man of breeding. His words are all flattery, his actions irresponsible; whatever he does is shot through with error: such is the understanding of the petty man. His words are rapid and shrill but never to the point; his talents are varied and many but of no practical use; he is full of subtle distinctions and elegant turns of phrase that serve no practical purpose; he ignores right or wrong, disdains to discuss crooked or straight, but seeks only to overpower the arguments of his opponent: such is the understanding of the menial.

There is superior valor, there is the middle type of valor, and there is inferior valor. When proper standards prevail in the world, to dare to bring your own conduct into accord with them; when the Way of the former kings prevails, to dare to follow its dictates; to refuse to bow before the ruler of a disordered age, to refuse to follow the customs of the people of a disordered age; to accept poverty and hardship if they are in the cause of benevolent action; to reject wealth and eminence if they are not consonant with benevolent action; if the world recognizes you, to share in the world’s joys; if the world does not recognize you, to stand alone and without fear: this is superior valor. To be reverent in bearing and modest in intention; to value honor and make light of material goods; to dare to promote and honor the worthy, and reject and cast off the unworthy: such is the middle type of valor. To ignore your own safety in the quest for wealth; to make light of danger and try to talk your way out of every difficulty; to rely on lucky escapes; to ignore right and wrong, just and unjust, and seek only to overpower the arguments of your opponents: such is inferior valor. . . .

A man, no matter how fine his nature or how keen his mind, must seek a worthy teacher to study under and good companions to associate with. If he studies under a worthy teacher, he will be able to hear about the ways of Yao, Shun, Yü, and T’ang,6 and if he associates with good companions, he will be able to observe conduct that is loyal and respectful. Then, although he is not aware of it, he will day by day progress in the practice of benevolence and righteousness, for the environment he is subjected to will cause him to progress. But if a man associates with men who are not good, then he will hear only deceit and lies and will see only conduct that is marked by wantonness, evil, and greed. Then, although he is not aware of it, he himself will soon be in danger of severe punishment, for the environment he is subjected to will cause him to be in danger. An old text says, “If you do not know a man, look at his friends; if you do not know a ruler, look at his attendants.” Environment is the important thing! Environment is the important thing!

UNDERSTANDING THE TEXT

1. Why does Hsün Tzu repeat his thesis (p. 71) throughout this piece? Does this technique make his argument more effective? What other types of repetition does Hsün Tzu use, and how does the repetition illustrate different aspects of his argument?

2. What distinction does Hsün Tzu draw between “nature” and “conscious activity”? Are these categories mutually exclusive? What kinds of things does he place in each category?

3. What does Hsün Tzu see as the origin of ritual principles? How does this differ from Mencius’s view (p. 65)?

4. Why does Hsün Tzu assert that “every man who desires to do good does so precisely because his nature is evil”? Do you agree? Are his comparisons to men who are unaccomplished, ugly, cramped, poor, and humble valid? Is it possible to desire to be something that is part of one’s nature?

5. How does Hsün Tzu define “good” and “evil”? Do his definitions concur with contemporary definitions of the same words?

6. How does Hsün Tzu differentiate between capability and possibility? How are they related, and does this inclusion weaken or strengthen the validity of Hsün Tzu’s argument?

7. According to Hsün Tzu, what role does environment play in how humans deal with their nature? What kind of environmental factors determine a person’s inclination or rejection of human nature?

MAKING CONNECTIONS

1. How does Hsün Tzu’s writing style compare with that of Mencius (p. 65)? Are his rhetorical strategies more or less effective than those of his major philosophical opponent? Why?

2. What kind of political theory is suggested by Hsün Tzu’s philosophy of human nature? How do perceptions of human nature affect political arguments? Which political theories covered in Chapter 6, “Law and Government,” best reflect the kind of government that Hsün Tzu would advocate?

3. Compare this essay by Hsün Tzu with the essay by him in Chapter 1, “Encouraging Learning” (p. 3). How do his views on human nature affect his views on education?

4. Compare Hsün Tzu’s use of the dialogue form with that of Plato in Gorgias (p. 121). Do the two philosophers use multiple voices for the same reasons? Explain.

WRITING ABOUT THE TEXT

1. Hsün Tzu states: “If a man is already rich, he will not long for wealth, and if he is already eminent, he will not long for greater power. What a man already possesses in himself he will not bother to look for outside. From this we can see that men desire to do good precisely because their nature is evil.” Defend or refute this assertion, using historical examples to support your argument.

2. Compare Hsün Tzu’s philosophy of human nature with that of Thomas Hobbes (p. 81). How does each philosopher feel that people should be governed?

3. Analyze the rhetoric of “Man’s Nature Is Evil.” What inductive and deductive arguments can you draw from the essay? (See p. 577 for explanations and examples of inductive and deductive reasoning.) How logically sound are his arguments?

Footnotes

1. The Way: Chinese philosophers from every school speak about “the Way,” or the Tao, though each school uses the term in a different sense. For Taoists, “the Way” means “the natural order of things” and is beyond human influence. For Confucians, “the Way” means something like “the way things should be” and incorporates ideals of rectitude and propriety. Return to reference

2. Gentleman: the category representing the ideal human being in the Confucian system of thought. The gentleman possesses rectitude, benevolence, integrity, honor, and a proper respect for the ancestors and the rites. The opposite of a gentleman is a “petty man.” The terms do not have any class-based connotations. Yao and Shun: mythical ancient kings advanced by Confucians as ideals of righteous rulers. Tyrant Chieh or Robber Chih: according to tradition, Chieh was an evil ruler who brought down the great Hsia Dynasty. Robber Chih led a band of nine thousand criminals; legend has it that Confucius once tried in vain to reform him. Return to reference

3. Tseng Tzu, Min Tzu-ch’ien: followers of Confucius who were considered especially righteous. Not much is known about Hsiao-i. Return to reference

4. Ch’i and Lu: areas where Confucianism was very influential. Ch’in’s government was officially anti-Confucian. Return to reference

5. Yü: the virtuous king and founder of the ancient Hsia Dynasty. “The man in the street can become a Yü” refers to the assertion, found in section 22 of the Mencius, that “all men may be Yaos and Shuns” (see note 2). Return to reference

6. T’ang: a righteous king in mythical ancient China; should not be confused with the T’ang Dynasty, which ruled China from 618 to 907 CE, nearly a thousand years after Hsün Tzu’s time. Return to reference

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