By Julia Zhou

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There were three great sages in early Confucianism—Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi—whose thoughts disproportionally shaped Chinese Confucian political philosophy from its original conception to the present day. While the three thinkers held varied opinions on the difficulty and methodology of achieving sagehood, they nonetheless commonly acknowledged the importance of moral self-cultivation for the ruling class, and the necessity of leadership in realizing the moral status of the common people and helping them achieve a good life. In their respective texts, Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi propose their vision of a good society and the roles which shape and inhabit it.

In this article, I first present an overview of the three big philosophers’ stance on perfectionism, defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as the “ethical theories that characterize the human good in terms of the development of human nature.” Through close reading of primary texts, it becomes evident that Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi each distinguish between two groups in society: those who are able to reason independently about ethics while providing moral guidance to their peers, and those who are unable to do so. Variations exist in the characterization of other defining qualities between these two groups, but their important distinguishing factor lies along the moral dimension. Despite these differences, the three big philosophers generally agree that there is latent moral potential in every person, regardless of background. Moral cultivation is thus recognized as achievable in theory, if not always in practice. Furthermore, the three big philosophers’ reference to moral exemplars gives strong reason to believe that there exists a moral ideal—again, the exact details differ slightly among philosophers—but these variations do not conflict with the ideal of a sage-king whose moral exemplar guides society towards self-cultivation and harmoniousness.

Next, I summarize the major interpretations of a Confucian government’s ultimate aim. Specifically, I summarize 1) the mainstream interpretation which suggests that providing the people with a good life, with material and moral dimensions, is the primary aim of Confucian government, and 2) the major re-interpretation of Loubna El Amine, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, which argues that it is not moral self-cultivation but rather political stability which is the highest ideal of Confucian political philosophy. Specifically, El Amine argues that moral self-cultivation is a means-to-an-end, becoming obsolete once political order and stability is achieved.

Finally, I present counter arguments—raised by both scholarly texts and my own thinking—for El Amine’s interpretation. This exercise serves to sharpen our understanding of Confucian perfectionism—the scope, limits, and nature of what it means to attain moral enlightenment—and contribute to the existing conversation on Confucian political philosophy’s aim.

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