Chinese Philosophy: Mencius, Mentor of Princes

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Chinese Philosophy: Mencius, Mentor of Princes

Post by Guest on Mon May 02, 2011 12:21 am

Mencius, destined to be second in fame to Confucius alone in the
rich annals of Chinese philosophy, belonged to the ancient family of
Mang; his name Mang Ko was changed by an imperial decree to
Mang-tze- i.e., Mang the Master or Philosopher; and the
Latin-trained scholars of Europe transformed him into Mencius, as they
had changed K'ung-fu-tze into Confucius.

We know the mother of Mencius almost as intimately as we know him;
for Chinese historians, who have made her famous as a model of
maternity, recount many pretty stories of her. Thrice, we are told,
she changed her residence on his account: once because they lived near
a cemetery, and the boy began to behave like an undertaker; another
time because they lived near a slaughterhouse, and the boy imitated
too well the cries of the slain animals; and again because they
lived near a market place, and the boy began to act the part of a
tradesman; finally she found a home near a school, and was
satisfied. When the boy neglected his studies she cut through, in
his presence, the thread of her shuttle; and when he asked why she did
so destructive a thing, she explained that she was but imitating his
own negligence, and the lack of continuity in his studies and his
development. He became an assiduous student, married, resisted the
temptation to divorce his wife, opened a school of philosophy,
gathered a famous collection of students about him, and received
invitations from various princes to come and discuss with them his
theories of government. He hesitated to leave his mother in her old
age, but she sent him off with a speech that endeared her to all
Chinese males, and may have been composed by one of them.

It does not belong to a woman to determine anything of herself,
but she is subject to the rule of the three obediences. When young she
has to obey her parents; when married she has to obey her husband;
when a widow she has to obey her son. You are a man in your full
maturity, and I am old. Do you act as your conviction of righteousness
tells you you ought to do, and I will act according to the rule
which belongs to me. Why should you be anxious about me?
He went, for the itch to teach is a part of the itch to rule;
scratch the one and find the other. Like Voltaire, Mencius preferred

monarchy to democracy, on the ground that in democracy it is necessary
to educate all if the government is to succeed, while under monarchy
it is only required that the philosopher should bring one man- the
king- to wisdom, in order to produce the perfect state. "Correct what
is wrong in the prince's mind. Once rectify the prince, and the
kingdom will be settled." He went first to Ch'i, and tried
to rectify its Prince Hsuan; he accepted an honorary office, but
refused the salary that went with it; and soon finding that the Prince
was not interested in philosophy, he withdrew to the small
principality of T'ang, whose ruler became a sincere but ineffectual
pupil. Mencius returned to Ch'i, and proved his growth in wisdom and
understanding by accepting a lucrative office from Prince Hsuan. When,
during these comfortable years, his mother died, he buried her with
such pomp that his pupils were scandalized; he explained to them
that it was only a sign of his filial devotion. Some years later Hsuan
set out upon a war of conquest, and, resenting Mencius' untimely
pacifism, terminated his employment. Hearing that the Prince of Sung
had expressed his intention of ruling like a philosopher, Mencius
journeyed to his court, but found that the report had been
exaggerated. Like the men invited to an ancient wedding-feast, the
various princes had many excuses for not being rectified. "I have an
infirmity," said one of them; "I love valor." "I have an infirmity,"
said another; "I am fond of wealth." Mencius retired from
public life, and gave his declining years to the instruction of
students and the composition of a work in which he described his
conversations with the royalty of his time. We cannot tell to what
extent these should be classed with those of Walter Savage Landor; nor
do we know whether this composition was the work of Mencius himself,
or of his pupils, or of neither, or of both. We can only
say that the Book of Mencius is one of the most highly honored of
China's philosophical classics.

His doctrine is as severely secular as that of Confucius. There is
little here about logic, or epistemology, or metaphysics; the
Confucians left such subtleties to the followers of Lao-tze, and
confined themselves to moral and political speculation. What interests
Mencius is the charting of the good life, and the establishment of
government by good men. His basic claim is that men are by nature

good, and that the social problem arises not out of the
nature of men but out of the wickedness of governments. Hence
philosophers must become kings, or the kings of this world must become

"Now, if your Majesty will institute a government whose action
will be benevolent, this will cause all the officers in the kingdom to
wish to stand in your Majesty's court, and all the farmers to wish
to plough in your Majesty's fields, and all the merchants to wish to
store their goods in your Majesty's market-places, and all traveling
strangers to wish to make their tours on your Majesty's roads, and all
throughout the Kingdom who feel aggrieved by their rulers to wish to
come and complain to your Majesty. And when they are so bent, who will
be able to keep them back?

The King said, "I am stupid, and not able to advance to

The good ruler would war not against other countries, but against
the common enemy- poverty, for it is out of poverty and ignorance that
crime and disorder come. To punish men for crimes committed as the
result of a lack of opportunities offered them for employment is a
dastardly trap to set for the people. A government is
responsible for the welfare of its people, and should regulate
economic processes accordingly. It should tax chiefly the
ground itself, rather than what is built or done on it; it
should abolish all tariffs, and should develop universal and
compulsory education as the soundest basis of a civilized development;
"good laws are not equal to winning the people by good
instruction." "That whereby man differs from the lower
animals is but small. Most people throw it away; only superior men
preserve it."

We perceive how old are the political problems, attitudes and
solutions of our enlightened age when we learn that Mencius was
rejected by the princes for his radicalism, and was scorned for his
conservatism by the socialists and communists of his time. When the
"shrike-tongued barbarian of the south," Hsu Hsing, raised the flag of
the proletarian dictatorship, demanding that workingmen should be made
the heads of the state ("The magistrates," said Hsu, "should be
laboring men"), and many of "The Learned," then as now, flocked to the
new standard, Mencius rejected the idea scornfully, and argued that
government should be in the hands of educated men." But he
denounced the profit-motive in human society, and rebuked Sung K'ang
for proposing to win the kings to pacifism by persuading them, in
modern style, of the unprofitableness of war.

Your aim is great, but your argument is not good. If you, starting
from the point of profit, offer your persuasive counsels to the
kings of Ch'in and Ch'i, and if those kings are pleased with the
consideration of profit so as to stop the movements of their armies,
then all belonging to those armies will rejoice in the cessation (of
war), and will find their pleasures in (the pursuit of) profit.
Ministers will serve the sovereign for the profit of which they
cherish the thought; sons will serve their fathers, and younger
brothers will serve their elder brothers, from the same consideration;
and the issue will be that, abandoning benevolence and
righteousness, sovereign and minister, father and son, younger brother
and elder, will carry on all their intercourse with this thought of
profit cherished in their breasts. But never has there been such a
state (of society), without ruin being the result of it.

He recognized the right of revolution, and preached it in the face
of kings. He denounced war as a crime, and shocked the hero-worshipers
of his time by writing: "There are men who say: 'I am skilful at
marshaling troops, I am skilful at conducting a battle.' They are
great criminals." "There has never been a good war," he
said. He condemned the luxury of the courts, and sternly
rebuked the king who fed his dogs and swine while famine was consuming
his people. When a king argued that he could not prevent
famine, Mencius told him that he should resign. "The
people," he taught, "are the most important element (in a nation);...
the sovereign is the highest"; and the people have the
right to depose their rulers, even, now and then, to kill them.
The King Hsuan asked about the high ministers.... Mencius
answered: "If the princes have great faults, they ought to remonstrate
with him; and if he do not listen to them after they have done so
again and again, they ought to dethrone him."... Mencius proceeded:
"Suppose that the chief criminal judge could not regulate the officers
(under him), how would you deal with him?" The King said, "Dismiss
him." Mencius again said: "If within the four borders (of your
kingdom) there is not good government, what is to be done?' The King
looked to the right and left, and spoke of other matters.... The
King Hsuan asked, "Was it so that T'ang banished Chieh, and that
King Wu smote Chou (Hsin)?" Mencius replied, "It is so in the
records." The King said, "May a minister put his sovereign to
death?" Mencius said: "He who outrages the benevolence (proper to
his nature) is called a robber; he who outrages righteousness is
called a ruffian. The robber and the ruffian we call a mere fellow.
I have heard of the cutting off of the fellow Chou, but I have not
heard of putting a sovereign to death."

It was brave doctrine, and had much to do with the establishment
of the principle, recognized by the kings as well as the people of
China, that a ruler who arouses the enmity of his people has lost
the "mandate of Heaven," and may be removed. It is not to be
marveled at that Hung-wu, founder of the Ming Dynasty, having read
with great indignation the conversations of Mencius with King Hsuan,
ordered Mencius to be degraded from his place in the temple of
Confucius, where a royal edict of 1084 had erected his tablet. But
within a year the tablet was restored; and until the Revolution of
1911 Mencius remained one of the heroes of China, the second great
name and influence in the history of Chinese orthodox philosophy. To
him and to Chu Hsi Confucius owed his intellectual leadership
of China for more than two thousand years.

-Will Durant, 'Our Oriental Heritage'


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