Mencius by the sea

Over the weekend I re-read the books of Mencius for my class this week – fortunately in a little cabin by the sea on the west coast of Vancouver Island – a perfect place for quiet meditation and reflection on the words of this fourth century Chinese philosopher. A Confucian thinker, Mencius is considered one of the most important, if only because he greatly elaborated  and wrote on the precepts of Confucius and was an advisor to the monarchs of his day.

I’m planning on writing my first term paper on Mencius and others – with specific attention to the prescriptions for living a “good life” that various traditions suggest. WIth Mencius these precepts are somewhat simple to pick out, as his texts are sets of advice and parables recorded as some form of instruction to those rulers to whom he had allegiance – not unlike Machiavelli’s The Prince – which we will be reading later in the course.

Most of my familiarity with Chinese philosophy comes from a brief dalliance with Taoism in my twenties – and while I claim no special insight from that early interest – it is worth noting that Lao Tzu’s writing seem a natural starting place for Mencius both in form and content. While the writings of Mencius are not nearly as poetic as the Tao Te Ching (first published in written form many years after the death of Lao Tzu and Mencius), the style of breaking each teaching into a section or parable is shared between those texts – Mencius being more plain-spoken and thus his message more accessible to the modern reader.

The key theme in Mencius is benevolence in leadership, with all other prescriptions following from there. Mencius’ thoughts on humility, tradition, ancestor-observance, conservation, moderation in lifestyle, natural order, human nature, leadership by example, self-reflection, duty and loyalty are all exposed through the many examples and stories which he draws on – some being merely conversations he is recounting for posterity. His tendency is towards a human nature that has the capacity for extremes (in cruelty, in possession, in carelessness, in acquisition) but has the ability for moderation and dignity in all choices. His arguments for benevolent leadership are based in reason… for a leader who ensures his people are provided for is a true king and by Mencius’ logic, people are controlled more easily by compassion than by cruelty. Not only that, but because enjoyments are better enjoyed in company than by oneself – and selfish pursuits breed resentment, it only makes sense that those who have should share with those who haven’t.

To wit – one of my favourite passages:

King Hsuan of Ch’i asked, ‘Is it true that the park of King Wen was seventy li square?’

‘It is so recorded,’ answered Mencius.

‘Was it really as large as that?’

‘Even so, the people found it small.’

‘My park is only forty li square, and yet the people find it too big. Why is this?

‘True, King Wen’s park was seventy li square, but it was open to woodcutters as well as catchers of pheasants and hares. As he shared it with the people, is it any wonder that they found it small?

‘When I first arrived at the borders of your state, I inquired about the major prohibitions before I dared enter. I was told that within the outskirts of the capital there was a park forty li square in which the killing of a deer was as serious an offence as the killing of a man. This turns the park into a trap forty li square in the midst of the state. Is it any wonder that the people find it too big?’

To Mencius, our human nature – what separates us from the animals – are the four “limbs” of compassion, shame, courtesy and modesty, and an understanding of what is right and wrong. Compassion brings us to benevolence, shame impresses on us our duty, courtesy and modesty show the way to the observance of rites (respect and traditions), and the ability to grasp right and wrong give us wisdom. It is these four foundations on which he counsels the rulers – observing at one point that we can never straighten others by bending ourselves, and again at another that the people are not fooled by unctuous words in the stead of benevolent action.

Humility is another theme to which Mencius frequently returns as part of his teaching that any man has the ability to become a sage – given the right approach to living. It is only through humility that we can be students as often as teachers, and that we do not take liberties above others which we would not taken above us. Because we will be treated in accordance with how we treat others, Mencius counsels that we act out of valour, integrity and generosity – not assuming the motivations of others, and being aware of the consequences before we speak ill of others.

He claims, moreover, that to live without benevolence, wisdom, duty and courtesy is to be a slave (to baser urges? to material possessions?).

Essentially, Mencius provides a straight-forward manual to better living through moderation – stripped of references to love (except as brotherly, or that owed family out of duty), or any of the passions except to deride them. He prescribes an ascetic approach to life as something to be balanced carefully in order to achieve the proper way without unnecessary conflict. The early Taoist concept of Wu Wei (effortless action or action without force – roughly translated) obviously influences the approach of Mencius –  – one in which human struggle is minimized and the individual strives to stay on the path that is most naturally before them.

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