The Romantic Confucianism of Mencius

An excerpt from The Six Patioarchs of Chinese Humanism by Peter M.K. Chan

An abridged and systematic reconstitution of their words


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The Romantic Confucianism of Mencius


5.1  The Inborn Nature of Man

5.2  Nourish the Mind and Strengthen the Will

5.3  The “Fixer” of One’s Destiny

5.4  On the Political Economy

5.5  The Mandate of Heaven

5.6 Against Devious Doctrines



     In the annals of Confucianism, Mencius (c371-289 B.C.) was often haled as “Sage No.2”, second only to Confucius himself. He was connected to Confucius through his study under the disciples of Tze-Zer, the grandson of Confucius. Among other things, he was famous for his view about the inborn nature of man. According to him, the inborn nature of man is good. As such, the innate moral sensitivity of the human mind is not something that needs to be rectified (as Confucius was known to have emphasized). It is rather something that needs to be preserved, nourished, and strengthened. It was also his view that when sincerity of intention and determination of will are brought to bear, a kingly person is able to accumulate within himself a special kind of psychic energy called “ magnanimous chi”, which will allow him to stand fearless and alone in an unrighteous and chaotic world.



      In addition to the above innovative point of view, Mencius was also not shy to offer his view as to how to govern a state. It is to manage the economy and enrich the people, he said. As a matter of fact, a substantial portion of the Book of Mencius is devoted to this very topic. During his visit to the various contending states of the Warring Period, he was not afraid to speak his mind. Among other helpful and constructive ideas, the most radical of which is that Heaven speaks by way of the people, and that it is up to the people to take the oppressors down. And for the benefit of his students, he also took the trouble to make specifically clear as to what exactly is the “fixer” of one’s destiny. Lastly, he also considered it to be his mission to discredit all devious doctrines.



5.1 The Inborn Nature of Man


      In the Analects, if readers recall, it is said that Confucius had not said anything about the inborn nature of man and the Way of Heaven. (夫子之言性與天道,不可得而聞也。The Analects, 5:13) But he was also reported to have said that human beings are born inevitably upright. (人之生也直,罔之生也幸而免。Ibid. 6.19) Did he mean to say that everyone is born morally upright? In view of his usage of the word “upright” ( or straight) elsewhere in the Analects, it could be argued that it was so. For instance, he said that to elevate the upright can also influence the crooked to become upright; (舉直錯諸枉,能使枉者直。Ibid. 12.22 ) that one should repay injury with what is upright, and repay virtue with virtue; (以直報怨,以德報德。Ibid. 14:34) and that to relish uprightness without learning will be blinded by dishonesty. (好直不好學,其蔽也絞;Ibid, 17.8)


       The trouble with this interpretation is that he was also reported to have said that concealment of wrong by father for son or son for father does contain what is upright. (父為子隱,子為父隱,直在其中矣。Ibid. 13:18) How could concealment of wrong be considered morally upright? Besides, he also said that riches and honors are what men desire, while poverty and low status are what men hate. (富與貴,是人之所欲也...貧與賤惡也。Ibid. 4:5) Under this light, it could also be argued that what Confucius had in mind is that the nature of man is that of an inferior man?


      According to Mencius, this is not so. The inborn nature of man is good. To be humane is (the nature of) man. (仁也者,人也。Book of Mencius, Chapter 3) But some of his listeners did not agree. Kao-zi said: Inborn nature is neither good nor evil. (吿子曰:性無善無不善也。Ibid. Chapter 11) It is like whirling water. If you let it flow east, it will go east. If you let it flow west, it will go west. (性,猶湍水也決諸東方則東流,決諸西方則西流;Ibid.) Further, according to Kongdu-zi, there are others who say that inborn nature is capable of both good and evil. This is why when Kings Wen and Wu were in power, people relished goodness, and when Yu and Li (wicked kings) were in power, they relished violence. (或曰:性可以爲善,可以爲不善。是故,文、武興,則民好善,幽、厲興,則民好暴。是故,文、武興,則民好善,幽、厲興,則民好暴。Ibid.) And that is not all. There are still others who say that some inborn natures are good, while others evil. That is why under a good ruler like Yao (a sage-kings), there was such an evil man as Xiang; and for a bad father such as Ku-sou, there was such a good son like Shun (another sage-kings). (或曰:有性善,有性不善。是故,以堯爲君而有象,以瞽瞍爲父而有舜。Ibid.)


Comment: It is to be observed that three contending positions were tabled for consideration. The first is that inborn nature is neither good nor evil (性無善無不善也) Another is that inborn nature is capable of both good and evil (性可以為善,可以為不善) And the third is that some inborn nature is good, while others evil (有性善,有性不善) What was not mentioned (or deemed absurd at the time) is the possibility that the inborn nature of man is evil. History had to wait for Xun-zi (the third patriarch of Confucianism) before this last entered the fray. 


      With respect to the view of Kaoz-zi, Mencius was prepared. It is true that water does not distinguish between east and west. But is water not predisposed to go down rather than up? The goodness of man’s inborn nature is like the downward tendency of water. As it is the nature for water to go downward, it is also the nature of man to be good. Further, water is able to splash when hit, and forced to stay in the hills by a dam, what this shows is that it is its nature to yield to external forces. This is also true of man’s inborn nature; it could be pushed into doing wrong. (水信無分於東西,無分於上下乎?人性之善也,猶水之就下也;人無有不善,水無有不下。今未水:搏而躍之,可使過顙激而行之,可使在山,是豈水之性哉,其勢則然也。 人之可使爲不善,其性亦猶是也。Ibid.)


       It is to be observed that in years of good harvest, young kids are lazy and dependent. It is only in years of bad harvest that many of them have become violent. Such changes in behavior are not dictated by the Son of Heaven. It is due rather to the influence (of environment) brooding in their minds. (富歲子弟多賴,凶歲子弟多暴:非天子降才爾殊也,其所以陷溺其心者然也。Ibid.) What this shows is that when a person does evil, it is not because of his natural endowment. (若夫為不善,非才之罪也。Ibid.) If he follows his natural temperament, he is able to do what is good. This is why I say that the inborn nature of man is good. (乃若其情,則可以為善矣,乃所謂善也。Ibid.)


      It is also to be observed that all human beings do have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. (人皆有不忍人之心。Ibid. Chapter 3) One case in point is that no one is able to bear and see that a child is about to fall into a well. (今人乍見孺子將入於井,皆有怵惕惻隱之心;Ibid.) Such a concern for the helpless, said Mencius, is not due to the fact that one has any dealing with the child’s parents. Neither is one driven by the desire of wanting to enhance one’s reputation in the community, nor for fear of criticisms by one’s friends. (非所以內交於孺子之父母也,非所以要譽於鄉黨朋友也,非惡其聲而然也。Ibid.) Further, the having of this un-bearing mind (不忍之心) is also attested by the fact that when it comes to slaughtering animals for food, many would rather see them alive than stand to watch how they die. And if one hears their screams, one is not able to bear eating their meat. This is why a kingly person would rather stay away from the kitchen. (見其生,不忍見其死;聞其聲,不忍食其肉:是以君子遠庖廚也。Ibid. Chapter 1) This is why I say that all humans have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. (所以謂人皆有不忍人之心者:Ibid.) 


      What must also be made clear, said Mencius, is that the feeling of commiseration is found in all men; the feeling of shame and disgust (for what is wrong) is also found in all men. So is the feeling of respect and reverence, and the feeling for what is right and wrong. (惻隱之心,人皆有之;羞惡之心,人皆有之;恭敬之心,人皆有之;是非之心,人皆有之。Ibid. Chapter 11) As a matter of fact, or so he further explained, the feeling of commiseration is the ground of humaneness. The feeling of disgust and shame is the ground of righteousness. The feeling of humility and deference is the ground of propriety, and the sense of right and wrong is the ground of wisdom. (惻隱之心,仁之端也;羞惡之心,義之端也;辭讓之心,禮之端也;是非之心,智之端也。Ibid. Chapter 3)


      What this means is that humaneness, righteousness, propriety and wisdom are not forced upon us from the outside. They pertain rather to what is already in our possession, even though they have not been thought of in this way. (惻隱之心,仁也;羞惡之心,義也;恭敬之心,禮也;是非之心,智也。仁、義、禮、智,非由外鑠我也,我固有之也,弟思耳矣!Ibid. Chapter 11) In short, to have these four basic feelings is like having four limbs. He who claims not to have them is cheating himself. (人之有是四端也,猶其有四體也。有是四端而自謂不能者,自賊者也。Ibid. Chapter 3) 


      As to how he knew that all human minds are able to feel in the same way, Mencius reply is that if our mouths are able to taste the same flavors, our ears are able to hear the same sounds, and our eyes are able to see the beauty of the same colors, it would be most unreasonable to think that only human minds are not able to feel in the same way. (故曰:口之於味也,有同耆焉;耳之於聲也,有同聽焉;目之於色也,有同美焉。至於心,獨無所同然乎?Ibid. Chapter 11)


       This commonality of the human mind, as he further explained, is called rationality also known as righteousness. This commonality shared by human minds was discovered by the sages before we do. This is also the reason why we all relish rationality and righteousness, as our mouths have relished the meat of grain-eating animals. (心之所同然者,何也?謂理也,義也;聖人先得我心之所同然耳!故理義之悅我心,猶芻豢之悅我口。Ibid.) It is one of those inherent abilities that need not be learned and know without having to think. It is the conscience of our minds. This is what enables infants that still have to be carried to know how to love their parents; and when they grow older, to know how to respect their elder brothers. To be affectionate to one’s parent is humaneness. To be respectful to one’s elder brother is righteousness. This is the same with people all over of the world. (人之所不學而能者,其良能也﹔所不慮而知者,其良知也。孩提之童,無不知愛其親也﹔及其長也,無不知敬其兄也。Ibid.)親親,仁也﹔敬長,義也。無他,達之天下也。Ibid. Chapter 13) 


      What this shows is that humaneness is the mind of man, and righteousness is his path. Anyone who abandons this path rather than follows it, or to let go of this (un-bearing) mind and does not know how to find it, is pitiful indeed! (仁,人心也;義,人路也。舍其路而弗由,放其心而不知求:哀哉!Ibid. Chapter 11) This is so because not to have a mind that feels for the suffering of others is not a human being; not to have a mind that feels ashamed and disgusted (with what is wrong) is not a human being; not to have a mind that knows humility and deference is not a human being; and not having a mind that knows right and wrong is also not a human being. (由是觀之,無惻隱之心,非人也;無羞惡之心,非人也;無辭讓之心,非人也;無是非之心,非人也。Ibid. Chapter 3) 


      So, it is on the basis of the above line of reasoning that Mencius was to conclude that the inborn nature of man is good. It is external pressures and circumstances that have lured and notched people into evil. It further follows that to be humane is indeed (the inborn nature of) man. That is also to say, humaneness is the Way of Man. (仁也者,人也。合而言之,道也。Ibid.)


Comment: What should not be allowed to escape notice is that despite the insight and eloquence of Mencius, the three contending positions posted earlier were actually sidestepped rather than refuted. In the first instance, before a child comes into its own, i.e., with memory and the sense of self that it entails, it is not at all silly for Kao-zi to have characterized it as neither good nor evil. Secondly, the facts to which Mencius alluded are rather one-sided. If the more undesirable of childish tendencies (anger, greed, jealousy, selfishness, and the like) are also taken into account, it could also be argued that the inborn nature of man is both good and evil. Thirdly, what Mencius had not really answered is why under a good ruler like Yao, there was such an evil man as Xiang; and for a bad father such as Ku-sou, it is possible to have a good son like Shun. (以堯爲君而有象,以瞽瞍爲父而有舜。 Ibid. cited above) That is to say, if the inborn nature of man is good, and that it is environmental factors that  push people into evil, how are such counter evidences to be explained? In view of all these difficulties, it must be said that the evidence to which Mencius referred were in fact less than circumspect. When all relevant facts are taken into account, it is perhaps more reasonable to think that the inborn nature of man is neither good nor evil, and that it is also capable of becoming both good and evil. 


      This is also a good place to return to Confucius’ saying that man is born inevitably upright (or straight). It may not be too late to suggest that what he had in mind is perhaps the idea that the inborn nature of man is kind of like an upright bamboo tree. It is bound to sway one way or the other depending on the wind. That is to say, whether a person is inclined toward good or evil is indeed contingent upon a host of environmental factors, the most important of which is the kind of moral nurture one is given. As readers can see, this way of diagnosing the word “upright” is also consistent with Confucius’ overriding message: that the only way for anyone to become humane and do what is right must necessarily come by way of learning how to behave properly in accordance with the rules of propriety. 


      The question is therefore this. Why had Mencius opted to ignore the reasonableness of the first two contending positions? One possible reason, if I may so surmise, is that it is more at home with him to think that what Heaven confers has got to be humane and good. As such, it is out of the question that Heaven would also impregnate the humankind with what is detestable. In this connection, it is perhaps not too late to note that in the opening paragraph of Doctrine of the Mean, it is clearly stated that what Heaven decrees is called inborn nature. To follow this nature is called the Way (of Humanity). Cultivating the Way is called education. That which is called the Way is not separable from man for an instant. What is separable is not the Way. (天命之謂性;率性之謂道;修道之謂教。道也者,不可須臾離也;可離,非道也。Doctrine of the Mean, Chapter 1) The author of this passage, if readers recall, was Tze-Ser, the teacher of Mencius’s teachers


      But this is not to say the Mencius had not done anything valuable. His calling attention to the moral sensitivity of man is definitely a much welcome addition to the psychology of chung-her or mental harmony and equilibrium that both the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean had taken effort to emphasize. Even though his idea that everyone is inherently endowed with moral sensitivity is not necessary something that Confucius would have endorsed, the fact remains that he was the first to have shown that the Confucian moral imperative of humaneness and righteousness is actually grounded in the inborn sensitivities of man. Ought implies can, so to speak. There is therefore no excuse for anyone for not trying to be moral. Let me also add that it was this romantic view of human nature (and its political implications) that had ignited fervor and interest in the humanism of Confucius for generations to come. 





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