The exact date and authorship of this collection of philosophical dialogues and anecdotes have remained a subject of dispute for centuries, but there is no doubt about the existence of the man, Mencius (Mengzi), in the fourth to third centuries b.c.e. Mencius taught students, lectured to the rulers of his time, and expounded his political and moral philosophy in much the same way as most of the Confucians did.

When very young, Mencius lost his father, and his mother worked alone at a weaving loom to support her son. Mencius’s childhood education is said to have been of the ideal kind, and his mother has been held in reverence by the Chinese as an ideal mother. It is said that she was so determined to cultivate her son’s moral integrity at a very early age that she took extreme caution in her own speech and behavior in front of him. Once their landlord slaughtered a hog. When the young Mencius saw it, he asked his mother why. In jest his mother answered that the landlord was preparing a feast for him. Immediately afterward, she regretted her statement; in order to correct her untruthful statement, she sold her badly needed clothing to buy some meat with which she actually served him a good dinner. Another time, she was distressed by Mencius’s fondness for play when she wanted him to concentrate on studies. After some ineffective admonition, she took out a knife and cut the warp on her loom. Because she could no longer weave, the family was without food. This drastic gesture impressed the young boy so much that he never again neglected his studies.

After studying with a disciple of Confucius’s grandson, Mencius emerged in his adult life as a recognized standard-bearer of Confucianism. In his expositions on Confucius’s teachings, however, Mencius ventured much further in metaphysical speculations than his master ever did. From Mencius, Confucianism gained a fully developed theory on human nature and a clear orientation toward idealism.

Innate Goodness

Mencius subscribed to the basic Confucian doctrine of ren (benevolence), but in elaborating on this doctrine he gave it a metaphysical basis. Confucius urged people to be humane toward others so that society might be harmonious and peaceful; Mencius urged people to be kind to others because, as he says, to be kind is humanity’s natural propensity. People are born good, and evil ways are perversions. Every human being has innate goodness; hence, if one can maintain one’s original nature, one will remain good. In Mencius’s own language, this original good human nature is the “heart of the child,” or the untainted heart. If unperverted, one’s original childlike heart will lead one toward the good, just as “water naturally flows downward.” If already perverted, one can attain salvation only by returning to one’s original state of goodness.

How is this innate goodness of humanity observed? Mencius suggested looking at the sympathetic feeling that is a part of humanity’s nature. He uses the following illustration: Anybody seeing a child about to fall into a well would immediately spring to the child’s aid. One would do this without reflecting on the advantage and disadvantage of one’s action; one would not think about what merit one would gain if one rescued the child, or what blame one would have to face if one refused to reach out a hand. One would leap to save the child because the peril of the child would spontaneously fill one with a sense of alarm. This example proves the existence of a sense of mercy in every person.

With similar illustrations, Mencius argued that he had proved the existence of a sense of...

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Mencius never speaks of ren (humanity or benevolence) without mentioning yi (righteousness). He is not the first Confucian philosopher to use the term yi, but the emphasis certainly is his. Although “right,” “fair,” and “just” are all within the commonly accepted senses of the word yi, in Mencius’s usage, this word most frequently stands for a concrete sense of justice and fairness. Mencius seems to stress the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations toward other people. These obligations are social in nature. Thus, an unfilial son is not yi because he fails to repay his parents’ kindness toward him, and a servant deserting his or her master is not yi because the individual fails to repay the master’s favors. In this light, Mencius’s yi does not suggest anything like the Western abstract concept of righteousness. However, there is at least one place where Mencius does seem to bring in an absolute righteousness. When he warns rulers not to abuse their subjects, Mencius states that rulers have an obligation to protect the interest of the people. Because rulers do not directly owe any favor to the people, Mencius in this case accepts an absolute standard of righteousness even though he fails to define it.

The social basis of the Mencian concept of righteousness creates perplexing problems when social obligations come into conflict with one another. A man is a righteous son...

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Government and Rulers

That Mencius recognized the need for material well-being is evident in his political and economic ideas. His ideal government is one with both moral leadership and adequate social welfare. Like Confucius himself, Mencius advocated rule by moral excellence and humane feeling. Rulers must be considerate of their subjects’ interests. If the ruler is benevolent, the state will prosper because people will not only flock toward it but also imitate its virtuous way of living. Because benevolent government could bring peace and prosperity to people without the need for any other action, Mencius’s theory amounts to rule by moral magnetism.

Mencius was aware of the larger political and economic forces that were at work in society in addition to the moral forces in which he had great confidence. He realized that a state does not exist without people, so he advised the rulers that people must come first, the state second, and the king last. These are his often-quoted words: “People are the roots of the nation. If the roots are not firm, the nation collapses.” Indeed the king must win the “hearts” of his subjects; otherwise, his administration will be doomed. Mencius urged the ruler to give to and to share with the people what they desire and not to do to them what they would not like. Because all human beings like the pleasures of life, the king must work to increase the pleasures of life and to share them with his people. Here Mencius clearly accepts public profit and material well-being for everybody as something good and moral that does not violate the principle of righteousness.

With these declarations, Mencius appears as a champion of the people against tyrannical governments. He is particularly remembered for his expressions in support of the people’s right to revolt. There is enough in the sayings attributed to Confucius himself that implies this right to rebel. Confucius makes the observance of Heaven’s will a necessary condition for the ruler to keep his throne, and he blames the king’s loss of the Heavenly Mandate for the downfall of his dynasty. Mencius elaborates on this view and makes it explicit. He calls a person without ren (benevolence) a scoundrel, and a person without yi (righteousness) a scourge, both deserving defeat, even death, regardless of their social station.

Two Types of People

Much as Mencius championed the people’s right to revolt against a tyrannical ruler, this Confucian sage did not believe in self-rule. In his work, Mencius upholds a natural division of labor in society on the basis of the different aptitudes of people. There are, he says, two types of people: those of brain and those of brawn. The former work with their minds and are destined to rule, while the latter work with their hands to feed the former and are to be ruled by the former. In this way, he affixes an unmistakable stamp of approval on the Confucian attitude that only the literati, who tend to monopolize education and literature, are fit to conduct the affairs of the government.

Mencius argued that between the two types of people exists a basic difference that helps to justify their separate destinies. Briefly, this difference lies in the spiritual fortitude of those with education. Mencius attributes a moral strength to the true scholar who, unlike the uneducated, is capable of maintaining a steadfast heart even when he or she is threatened with financial insecurity. For the ordinary person, an ensured material provision is necessary to keep him or her behaving properly. What the hungry stomachs of the common people would consume first, Mencius is saying here, are moral scruples. Consequently in the Mengzi, Mencius urges intelligent rulers to look after their people’s livelihood first. He demands that rulers make certain that each farmer has around his house about an acre of land planted in mulberry trees, to enable anyone over fifty to be clothed in silk. Poultry and meat animals should be bred in season so that those over seventy will never lack a meat diet. In addition, Mencius would assign at least fifteen acres of land to any family of eight mouths in order to keep them all well fed. The establishment of schools to teach the people Confucian principles comes last because principles can take roots only in minds when stomachs are full.

Mencius’s Mysticism

The difference between Mencius and Confucius comes into sharp relief when Mencius leaves the concrete and practical issues of the day to deal with the abstract. In the Mengzi, Mencius injects metaphysics into the Confucian system. He does so by going beyond Confucius in accepting Heaven at different times as a supreme being with a discerning moral will, as a fatalistic pattern, or as the authority that creates virtue and sets the standard of righteousness. Mencius starts with his theory of human nature and asserts that it is Heaven that gives people their innate knowledge contained in his mind (or heart—the Chinese word, xin, means both heart and mind). The mind, or innate knowledge, is what makes people great...

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Mencius’s Legacy

These are the basic tenets of an idealistic philosopher who, next to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi, perhaps did the most in establishing Confucianism as the controlling orthodoxy in Chinese thought for at least two millennia. Much, of course, has been read back into his book. Many apologists of Chinese tradition attempt to offer Mencius as the great champion of democracy in Eastern political thought. They cite Mencius’s words on the importance of people but they overlook the Mencian pattern of social hierarchy. Almost every rebel in Chinese history quoted Mencius to support his revolt against the government. At the same time, every ruler found comfort in this work when he contemplated punitive campaigns to...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Creel, H.G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. A very clear text with a good chapter on Mencius. Includes a brief bibliography, selected readings, and a useful index.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. This work provides a very good introduction to important Confucian philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mencius and Wang Yang-ming. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1990. Looks at...

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