Overcoming Our Evil

Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine

Aaron Stalnaker

"Aaron Stalnaker's first book makes an important contribution to the comparative study of spiritual practice by engaging in a clear, constructive comparison of the moral psychologies of Augustine and Xunzi."
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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.

Table of Contents


Source and Citation Formats

1. Comparative Ethics
Comparison in Religious Ethics
Conceptual Diversity, not Conceptual Relativism
Structural Choices and Productive Comparisons
Bridging Religious Worlds
Why Xunzi and Augustine?

2. Contexts for Interpretation
Xunzi and Augustine
Bridge Concepts

3. Ugly Impulses and a Muddy Heart
Xunzi on Human Nature
Xunzi's Conception of a Person

4. Broken Images of the Divine
Augustine on Human Nature
Augustinian Personhood

5. Comparing Human "Natures"
Revisiting Bridge Concepts
Comparative Moral Psychology: Themes for Further Development
"Human Nature" in the Context of Formative Practices

6. Artifice is the Way
Following the Way
Spiritual Exercises
Xunzi's Theory of the Stages of Personal Formation

7. Crucifying and Resurrecting the Mind
From Death into Life: The Shape of Augustinian Christianity
Preconditions for Effective Practice
Spiritual Exercises
Augustine's Theory of the Stages of Personal Formation

8. Reformations: Spiritual Exercises in Comparative Perspective
Virtue and "the Will"
Spiritual Exercises and the Manipulation of Inner and Outer
Chastened Intellectualism

9. Understanding and Neighborliness
The Varieties of Moral Agency
"Spoiling the Egyptians": Holism, Interpretation, and Theft
Global Neighborliness



"Aaron Stalnaker's first book makes an important contribution to the comparative study of spiritual practice by engaging in a clear, constructive comparison of the moral psychologies of Augustine and Xunzi."—Theological Studies

"Illuminating not only with regard to these two thinkers but also for the ways in which their ideas have shaped their respective traditions since. This is an essential volume for scholars, students, and academic libraries."—Religious Studies Review

"Anyone concerned with moral psychology, moral education, or virtue ethics will find a great deal in Overcoming Our Evil."—Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy

"This intellectually inspiring and conceptually uplifting study takes comparative studies to a higher level by providing an intriguing and effective model of inquiry. It fosters a healthy search for and meaningful understanding of diversity of thinking across cultures. Astonishingly varied information and insight capture the reader's attention and mind, offering numerous and valuable aids to grasping various terms, concepts, and themes in the study of Chinese and Western philosophy. A clear and penetrating writing style also elevates the significance of this work. The book is not merely an intellectual delight to read, but it is also a master work that may serve as a durable scholarly resource, to which one may return time and again for edification and inspiration."—Journal of Chinese Philosophy

"Professor Stalnaker has obviously mastered the primary and secondary materials necessary for a highly informed comparison of Xunzi and Augustine."—Journal of Chinese Religions

"This volume is a must-read for anyone working on Xunzi . . . Chinese scholars will certainly appreciate Stalnacker's clearly written, detailed philological analysis of Xunzi's nomenclature."—Bulletin of the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, Academia Sinica

"Overcoming Our Evil is a very fine book, particularly from a scholar new to the field. Stalnaker demonstrates a linguistic expertise with both the Western and Chinese materials, and a mature consciousness of the comparative issues involved. He rightly and successfully contributes to comparative ethics and methodology and to the project of retrieving classics wisely but selectively for today, and also, more simply, to our broader understanding of evil, virtue, and the path of virtue in a constructive fashion. Overcoming Our Evil is, in other words, a multilevel and integral work that raises the standard for solid comparative scholarship."—Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard Divinity School

"The importance in our own times of cross-cultural exchanges of ethical and spiritual wisdom begs for a more creative conception of a shareable past. Aaron Stalnaker's comparative study of two classical figures, Xunzi and Augustine, goes well beyond the mix-and-match quality of much comparative analysis and articulates a rich and coherent basis for a tradition of the virtues focused on the notion (made current by Pierre Hadot) of a spiritual exercise. For those of us grappling with the challenge of comparative analysis or with the distinctive legacies of two formative voices in the history of human ethics, Stalnaker's study is exemplary."—James Wetzel, Augustinian Endowed Chair in Philosophy, Villanova University

"Stark differences on two subjects are often thought to characterize the thought of the Christian West and Confucian China, or even Western and East Asia religions. First is the role of evil in accounts of human nature and affairs; crucial to Christianity and marginal, at most, to Confucianism. Second is the importance of spiritual practices; crucial to Confucianism and marginal, at most, to Christianity. In a careful study of two thinkers central to each tradition, a study that also contains a set of astute methodological reflections, Professor Stalnaker both nuances and challenges these two presumptions. Moreover, his study also shows how a detailed comparison of two apparently radically different thinkers can aid constructive inquiry in the areas of both comparative studies and religious ethics."—Lee H. Yearley, Walter Y. Evans Wentz Professor, Stanford University

"As Stalnaker argues, the comparative project is central to the academic study of religion, and is a particularly urgent endeavor in our current age of globalization and cultural conflict. This study is an example of comparison done right: detailed, nuanced, and historically responsible, while never losing sight of larger themes relevant to contemporary moral inquiry."—Edward Slingerland, Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition, University of British Columbia


Supplemental Materials


2007 Catholic Press Association Award for First Time Author of a Book, Honorable Mention

About the Author

Aaron Stalnaker is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. He was awarded his PhD in Religious Studies from Brown University in 2001. From July 1992 through June 1994 he worked with Volunteers in Asia in the Peoples Republic of China, where he taught English at a technical college in Manchuria.

352 pp., 6 x 9

Jul 2006

352 pp., 6 x 9

ISBN: 978-1-58901-503-6
Jul 2006

352 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-384-1
Jul 2006

Moral Traditions series
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ

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