Chinese Philosophy – Mencius
Mencius (370-290 BCE) or Menzi, the second patriarch of Confucianism, taught that human nature is good and we should develop the heart, growing the four virtues through love. He argued that because the human individual is essentially good, we need ritual to guide our growth but love is the true essence. Xunzi (312 – 230 BCE), the third patriarch of Confucianism, argued, against Mencius by name, that human nature is evil and without the rituals and tradition to hold our nature back and transform us through education we would be selfish and uncivilized. (Xunzi is pronounced “Hsun tzuh“.) This remained the major divide and debate in Confucian thought. We can see that there are various views and opinions within the school, and that individuals can draw on Mencius, Xunzi or both to back up their own interpretations of Confucius.
Mencius was born in the small warring state of Zou, near to where Confucius was born and taught. He is sometimes said to have founded Confucianism as an official school, but like with so many cultural movements there were followers of Confucius who compiled the Analects before Mencius, and certainly there were strands of schools that followed Confucius earlier. Mencius was, however, the primary interpreter of the themes of the Analects for the Confucian tradition to follow.
A thousand years later, with Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi taught that Mencius was the last great thinker of the Period of the Hundred Schools and the patriarch of Confucianism, made the Mencius one of the four books of Confucian education along with the Analects, and declared Xunzi to be a heretic for arguing against Mencius. This is the reason that when the Jesuits got to China 700 years after Zhu Xi and the Neo-Confucian revival, they Latinized Kong Fu Zi as Confucius and Menzi as Mencius but did not Latinize Xunzi. Strangely, though the Jesuits did argue that Confucius and Mencius were akin to Christianity, they also believed in the sinful nature of humanity after the Fall of Adam, which is closer to Xunzi then Mencius.
Like Confucius, Mencius’ father died when he was very young. Mencius’ mother, who is revered as an ideal example of nurturing motherhood, famously moved three times with Mencius (known as Mencius’ mother’s three moves) to ensure that her son would be raised in the right environment. At first they lived near a cemetery, but young Mencius began impersonating the funeral mourners who were often paid to pretend to cry and wail. Remember, Confucius thought mourning without grief, ritual without intent, is the worst thing possible. She moved near a marketplace, but the boy began imitating the cries of the merchants who were known as swindlers and deceivers. Confucius was said to have tried being a merchant, but became disgusted at other merchants who suggested he fix the balances to make extra money off of rice, beans and other goods. Finally, she moved near a university so that Mencius would imitate the scholars and teachers, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. Also like Confucius, Mencius held moderate government positions for a short period of time, but became discouraged by the politics of the time and resumed teaching instead.
Mencius argued that qi (“chi”, energy) is cultivated through moral practice, and that compassion, like any exercise, is good for your health. In 2A:6, Mencius states a major thesis of his work: No one is devoid of compassion for others. Mencius argues at several points in the book that we naturally feel for others and their well-being as we do for ourselves, and that when we fail to care for others there are other factors involved that block or reverse our natural compassion. Xunzi, as we will see, is very opposed to this interpretation of Confucius’ thought and argues that compassion must be planted in the human being by society and study because it is alien and opposite to human nature. Both agree that when we care for others, we cultivate ourselves (as we read in the Analects). Mencius believes that compassion is our nature and just as water naturally goes downward unless it is obstructed by something humans are naturally compassionate unless matters are complicated by obstructions. For Xunzi, humans are originally evil and desirous by nature and require society, education, and the experience of caring for others to learn to be compassionate.
Mencius is famous for using the young child falling into a well example to back up his argument. He argues that anyone would feel panic and fear if they saw a child in danger, regardless of how evil that individual is or how twisted they have become. This point is excellent for debate. We can all imagine someone who is so evil or sociopathic that they would not care watching a child in serious danger or coming to harm, but is this common? If it is possible, is it due to obstructions to original nature, to isolated psychological situations?
Mencius believes that there are four parts of the human heart that are developed and cultivated by society and study such that four virtues are grown like plants, germs or sprouts. The heart is a root system which grows the virtues of humanity when properly cultivated through education and practice. The four parts of the heart are compassion (ren) which sprouts benevolence, shame which sprouts duty and righteousness (yi), courtesy/modesty which sprouts observance of ritual and principle (li), and a sense of right and wrong (chih) which sprouts wisdom.
In 3A:5, we see Mencius getting into a battle with a Moist over whether one should love one’s own family more than others. While compassion is central to Confucianism, whether or not it is innate like Mencius says or has to be transplanted like Xunzi says, Confucians believe that one should have more love for one’s parents, children, family, and country and that this is the natural and proper way of things. Moists, who are radical egalitarians, argued against the Confucians that we should love everyone without distinction, as much as we love ourselves, our parents, our children, and our country. Confucians argue that the Moists are breaking with the natural way of the human heart and society, and that proportion in love is proper and best.
Mencius argues that we all do naturally love infants and young children and that this is good. He returns to his well example, and argues that Yizi, a Moist, is taking this one case and applying it improperly to everyone. Mencius says that the Moist wants us to deny our natural gradations of love which grow in society while affirming that love is the true nature of humanity, setting love in opposition to itself and making love both natural and unnatural at the same time. Mencius argues that it is both our nature to love everyone and our nature to love those we are close to more than others, balancing empathy and transformation with duty and tradition.
Mencius argues that love and care for others began with early humans, living before civilization, seeing the decaying bodies of their parents being attacked by animals. Because humans naturally care for others, and particularly their parents, they were moved at the sight to bury the bodies. Note that this makes for proper burial, the topic of the debate with Yizi. Indeed, archeology today recognizes the birth of culture and civilization in the increasingly ritualized burial of the dead, who are increasingly ornamented and buried with items which were precious to the individual and possibly useful in the afterlife or next life. Yizi concedes the point and accepts that love starts with the love one has for one’s parents and develops from there, but presumably still believes that this initial love for family should be cultivated into caring equally for all humanity. In Chinese philosophical texts, there are often instances of a famous member of an opposing school conceding in argument to the author of the text, showing us the rich tradition of debate between various schools in Chinese thought. With Daoism, we will see that even Confucius is made to accept defeat and concede superiority to the Daoists several times in the text of Zhuangzi.
In 4A:12, Mencius elaborates and says that goodness starts with working on the self and love for one’s parents, and moves outward from there to one’s friends and the whole of one’s society. Thus, he agrees with Yizi the Moist that one should cultivate a love for all of humanity, but still thinks it improper to lose all reverence and distinction particular to one’s family, friends, and culture.
In 4A:16, Mencius considers another example famous in Confucian scholarship for its implications. A scholar, school unknown, poses a problem to Mencius: It says in the laws that it is improper for men and women to touch hands if they are not married, but if your brother’s sister is drowning, shouldn’t you reach out to save her? Mencius replies that it is proper to save her, and that one must not blindly follow the law but use discretion given the situation.
This passage is famous, because Confucians are big on observing law and ritual but sometimes one must break the law. Confucius said in the Analects that even though the rites say to use a silk hat, it is OK to use a hemp hat instead because it is more modest. He also tells his students to rise up and overthrow an unjust tyrant. The scholar debating Mencius says the empire is now drowning, implying that they should radically break with the laws, traditions and government to save society. Mencius replies that upholding law and ritual is the way to save society and so the example of the drowning sister-in-law does not justify a radical break from tradition. Remember that this was during the Warring States Period. Mencius is arguing that restoring the old Zhou ways would be the solution, like Confucius believed, while the scholar seems to suggest a radical change in social structure, like the Moists argued. As we will see soon Moists believed that all property should be used in common and everyone live in common as one family.
In 4B:12, Mencius says the great person retains the heart of a child. A Moist might point out the previous battle with Yizi and say Mencius is going against what he has said before if a child is all loving and completely open. Mencius might counter that retaining the child heart will naturally grow into its arrangements while being pure and absolute, in the same way that children naturally love their parents and those with whom they are familiar.
In 4B:13, Mencius says that following one’s parents when they are alive is good, but following them after they are dead is greater and shows that one is truly cultivated and a noble person. Xunzi might be cynical here, because if you applied this to society he would argue that without society one would tend not to be good at all and that the one who follows the ways of one’s parents after they are dead does so only because society still surrounds them. He would likely agree with Mencius, however, that this would demonstrate one was truly cultivated and transformed by society.
In 6A:2, as in several other places, Mencius likens love and human nature (which he believes to be identical) to water and argues that just as water naturally moves downward love naturally moves outward. If water does not move downward, it is blocked by something. In the same way, if a human being is not loving towards others and compassionate, it is blocked by something. As seen, this love would grow outward naturally but equally would radiate in differentiated levels. Love for those close would be greater than love for those far, but love for those close and love for those far would mutually support and increase each other.
In 6A:7, Mencius speaks of sowing barley on various ground (strikingly similar to the parable of Jesus, which must have astounded the Jesuits along with the Gold and Silver rules of reciprocity). Just as when barley does not grow the seeds have fallen on bad soil, when humans are bad it is not because they do not have love and goodness in their nature but because they are put in a bad situation. Recall Mencius’ mother repeatedly seeking a better environment for the cultivation of her child. Reason and goodness are common to all. The sage or great person simply recognizes this and grows what all have to become great.