Confucianism and Totalitarianism: An Arendtian Reconsideration of Mencius versus Xunzi

Philosophy East and West 71 (4):981-1004 (2021)
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Totalitarianism is perhaps unanimously regarded as one of the greatest political evils of the last century and has been the grounds for much of Anglo-American political theory since. Confucianism, meanwhile, has been gaining credibility in the past decades among sympathizers of democratic theory in spite of criticisms of it being anti-democratic or authoritarian. I consider how certain key concepts in the classical Confucian texts of the Mencius and the Xunzi might or might not be appropriated for ‘legitimising’ totalitarian regimes. Under an Arendtian approach to understanding totalitarianism, it is precisely an unproblematised relation to a normative History and Nature that underlies the potential compatibility or incompatibility. I argue against a longstanding prejudice that if any form of Confucianism would be totalitarian, it would have to be Xunzian. Against this, I hope to show that if any form of Confucianism would be totalitarian, it might well be a naturalistic Mencian Confucianism instead of a constructivist Xunzian one.


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