Throughout history, you will find countless rulers, philosophers, historians, artists and critics who claim humans are naturally wicked. In my opinion, Saint Augustine of Hippo is the most influential of their number. Likewise, you will find many who argue people are naturally good. The most enduring and influential of these, by my estimation, is the Chinese philosopher Mencius. I think this is a fascinating question mostly because of the hidden assumptions both camps bring to their arguments.
Let’s start with Augustine. Born into a prosperous family in Northern Africa in 354, Augustine received an excellent classical education, particularly in rhetoric and Platonic idealism. The Roman empire of his youth was prosperous, relatively safe, intellectually open and afforded the ability to travel widely. The young Augustine took advantage of these privileges and became an imminent rhetorician and minor philosopher. Later, he grew into the preeminent theologian of the nascent Christian Church. He was, however, far from grateful for these happy circumstances.
Starting from his teens and intensifying in his 20’s and 30’s, Augustine became increasingly displeased with the world. Wherever he saw something good, his training in Platonic idealism allowed him to restore the proper degree of unhappiness and disappointment. A beautiful statue, therefore, became misshapen and displeasing to Augustine because he could always imagine a better “true statue.”
Augustine found an even more powerful weapon against the physical world when he discovered the Disciple Paul. With the ultimate goodness of the Christian God and the unchanging perfection of Pauline heaven, Augustine was able to raise his standards of goodness infinitely high and thus hold every object and every person he saw, touched and heard in disdain. Thus inspired, Augustine spent much of the rest of his life marrying Platonic idealism with Pauline idealism and, in doing so, offered two basic arguments for the corrupt and vile nature of human beings. First, a logical proof, second an anecdotal and emotional illustration of the same.
The logical proof goes like this. We are unable to escape our selfish, bigoted, unprincipled, greedy, cruel and hypocritical natures because anything we do can be interpreted as selfishness or pride. Thus, if a man does something kind like spontaneously gifting his neighbor a cake, Augustine would say that he has done this kindness out of a desire for future benefits (greed), out of a desire to be well thought of (pride) or as a way of earning favor in heaven (greed and pride). You might think that destroying oneself could avoid this circle of pride and greed, but Augustine rejects this as well, saying that self-destruction is ingratitude for God’s earthly gifts and thus pride.
In addition to the divine Catch-22, Augustine has an agricultural anecdote to prove his own irretrievable, personal corruption. You see, as a teenager, Augustine stole some peaches. He saw them in a farmer’s orchard, climbed the tree and took them. This is not a trivial and almost harmless example of teenaged boy mischief, he explains, because he did not steal for any practical reason. He was not hungry. He didn’t want to sell the peaches and earn money. He did it for the pure love of evil. Augustine sees similar perfidy in everyone and, combined with the Catch-22 of pride and greed, declares humanity not just fundamentally bad but utterly incapable of good.
Mencius’ life took an almost exactly opposite course. Born in the 370s or 380s BC, Mencius was a member of the fallen “shi” class of knights left over from the Zhou Dynasty. His entire life took place in the chaotic, incredibly violent and unstable Warring States Period (476 BC – 221 BC). Let’s take a moment to unpack all of that.
The Zhou Dynasty technically lasted from 1046 BC until 256 BC, but after 771 BC it was a dynasty in name only. During the early Zhou, the royal family disposed of its surplus sons by assigning them feudal fiefdoms in the countryside. Under these feudal lords were the “shi” class of “knights.” We might rightly think of them as minor nobility. This system was effective for retaining Zhou unity for a few generations but, with smaller and smaller fiefdoms being divided between the ever-increasing ranks of royal princelings, it was doomed to failure in the long term.
As the Zhou disintegrated and a few dozen major houses subdued the feudal lords, most of the shi became lordless anachronisms; nominally nobles and legitimately well-educated but impoverished and without much function. Talented shi escaped this situation by taking advantage of a fashion for collecting ancient knowledge among the major royal houses. The exceptional shi were able to leverage their symbolic nobility and legitimately impressive educations into positions in royal courts, functioning as advisors and bridges to the glorious, united period of Zhou history. Mencius was one of these talented shi.
As such, where Augustine was born into wealth, stability and safety, we can assume with a high degree of certainty that Mencius was born to a family of moderate (or meager) wealth, into an environment of constant war and endemic chaos. He seems to have spent his youth studying the work of Confucius. By the time he reached his intellectual maturity in this 50s, 60s and 70s, he’d developed sophisticated ideas on several branches of Confucianism, Mohism, Legalism and Yangism (rival philosophical schools) and the general canon of liberal arts as understood by the ancient Chinese. He seems to have spent his later years providing various royal courts with his wisdom, tending to a flock of disciples in the gaps between royal appointments.
Against this precarious and violent background, Mencius developed a theory of universal human goodness. He explained that simply by virtue of being human, every person contains the “sprouts” of sympathy, shame, deference and proper judgment. These sprouts, when nourished, develop in the following ways:
Sympathy becomes benevolence.
Shame becomes righteousness.
Deference becomes propriety.
Judgment becomes wisdom.
As proof, Mencius offers the parable of a child teetering on the edge of a deep well. He argues that there is no human being who, seeing the child begin to fall, will not feel distress. The person’s sympathy, rather than attempting to gain favor with the child’s parents, will engage simply because she is able to imagine the child’s pain. Her shame will engage not because she wishes to avoid blame but because she wants the child to survive. Her deference to the value of life will engage not because she dislikes the crying of injured children, but because she thinks it is good to do good. Her judgment that it is bad for children to fall into wells will not engage because she wishes to burnish her reputation but because failing to distinguish good from bad makes you inhuman.
The existence of bad people, for Mencius, is then explained not by the inescapable corruption and rot Augustine finds but by a simple failure to properly nourish these sprouts of goodness. We start out good and become very, very good through the cultivation of these natural virtues, which is why education, self-improvement and ritual are useful. To borrow from Augustine’s analogy, we human beings are naturally peach pits. We can of course be tossed onto the rocky wastes and left to rot, but equally we can fall into the hands of a skilled gardener and provide generations with sweet, fragrant peaches, delightful fruit salads and mouth-watering cobblers.
The question then arises, who was right? Are we vile, stinking carrion redeemable only through undeserved and supernatural grace as in the Augustinian system or are we the sprouts of virtue described by Mencius? You might have your preferences, and I certainly do, but I don’t think we can solve this problem until we analyze the unstated assumptions both philosophers make. Namely, I don’t think we can decide until we understand the standards Augustine and Mencius measure human beings against.
Augustine was, for all his doom-mongering and misery, at base a very optimistic person. He truly and honestly believed that any “perfection” he could imagine not only existed but had a reality exceeding that of the mere sensible world. There’s a mathematical spirituality he shares with Plato, this belief that somewhere out there a divine realm of Forms (Plato) or heaven (Augustine) replaces the insufferable movement of the real world, where everything is eternal and unchanging, where there is peace and constancy. This is good for both Augustine and Plato because it replaces the mathematically imprecise, unpredictable and dynamic world of crooked lines we all live in.
Augustine is not alone in this preference. Romantics like Arthur de Gobineau, Fukazawa Yukichi and Herbert Spencer dreamt of hereditary heavens where the perfect truth of genetics would remove all this confusion, slot us all neatly into scientifically prescribed roles and deliver us to a utopia where nothing surprising ever happens anymore. Friedrich Engels prophesied a communist paradise where all conflict, all the messiness and dynamism of the fallen, capitalist world gives way to utter placidity, sterile, unchanging equality and an invincible peace.
At the 2019 World Education Research Association meeting in Tokyo, one of the keynote speakers discussed Foucault and the Frankfurt School, describing how we are all enslaved to freedom, doomed to produce ourselves or be produced by another, how, in this cruel world, we can never be “liberated.” When I asked this man what alternatives we can pursue, he kept a straight face even while explaining that we need to “get beyond alternatives and focus on things that cannot be thought of.” Another presenter at the conference lamented that his economic-justice approach to education hadn’t helped students with academic outcomes or quality of life. When I asked if he should perhaps look elsewhere, he told me such alternatives were impossible because practical solutions to education problems would destroy his belief in “heaven.”
When the standard of goodness grows as large, as optimistic and otherworldly as in Augustine, the fascists, the communists, the post-modernists, the Frankfurt School or social justice, living and breathing humans cannot help but look vile by comparison. There is a reason Nietzsche said that all the species of idealism – all the ways things “ought to be,” all the “better worlds” and “more just futures,” – were expressions of disgust with the world and, fundamentally, misery.
Mencius’ standard is a little harder to analyze because he doesn’t explicitly talk about it like Augustine does. However, if you grant me the liberty to make an educated inference, I think he was probably basing his standard of good on a world that “ought to be” utterly indifferent. That is, we humans are better intentioned than a rock and, therefore, we are good. If I’m correct, you’ll notice that Mencius’ standard is vastly lower than Augustine’s and, compared with the mathematical perfection of heaven/utopia/liberation/etc., downright pessimistic. That which “should be” is incredibly small, easy and common. Where the saint endlessly tortures himself with disappointment in the imperfect but overall very comfortable Roman world around him, the Chinese sage cheers himself by comparing the dangerous, chaotic and violent people around himself with the indifference they so clearly surpass. He, like the stoics and the practical learning school, allowed a pessimism of ideals to enrich his experience of life. He, like Marcus Aurelius and Siddhartha, let go of expectations and enjoyed the life he’d been given.
And so we return to the question of who is right. Are humans evil, degraded monsters? Yes, they are, but only if you are optimistic enough to believe in static, mathematical heavens, static, egalitarian paradises, genetic utopias, human rights or Frankfurt School “liberations” so exotic and impossible they cannot be expressed in words. Holding to such high standards, you will surely hate or, worse, pity everyone you meet.
Are humans inherently good? Yes, they are, but only if you think there’s no particular reason they should surpass a rock. If you are pessimistic enough to hold the world to such low standards, you will daily discover the beautiful, the sublime, the virtuous and hopeful in your neighbors, your family members and your friends.
People are, without changing at all, both good and evil. It depends almost entirely on what you expect from them.
 All of these earthly gifts should suck because they aren’t perfect according to Augustinian logic. However, the saint either isn’t aware of this contradiction or doesn’t care.