Heaven and Earth Are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy

Heaven and Earth Are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy

by Franklin Perkins

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That bad things happen to good people was as true in early China as it is today. Franklin Perkins uses this observation as the thread by which to trace the effort by Chinese thinkers of the Warring States Period (c.475-221 BCE), a time of great conflict and division, to seek reconciliation between humankind and the world. Perkins provides rich new readings of classical Chinese texts and reflects on their significance for Western philosophical discourse.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011725
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/23/2014
Series: World Philosophies
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 1,086,658
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Franklin Perkins is Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University. He is author of Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light and Leibniz: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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Heaven and Earth are Not Humane

The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy

By Franklin Perkins

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Franklin Perkins
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01176-3


Formations of the Problem of Evil

Problems of Evil

This project originated out of reflections on Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Neiman's book brilliantly integrates careful historical studies with a broad narrative of the development of modern European thought. What made it so interesting to me was its ability to present philosophical discussions specific to particular places and times in a way that appeared to illuminate human issues beyond that historical context. This broader relevance is what enables the history of philosophy to be philosophy. Of course, few would now openly claim that a study of European philosophy suffices as a method of addressing the human condition, a phrase that itself sounds outdated. Neiman evades the problem by invoking a vaguely bounded "we," suggesting significance for "us" while avoiding universalistic claims about human beings. The "we" for whom only Europe is relevant, however, probably no longer exists.

The history of philosophy gains its philosophical value in part from its comparative dimension, at least implicitly laying out a contrast between past ways of thinking and current forms of thought. This contrast helps illuminate the limits of contemporary thinking and to open up other possibilities. In this context, one can see that a contrastive approach restricted to alternatives within one lineage or tradition—even one as diverse and polyvocal as that of the West—is restricted both in its ability to reveal limits and to open up new possibilities. With no point of reference outside Europe, we cannot even recognize what might be peculiarly European. Imagine someone whose goal was to understand the city of Chicago as well as possible, and so spent his or her entire life residing only in Chicago and learning only about Chicago. Such a person would develop a kind of expertise, but would not even make a great tour guide, being unable to know what features were most distinctive. On a theoretical level, such a person would have a limited understanding of cities and of Chicago, precisely because he or she would have no way to distinguish the two.

My original intention was to write a paper to raise these points, to argue that there is no problem of evil in Chinese philosophy, and thus to show that the relevance of the problem of evil is largely limited to peculiarities of Europe. Indeed, if we take evil to be ontologically distinct from bad, and we take the problem to be reconciling that evil with an omnipotent and benevolent God that creates everything ex nihilo, then this problem of evil is absent in Chinese philosophy. But the problem of evil proved harder to evade than I initially assumed. One finds a persistent concern among classical Chinese philosophers with the fact that bad things happen to good people and with what this means for our relationship with the world, with nature, and with the divine. The link between shifting ideas of the divine in Warring States China and the European problem of evil has been noted by a wide variety of interpreters. Perhaps the first one to make an explicit connection is Max Weber, who in 1915 briefly mentioned that Confucians faced the "eternal problem of theodicy" (1964, 206). Homer Dubs ends his book on the philosophy of Xúnzi with a chapter called "Idealism and the Problem of Evil" (1927, 275–94). Lee Yearley, Robert Eno, Chen Ning, and Mark Csikszentmihalyi all claim an early Chinese concern with "theodicy," a term invented by Leibniz for the attempt to justify God's goodness in the face of the world's evil. Robert Eno, for example, attributes the emergence of philosophy from religion in China to an attempt to address the problem of "theodicy," arguing that the decisive question was this: "[H]ow can a deity prescriptively good allow a world descriptively evil?" (1990a, 27). A. C. Graham does not invoke theodicy or the problem of evil explicitly, but takes the fourth century as a transition from a social crisis to a metaphysical crisis characterized by a "profound metaphysical doubt, as to whether Heaven is after all on the side of human morality" (1989, 107). This "metaphysical doubt" can be traced back to the collapse of the Western Zhou in the eighth century BCE, which initiated five centuries of conflict and war, known as the Spring and Autumn (770–481 BCE) and the Warring States (475–222 BCE) periods. Yuri Pines thus begins his account of the thought of the Spring and Autumn Period with the chapter "Heaven and Man Part Ways" (2002, 55–88).

As is often the case in comparative studies, we must refuse a simple dichotomy between difference and identity. It is as true to say that the problem of evil is present in Chinese thought as it is to say there is no problem of evil there. Rather than argue about the cross-cultural applicability of this problem, I will trace out the various problems that emerge in China around the observation that bad things happen to good people. The point may seem trite. We have all heard that life is not fair. Yet this truism is inherently problematic. If most people are motivated by hopes for reward and fear of punishment, then a series of ethical problems follows: Why should I be good if it is not rewarded? Are there more efficacious ways of ensuring success? There are also questions about the purpose of life: Should we struggle against the world or retreat from it and cultivate acceptance? What kind of success does a good life require? Another series of problems centers on the psychological challenges of dealing with uncertainty and failure: How do we remain committed to virtue in the face of failure? Can we cultivate ourselves so as to attain some level of peace of mind or even joy? All of these are practical questions in ethics, politics, psychology, and so on, but they also are philosophical questions. They are the kinds of questions that classical Chinese philosophers took as most central to the problem of evil.

The remarkable thing about the fact that bad things happen to good people is that so many traditions have been built on denying it. Some try to explain away appearances of unfairness, as some Christian ministers explained Hurricane Katrina as a just response to the decadence of New Orleans. More often, the suffering of this life is excused by pointing beyond it, to eternal life in heaven and hell or to karma in past or future lives. Why would so many traditions insist on denying the obvious? There are always limits to the actions society and government can monitor and control, so there is always the temptation to act badly with the hope of escaping punishment. But, in the words of the Mòzi, heaven sees what you do even in the "forests and valleys, in dark and distant places where no one lives" (26: 192–93; cf. Johnston 2010, 26.1). The denial of the problem of evil, however, goes beyond what we might call the "Santa Claus effect" (making a list, checking it twice ...). At stake is not just the existence and nature of God. Nor is it simply a matter of satisfying a desire for justice. Neiman explains the foundations of the problem thus:

Every time we make the judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil. Note that it is as little a moral problem, strictly speaking, as it is a theological one. One can call it the point at which ethics and metaphysics, epistemology and aesthetics meet, collide, and throw up their hands. At issue are questions about what the structure of the world must be like for us to think and act within it. (2002, 5)

What is ultimately at stake in the problem of evil is the status of human beings. Theo-dicy is always anthropo-dicy. If the basis of the universe resembles us—sharing our concepts and values—then we are radically different from other natural things. It makes us special and gives our concepts and values an objective foundation. The problem of evil fractures this alignment. Seeing that bad things happen to good people reveals that the universe is not ordered according to our values. It suggests the world (or its creator or divine force) is neither human nor humane, leaving a sense that our values and concepts are merely ours. As Heidegger says, the tragic condition in which we find ourselves illuminates the way in which we are "uncanny" (unheimlich) in the sense of being not at home (unheimisch) in the world (1996, 71).

This rupture seems to leave two unappealing choices—we side with the human or we side with the world/the divine. There is an obvious absurdity in railing against the universe or cursing God. The Zhuangzi tells us that "things do not conquer heaven" (6: 260; cf. Mair 1994, 58), and gives this story: "Don't you know about the praying mantis? It brandished its arms to block the chariot wheel, not knowing that it could not be victorious in bearing it, affirming the fineness of its own ability" (4: 167; cf. Mair 1994, 36). It is not just that resisting the world is futile and dangerous. If we are products of the universe or creatures of God, what possible ground could we stand on to turn back and decry it? The ability to label the world as bad requires the objective status of good, but if the basis of the world is bad or amoral, where could the good get this status? Labeling the world as bad or evil is probably ultimately incoherent. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that different people consider different things good, so that the unity of "the human" itself is in question. All of this suggests that we give up our labels and, as the Zhuangzi recommends, just go along with things. Yet such resolve overturns all conceptions of morality. There is something reprehensible about accepting or affirming the kind of world that appears before us, as we see if we take seriously Alexander Pope's famous statement in the "Essay on Man": "Whatever IS, is RIGHT." Once we say that children being washed away in a tsunami or chopped apart by machetes is right, can we claim to have morality at all?

The connection between the problem of evil and the status of the human lies at the heart of this book. My claim is that in China as in Europe, the recognition that bad things happen to good people disrupted the mutual support between a divine force that grounded and enforced human values and the confidence human beings placed in those values. While it would be going too far to take this realization as the birth of philosophy, it marks a fundamental shift in philosophical reflection, precisely because it throws philosophy itself into question, shaking the groundwork that allows us to take our understanding of the world for granted. This book is a study of that shaking and the responses to it. This focus explains the juxtaposition of ancient China and early modern Europe. A comparative project must take up analogous tensions and movements of thought. Given the contingencies of human history, there is little reason to expect these analogies to arise in the same time periods across different cultures. The intellectual and political dominance of Christianity in European thought delayed a confrontation with the problem of evil until a remarkably late period. In fact, if we look at Western philosophy, we see discussions of the problem of evil arising twice, once in the classical Mediterranean world and then again following the breakdown of the Church's political authority in early modern Europe. While a comparison between classical China and classical Greece might be more natural and in some ways easier, it would also be less relevant in bringing out the peculiarities of modern European thought. Thus it would be less relevant for us.

Although this project began from questions in European philosophy, it came to center on two issues arising from the Chinese context itself, both prominent as ways of situating Chinese thought in relation to Europe. In that context, the fundamental problem can be expressed through the tensions between "the unity of heaven and human" (tianrén héyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and, "the division between heaven and human" (tianrén zhifen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). More specifically, this book traces the conflict and division between heaven and human in order to problematize their unification. This emphasis on conflict, suffering, and the failures of goodness contradicts a lingering stereotype about Chinese thought, that it is all about accommodation and harmony. Such a view goes at least back to Hegel, and it is applied to China in detail by Max Weber. Weber writes, "Completely absent in Confucian ethics was any tension between nature and deity, between ethical demand and human shortcoming, consciousness of sin and need for salvation, conduct on earth and compensation in the beyond, religious duty and socio-political reality" (1964, 235–36). Although Hegel and Weber took this lack of tension as a negative trait blocking progress, Sinophiles have frequently taken up the same view as positive. This tradition of reading Chinese thought has been well summarized and critiqued by Michael Puett and need not be repeated here (2001, 3–21; 2002, 1–26).

The image of Chinese thought as assuming harmony and unity is not so much false as it is unilluminating. The phrase "the unity of heaven and human" arises most often as a way of situating Chinese philosophy in relation to Europe. In that context, it is true that classical Chinese philosophy had no concept of radical discontinuity or transcendence. While there were gods and spirits that transcended the limits of the human, there was nothing supernatural in the strong sense of being totally independent of the natural world. From this lack of radical transcendence, it follows that the line between human beings and nature or human beings and heaven will be difficult to draw in any definitive way. Thus, if we take our orientation from European philosophy, we can indeed say that all of classical Chinese metaphysics falls on the side of immanence and continuity. The problem is that if all of Chinese thought falls on one side of a dichotomy, that dichotomy is obviously useless for understanding the singularity and complexity of Chinese philosophy itself. It becomes, to take a phrase from Hegel, a night in which all cows are black. Such an orientation further requires one to be deeply ungenerous to either Europe or China. That is, one must either assume that the various dualisms that emerged in European philosophy are baseless, or that they express genuine tensions in human experience that the Chinese failed to notice. Neither conclusion is likely. To respond by reimposing Western dichotomies—to argue, for example, that there is transcendence or dualism in early Chinese thought—would be exactly wrong. This is precisely the point at which we need to shift to Chinese terms and distinctions, to see how common tensions were theorized in different ways.

As a general contrast, we might point out opposite orientations toward such tensions. If one approaches the tensions through ontological dualisms and radical discontinuities, the challenge becomes how to reconcile what has been divided, particularly in accounting for the apparent integrity of our experience. Thus, in European philosophy, topics on the more integrated side of human experience—such as embodiment, emotion, and even family—tend to be ignored, and the most difficult philosophical problems lie in reconciling kinds of reality: free will and natural causality, mind and body, reason and emotion. Such problems of reconciliation rarely arise in classical Chinese philosophy, and as we might expect, Chinese philosophers emphasize those very aspects of our naturalness that tend to be neglected in Europe. In a Chinese context without radical dualisms, the challenge is rather in problems of distinction. The difficulties lie in explaining how we differ from other things, the fact that we use words, act deliberately, go against the sustainable natural order, generate massive wars, and so on. Such questions are much more central in classical Chinese philosophy than they were in medieval or early modern Europe, where the separation of human beings from nature was taken for granted.

The emphasis on the unity of heaven and human draws support from the philosopher's bias toward theoretical results rather than the messier problems that drive them. Early Chinese philosophers did not take harmony for granted. They would have to have been fools or propagandists to not recognize the massive level of conflict among human beings and between human beings and the world. Nonetheless, all of the thinkers considered here attempted to find ways of reconciling human beings with heaven. If we look only at the resulting philosophical systems, we will naturally emphasize claims for the alignment of heaven and human. Another way to put it is that, while the unity of heaven and human may be more central to philosophical systems, the division between heaven and human is more fundamental in human life. An orientation toward that division better fits the general emphasis of Chinese philosophy on practice—on philosophy as a way of life. The problem of evil was not fundamentally a problem of philosophical theology or metaphysics but rather a practical problem of negotiating various existential needs—for example, avoiding the anxiety and absurdity that comes with defying the way the world actually is, while also striving for a human good in a world that does not support it.


Excerpted from Heaven and Earth are Not Humane by Franklin Perkins. Copyright © 2014 Franklin Perkins. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Note on Abbreviated Citations
Introduction: Philosophy in a Cross-Cultural Context
1. Formations of the Problem of Evil
2. The Efficacy of Human Action and the Mohist Opposition to Fate
3. Efficacy and Following Nature in the Dàodéjng
4. Reproaching Heaven and Serving Heaven in the Mèngz
5. Beyond the Human in the Zhung
6. Xúnz and the Fragility of the Human

What People are Saying About This

Indiana University Bloomington - Aaron D. Stalnaker

Much of the richness of the book lies in its strikingly original readings of familiar texts, and the deeply attentive analysis of key problems in these texts that are illuminated by reading them in relation to Chinese 'problems of evil.

Harvard University - Michael Puett

Perkins provides original, important, and fully convincing readings of the classical Chinese texts. Moreover, given the comparative focus, it is one of those rare works on classical materials that will excite significant interest among scholars of Western philosophy and intellectual history as well. . . . Beautifully written, highly engaging, and extremely well argued.

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