“All people have it, but the worthy are able to be consistent in it.”

Let’s look at two Chinese characters. Not two characters squished together to make one character, and not a “compound” character, either, but rather two separate characters one after the other that make a complete sentence. So here they are: 性善 (pinyin: xìng-shàn). The meaning of this sentence, which is one of the most important utterances in the history of Chinese philosophy, is “human nature is good”. It is from the philosopher Mencius (孟子) who lived in the 4th century BC (around the same time as Aristotle).

The literal meanings of the two characters are “nature” (性) and “good/virtuous/kind” (善). Mencius was a follower of the school of philosophy founded by Confucius, but “The Master” had famously never clearly stated whether he thought human nature was good or bad or indifferent. Confucius did, however, rather ambiguously say that “Humans are by nature similar, but in their actions are different.” (Analects 17.2: 性相近也、習相遠也。).

Obviously, Mencius was aware that people do bad things all the time. So if we all have a basically good nature, why aren’t we all good all the time? Mencius’ explanation is pretty straightforward: “It is not only the worthy who have this capacity. All people have it, but the worthy are able to be consistent in it.” (非獨賢者有是心也。人皆有之、賢者能勿喪耳。)

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