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Overcoming Our Evil

Overcoming Our Evil: Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine

Aaron Stalnaker
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Overcoming Our Evil
    Book Description:

    Can people ever really change? Do they ever become more ethical, and if so, how? Overcoming Our Evil focuses on the way ethical and religious commitments are conceived and nurtured through the methodical practices that Pierre Hadot has called "spiritual exercises." These practices engage thought, imagination, and sensibility, and have a significant ethical component, yet aim for a broader transformation of the whole personality. Going beyond recent philosophical and historical work that has focused on ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, Stalnaker broadens ethical inquiry into spiritual exercises by examining East Asian as well as classical Christian sources, and taking religious and seemingly "aesthetic" practices such as prayer, ritual, and music more seriously as objects of study. More specifically, Overcoming Our Evil examines and compares the thought and practice of the early Christian Augustine of Hippo, and the early Confucian Xunzi. Both have sophisticated and insightful accounts of spiritual exercises, and both make such ethical work central to their religious thought and practice. Yet to understand the two thinkers' recommendations for cultivating virtue we must first understand some important differences. Here Stalnaker disentangles the competing aspects of Augustine and Xunxi's ideas of "human nature." His groundbreaking comparison of their ethical vocabularies also drives a substantive analysis of fundamental issues in moral psychology, especially regarding emotion and the complex idea of "the will," to examine how our dispositions to feel, think, and act might be slowly transformed over time. The comparison meticulously constructs vivid portraits of both thinkers demonstrating where they connect and where they diverge, making the case that both have been misunderstood and misinterpreted. In throwing light on these seemingly disparate ancient figures in unexpected ways, Stalnaker redirects recent debate regarding practices of personal formation, and more clearly exposes the intellectual and political issues involved in the retrieval of "classic" ethical sources in diverse contemporary societies, illuminating a path toward a contemporary understanding of difference.

    eISBN: 978-1-58901-384-1
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: To Change One’s Life
    (pp. xi-xviii)

    Does anyone ever really change?¹ Religions tend to answer this question with an emphatic yes. And it does seem that religions can transform people: Some believers become selfless servants of the poor, or even suicide bombers. But how and why might this happen? Similar circumstances push people in quite different ways; “good intentions” alone are not sufficient for real conversion to some demanding new form of life. This book focuses on how ethical and religious commitments are conceived, articulated, and nurtured through methodical practices that guide aspirants through alternative territories of sin and salvation, ignorance and wisdom, or suffering and...

  5. Source and Citation Formats
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. CHAPTER ONE Comparative Ethics
    (pp. 1-26)

    If the term “religious ethics” is to be more than a catchall, a thoughtless expansion of Christian ethics to be as inclusive as possible, then the field of religious ethics needs thoughtful comparison of different “ethics” (in the plural). This comparison can and should go on both within and across religious traditions. Some of the distinctive challenges and possibilities of comparative ethics come into sharpest relief, however, in cross-traditional inquiry.

    Indeed, comparison is central, perhaps even essential, to the history of religious studies as a discipline.¹ To talk about religions in the plural generates the problem of what “religions” are,...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Contexts for Interpretation
    (pp. 27-55)

    I argued in chapter 1 that if one’s goal is to engage culturally distant thinkers precisely as thinkers, as theorists who have developed religious conceptions worthy of careful study, then the best comparative strategy is to interpret them with sensitivity, alert to the various contexts and traditions in which they moved and worked. This is not particularly controversial, but neither is it obvious what this implies. Proper contextualization of interpretations does not require a lengthy account of “the context” that would duplicate or mimic specialist histories; it is rather a matter of perceptive interpretation of particular points in each thinker,...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Ugly Impulses and a Muddy Heart
    (pp. 56-84)

    A few commentators have noted in passing the similarity between Xunzi’s apparent teaching that “human nature is evil” and Augustine’s notions of original sin. H. H. Dubs inaugurated this line of thought in a 1956 article, in which he argued tendentiously that “like Augustine, [Xunzi] saw that the only safe foundation for authoritarianism is the belief that human nature is fundamentally evil, for then man cannot trust his own reasoning.”¹ More recently A. C. Graham and P. J. Ivanhoe have both rejected this judgment of similarity to Augustine and have argued that a more accurate translation of Xunzi’s slogan ren...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Broken Images of the Divine
    (pp. 85-121)

    Rather than providing a supposedly static summary, much of the best contemporary work on Augustine carefully traces the development of his thought, often correlating it to events in his life.¹ One great virtue of this approach is that it maps the changes in his views over time, illuminating every contour and ridge of his evolving conceptions, and thereby aids a more precise grappling with his ideas. Another virtue is suitability to Augustine’s thought itself, which “proceeds by way of ceaseless inquiry”² and is preserved in a vast collection of writings, almost all of which were provoked by particular circumstantial needs...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Comparing Human “Natures”
    (pp. 122-150)

    Bridge concepts aim to provoke accounts of widely separated figures in terms of a common set of topics that highlight particular points of similarity and difference. By creating more precise points of contact, the comparativist can provide the basis for an imaginary dialogue between the two positions thus articulated and thereby pursue more substantive investigations of the general topic the bridge concept specifies. Thus a bridge concept like “human nature” can serve to generate what might be called a problématique for inquiry. The process works as follows: Comparison provokes conceptual analysis of what at first seemed to be a straightforward...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Artifice Is the Way
    (pp. 151-196)

    In this chapter, I outline Xunzi’s understanding of human ethical and religious development. The first section sets the stage by considering Xunzi’s general conception of the Confucian Way. Here I explore and analyze his various evocative metaphors for personal formation, and the theories into which they are interwoven. The second section begins by relating the bridge concept of spiritual exercises to the early Chinese problematic of xiu shen 修身, usually translated as “self-cultivation.” The bulk of this section, and of the chapter as a whole, examines Xunzi’s general account of the exercises he advocates most strongly: study, ritual practice, and...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Crucifying and Resurrecting the Mind
    (pp. 197-245)

    Augustine’s vast literary output encompasses so much, it is inevitable that a particular era’s fascinations bring certain aspects to the fore and leave others less widely known. At least since the Reformation, the intellectual anxiety provoked by Augustine’s doctrine of predestination has led to intensive critical scrutiny of this and related themes, especially in his late, anti-Pelagian writings. It might seem that if the number and identity of the elect have been known since the founding of the universe, and salvation is not in our power but in God’s, then we humans are puppets in the hands of the Lord,¹...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT Reformations: Spiritual Exercises in Comparative Perspective
    (pp. 246-290)

    Augustine and Xunzi both aim ultimately at perfection, although how they conceive of such a state differs dramatically. They also focus on rather different issues as they chart the path toward this perfection, which reflect their distinctive worries about the gravest spiritual dangers. Examining their differing interests in mapping these “stages of development” helps to prepare the way for comparing their complex regimes of personal formation. As outlined in chapter 7, early on in his authorship, Augustine develops his sequential account of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but under the pressure of his debate with Pelagianism he later...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Understanding and Neighborliness
    (pp. 291-302)

    It should be clear by now that I am practicing a form of intellectual self-restraint in these pages, one with roots in the phenomenological tradition of religious studies.¹ By deferring global judgments of truth or superiority in favor of one or the other figure (although not eschewing specific criticisms and evaluative choices), I have built up detailed accounts of Xunzi’s and Augustine’s views of personal formation, articulated in relation to each other and to some modern ethical theory. The interpretations offered suggest that despite both their broad apparent similarities regarding the ethical dangers of human nature and the need for...

  15. References
    (pp. 303-320)
  16. Index
    (pp. 321-330)