1902 Encyclopedia > Menicus

Chinese philosopher
372 – 289 BC)

MENCIUS, the Latinized form of Mang-tsze, "Mr Mang," or " Mang the philosopher," a name in China only second as a moral teacher to that of Confucius. His statue or spirit-tablet (as the case may be) has occupied, in the temples of the sage, since our 11th century, a place among "the four assessors"; and since 1530 A.D. his title has been " the philosopher Mang, sage of the second degree."

The Mangs or Mang-suns had been in the time of Con-fucius one of the three great clans of Lft (all descended from the marquis Hwan, 711-694 B.C.), which he had en-deavoured to curb. Their power had subsequently been broken, and the branch to which Mencius belonged had settled in Tsau, a small adjacent principality, the name of which still remains in Tsau hsien, a district of Yencha/u Shan-tung. A magnificent temple to Mencius is the chief attraction of the district city. The present writer visited it in 1873, and was struck by a large marble statue of him in the courtyard in front. It shows much artistic skill, and gives the impression of a man strong in body and mind, thoughtful and fearless. His lineal representative lives in the city, and thousands of Mangs are to be found in the neighbourhood.

The dates of some of the principal events in Mencius's life are fixed by a combination of evidence, and his death is referred by common consent to the year 289 B.C. He had lived to a great age,—some say to his eighty-fourth year, placing his birth in 372 B.C., and others to his ninety-seventh, placing it in 385. All that we are told of his father is that he died in the third year of the child, who was thus left to the care of his mother. She was a lady of superior character, and well discharged her trust. Her virtues and dealings with her son were celebrated by a great writer in the first century before our era, and for two thousand years she has been the model mother of China.

We have no accounts of Mencius for many years after his boyhood, and he is more than forty years old when he comes before us as a public character. He must have spent much time in study, investigating the questions which were rife as to the fundamental principles of morals and society, and brooding over the condition of the country. The his-tory, the poetry, the institutions, and the great men of the past had received his careful attention. He intimates that he had been in communication with men who had been disciples of Confucius. That sage had become to him the chief of mortal men, the object of his untiring admiration; and in the doctrines which he had taught Mencius recog-nized the truth for want of an appreciation of which the bonds of order all round him were being relaxed, and the kingdom hastening to a general anarchy.

When he first comes forth from Tsau, he is accompanied by several eminent disciples. He had probably imitated Confucius in becoming the master of a school, and en-couraging the resort to it of inquiring minds that he might resolve their doubts and unfold to them the right methods of government. One of his sayings is that it would be a greater delight to the superior man to get the youth of brightest promise around him and to teach and train them than to enjoy the revenues of the kingdom. His intercourse with his followers was not so intimate as that of Confucius had been with the members of his selected circle; and, while he maintained his dignity among them, he was not able to secure from them the same homage and reverent admiration.

More than a century had elapsed since the death of Confucius, and during that period the feudal kingdom of Chau had been showing more and more of the signs of dissolution, and portentous errors that threatened to upset all social order were widely disseminated. The sentiment of loyalty to the dynasty had disappeared. Several of the marquises and other feudal princes of earlier times had usurped the title of king. The smaller fiefs had been absorbed by the larger ones, or reduced to a state of helpless dependence on them. Tsin, after greatly extend-ing its territory, had broken up into three powerful king-doms, each about as large as England. Mencius found the nation nominally one, and with the traditions of two thousand years affirming its essential unity, but actually divided into seven monarchies, each seeking to subdue the others under itself. The consequences were constant war-fare and chronic misery.

In Confucius's time we meet with recluses who had withdrawn in disgust from the world and its turmoil; but these had now given place to a class of men who came forth from their retirements provided with arts of war or schemes of policy which they recommended to the contend-ing chiefs, ever ready to change their allegiance as they were moved by whim or interest. Mencius was once asked about two of them, " Are they not really great men ? Let them be angry, and all the princes are afraid. Let them live quietly, and the flames of trouble are everywhere ex-tinguished." He looked on them as little men, and delighted to proclaim his idea of the great man in such language as the following :—

" To dwell in love, the wide house of the world, to stand in propriety, the correct seat of the world, and to walk in righteousness, the great path of the world ; when he obtains his desire for office, to practise his principles for the good of the people, and when that desire is disappointed, to practise them alone ; to be above the power of riches and honours to make dissipated, of poverty and mean condition to make swerve from the right, and of power and force to make bend,—these characteristics constitute the great man."

Most vivid are the pictures which Mencius gives of the condition of the people in consequence of the wars of the states. " The royal ordinances were violated; the multitudes were oppressed; the supplies of food and drink flowed away like water." It is not wonderful that, when j the foundations of government were thus overthrown, j speculations should have arisen that threatened to over-throw what he considered to be the foundations of truth and all social order. " A shrill-tongued barbarian from the south," as Mencius called him, proclaimed the dissolu-tion of ranks, and advocated a return to the primitive simplicity,

'' When Adam delved and Eve span."

He and his followers maintained that learning was quackery, and statesmanship craft and oppression, that prince and peasant should be on the same level, and every man do everything for himself. Another, called Yang-chu, denied the difference between virtue and vice, glory and shame. The tyrants of the past, he said, were now but so many rotten bones, and the heroes and sages were no more. It was the same with all at death; after that there was but so much putridity and rottenness. The conclusion of the whole matter therefore was—"Let us eat and drink; let us gratify the ears and eyes, get servants and maidens, beauty, music, wine; when the day is insufficient, carry it on through the night. Each one for himself." Against a third heresiarch, of a very different stamp, Mencius felt no less indignation. This was Mo Ti, who found the source of all the evils of the time and of all time in the want of mutual love. He taught, therefore, that men should love others as themselves; princes, the states of other princes as much as their own; children, the parents of others as much as their own. Mo, in his gropings, had got hold of a noble principle, but he did not apprehend it distinctly nor set it forth with discrimination. To our philosopher the doctrine appeared contrary to the Confucian orthodoxy about the five relations of society; and he attacked it without mercy and with an equal confusion of thought. "Yang's principle," he said, "is 'each one for himself,' which does not acknowledge the claims of the sovereign. Mo's is ' to love all equally,' which does not acknowledge the peculiar affection due to a father. But to acknowledge neither king nor father is to be in the state of a beast. The way of benevolence and righteousness is stopped up."

On this seething ocean of lawlessness, wickedness, heresies, and misery Mencius looked out from the quiet of his school, and his spirit was stirred within him to attempt the rescue of the people from the misrule and error. It might be that he would prove the instrument for this purpose. "If Heaven," he said, " wishes that the kingdom should enjoy tranquillity and good order, who is there besides me to bring it about 1" He formed his plan, and proceeded to put it in execution. He would go about among the different kings till he should find one among them who would follow his counsels and commit to him the entire administration of his government. That obtained, he did not doubt that in a few years there would be a kingdom so strong and so good that all rulers would acknowledge its superiority, and the people hasten from all quarters to crown its sovereign as monarch of the whole of China. This plan was much the same as that of Confucius had been; but, with the bolder character that belonged to him, Mencius took in one respect a position from which " the master " would have shrunk. The former was always loyal to Chau, and thought he could save the country by a reformation; the latter saw the day of Chau was past, and the time was come for a revolution. Mencius's view was the more correct, but he was not wiser than the sage in forecasting for the future. They could think only of a reformed dynasty or of a changed dynasty, ruling according to the model principles of a feudal con-stitution, which they described in glowing language. They desired a repetition of the golden age in the remote past; but soon after Mencius disappeared from the stage of life there came the sovereign of Ch'in, and solved the question with fire and sword, introducing the despotic empire which has since prevailed.

An inquiry here occurs — "How, in the execution of his plan, was Mencius, a scholar, without wealth or station, to find admission to the courts of lawless and unprincipled kings, and acquire the influence over them which he expected ?" It can only be met by our bearing in mind the position accorded from the earliest times in China to men of virtue and ability. The same written character denotes both scholars and officers. They are at the top of the social scale,—the first of the four classes into which the population has always been divided. This appreciation of learning or culture has exercised a most powerful influence over the government under both conditions of its exist-ence ; and out of it grew the system, which was organized and consolidated more than a thousand years ago, of making literary merit the passport to official employment. The ancient doctrine was that the scholar's privilege was from Heaven as much as the sovereign's right; the modern system is a device of the despotic rule to put itself in Heaven's place, and have the making of the scholar in its own hands. The feeling and conviction out of which the system grew prevailed in the time of Mencius. The dynasties that had successively ruled over the kingdom had owed their establishment not more to the military genius of their founders than to the wisdom and organizing ability of the learned men, the statesmen, who were their bosom friends and trusted counsellors. Why should not he become to one of the princes of his day what 1 Yin had been to Thang, and TMi-kung Wang to King W&n, and the duke of Chau to Wu and Ch'ang 1 But, though Mencius might be the equal of any of those worthies, he knew of no prince like Thang and the others, of noble aim and soul, who would welcome and adopt his lessons. In his eager-ness he overlooked this condition of success for his enter-prise. He might meet with such a ruler as he looked for, or he might reform a bad one, and make him the coadjutor that he required. On the strength of these peradventures, and attended by several of his disciples, Mencius went for more than twenty years from one court to another, always baffled, and always ready to try again. He was received with great respect by kings and princes. He would not enter into the service of any of them, but he occa-sionally accepted honorary offices of distinction; and he did not scruple to receive large gifts which enabled him to live and move about as a man of wealth. In delivering his message he was as fearless and outspoken as John Knox. He lectured great men, and ridiculed them. He unfolded the ways of the old sage kings, and pointed out the path to universal sway; but it was all in vain. He could not stir any one to honourable action. He confronted heresy with strong arguments and exposed it with withering sarcasm; but he could work no deliverance in the earth. The last court at which we find him was that of Lu, probably in 310 B.C. The marquis of that state had given office to Yo-chang, one of Mencius's disciples, and he hoped that this might be the means of a favourable hearing for himself. So it had nearly happened. On the suggestion of Yo-chang the marquis had ordered his carriage to be yoked, and was about to step into it, and proceed to bring Mencius to his palace, when an unworthy favourite stepped in and diverted him from his purpose. The disciple told his master what had occurred, reproaching the favourite for his ill-timed intervention; Mencius, however, said to him, "A man's advancement or the arresting of it may seem to be effected by others, but is really beyond their power. My not finding in the marquis of Lu a ruler who would confide in me and put my lessons in practice is from Heaven." He accepted this incident as a final intimation to him of the will of Heaven. He had striven long against adverse cir-cumstances, but now he bowed in submission. We lose sight of him. He withdrew from courts and the public arena. We have to think of him, according to tradition, passing the last twenty years of his life in the congenial society of his disciples, discoursing to them, and giving the finishing touches to the record of his conversations and opinions, which were afterwards edited by them, and con-stitute his works. Living, he may have been a failure; dead, yet speaking in them, he has been a great power among the ever-multiplying millions of his countrymen. Nor will any thinker of the West refer to them without interest and benefit. Mencius was not so oracular, nor so self-contained, as Confucius; but his teachings have a vivacity and sparkle of which we never weary, and which is all their own.

"We will now attempt to indicate briefly the more important principles which our philosopher thought would have been effectual to regenerate his country, and make an end of misery and heresy within its borders.

And first as to his views on government, and the work to be done by rulers for their subjects. Mencius held with Confucius— and it was a doctrine which had descended to them both from the remotest antiquity—that royal government is an institution of God. An ancient sovereign had said that " Heaven, having produced the people, appointed for them rulers, and appointed for them teachers, who should be assisting to God." Our philosopher, adopting this doctrine, was led by the manifest incompetency of all the rulers of his time to ask how it could be known on what individual the appointment of Heaven had fallen or ought to fall, and he concluded that this could be ascertained only from his personal character and his conduct of affairs. The people must find out the will of Heaven as to who should be their ruler for themselves. There was another old saying which delighted Mencius,—"Heaven sees as the people see ; Heaven hears as the people hear." He taught accordingly that, while government is from God, the governors are from the people ;— vox populi, vox Dei.

No claim then of a " divine right'' should be allowed to a sovereign if he were not exercising a rule for the good of the people. "The people are the most important element in a nation ; the altars to the spirits of the land and grain are the second ; the sovereign is tlie lightest." Mencius was not afraid to follow this utterance to its consequences. The monarch whose rule is injurious to the people, and who is deaf to remonstrance and counsel, should be dethroned. In such a case "killing is no murder."

But who is to remove the sovereign that thus ought to be removed ? Mencius had three answers to this difficult question. First, he would have the members of the royal house perform the task. Let them disown their unworthy head, and appoint some better in-dividual of their number in his room. If they could not or would not do this, he thought, secondly, that any high minister, though not allied to the royal house, might take summary measures with the sovereign, assuming that he acted purely with a view to the public weal. His third and grand device waswdiat he called "the minister of Heaven." When the sovereign, had become a pest instead of a blessing, he believed that Heaven would raise up some one for the help of the people, some one who should so conduct himself in his original subordinate position as to draw all eyes and hearts to himself. Let him then raise the standard not of rebel-lion but of righteousness, and he could not help attaining to the highest dignity. Mencius hoped to find one among the rulers of his day who might be made into such a minister, and he counselled one and another to adopt measures with that object. It was in fact counselling rebellion, but he held that the house of Chiiu had forfeited its title to the throne.

What now were the attributes which Mencius considered necessary to constitute a good government according to his ideal of it ? It must he animated by a spirit of benevolence, and ever pursue a policy of righteousness. Its aims must be, first, to make the people ivell off, and next, to educate them. No one was fit to occupy the throne who could be happy while any of the people were miserable, who delighted in war, who could indulge in palaces and parks which the poorest did not in a measure share with him. Game laws received his emphatic condemnation. Taxes should be light, and all the regulations for agriculture and commerce of a character to promote and encourage them. The rules which he suggested to secure those objects had reference to the existing condition of his country, but they are susceptible of wide application. They carry in them schemes of drainage and irrigation for land, and of free trade for commerce. But it must be, he contended, that a sufficient and certain livelihood be secured for all the people. Without this their minds would be unsettled, and they would proceed to every form of wild licence. They would break the laws, and the ruler would punish them,—punish those whom his neglect of his own duties had plunged into poverty, of which crime was the consequence. He would be, not their ruler, but their "trapper."

Supposing the people to be made well oft', Mencius taught that education should be provided for them all. He gave the marquis of Thang a programme of four kinds of educational institutions, which he wished him to establish in his state—in the villages and the towns, for the poor as well as the rich, so that none might be ignorant of their duties in the various relations of society. But after all, unless the people could get food and clothing by their labour, he had not much faith in the power of education to make them virtuous. Give him, however, a government fulfilling the conditions that he laid down, and he was confident there would soon be a people, all contented, all virtuous. And he saw nothing to prevent the realization of such a government. Any ruler might become, if he would, " the minister of Heaven," who was his ideal, and the influence of his example and administration would be all-powerful. The people would flock to him as their parent, and help him to do justice on the foes of truth and happiness. Pulse and grain would be abundant as water and fire, and the multitudes, well clothed, and well principled, would sit under the shade of their mulberry trees, and hail the ruler "king by the grace of Heaven."

Secondly, as to Mencius's views about human nature. His conviction of the goodness of that encouraged him to hope for such grand results from good government, and his discussion of this subject gives his principal title to a place among philosophical thinkers.

Opinions were much divided about it among his contemporaries. Some held that the nature of man is neither good nor'bad ; he may be made to do good and also to do evil. Others held that the nature of some men is good, and that of others bad ; thus it is that the best of men sometimes have bad sons, and the worst of men good sons. It was also maintained that the nature of man is evil, and whatever good appears in it is the result of cultivation. In opposition to all these views Mencius contended that the nature of man is good. "Water," he said, "will flow indifferently to the east or west; but will it flow indifferently up or down ? The tendency of man's nature to goodness is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. By striking water you may make it leap over your forehead ; and by damming and leading it you may make it go up a hill. But such movements are not according to the nature of water; it is the force applied which causes them. When men do what is not good, their nature has been dealt with in this way."

Mencius had no stronger language than this,—as indeed it would be difficult to find any stronger,—to declare his belief of the goodness of human nature. With various, but equally felicitous, illustration he replied to his different opponents. Sometimes he may seem to express himself too strongly, but an attentive study of his writings shows that he is speaking of our nature in its ideal, and not as it actually is,—as we may ascertain, by an analysis of it, that it was intended to be, and not as it has been made to become. In fact, his doctrine of human nature is hardly to be distinguished from that of Bishop Butler, while the Christian prelate is left far behind so far as charm of style is concerned.

Our author insists on the constituents of human nature, dwelling especially on the principles of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom or knowledge, the last including the judgment of conscience. "These," said he, "are not infused into us from without. Men have these four principles just as they have their four limbs." But man has also instincts and appetites which seek their own gratification without reference to righteousness or any other control. He met this difficulty by contending that human nature is a constitution, in which the higher principles are designed to rule the lower. "Some constituents of it are noble and some ignoble, some great and some small. The great must not be injured for the small, nor the noble for the ignoble."

One of his most vigorous vindications of his doctrine is the following:— "For the mouth to desire flavours, the eye colours, the ear sounds, and the four limbs ease and rest belong to man's nature. An individual's lot may restrict him from the gratification of them; and in such a case the superior man will not say, ' My nature demands that pleasure, and I will get it.' On the other hand, there are love between father and son, righteousness between ruler and minister, the rules of ceremony between host and guest, and knowledge seen in recognizing the able and virtuous, and in the sage's fultifling the heavenly course ; — these are appointed (by Heaven). But they also belong to our nature, and the superior man will not say, ' The circumstances of my lot relieve me from them.' " In his preliminary dissertation to the 7th edition of this encyclopaedia, Sir James Mackintosh has said that in his sermons on human nature Butler " taught truths more worthy of the name of discovery than an}' in the same department of inquiry with which we are acquainted ; if we ought not to except the first steps of the Grecian philosophers towards a theory of morals." Mencius was senior to Zeno, the one of those philosophers to whom Butler has most affinity, and it does not appear that he had left anything for either of them to discover.

When he proceeded from his ideal of human nature to account for the phenomena of conduct so different from what they ought to be according to that ideal, he was necessarily less successful. They puzzled him and they made him indignant and angry. '1 There is nothing good," he said, "that a man cannot do ; he only does not do it." But why does he not do it ? Against the stubborn fact Mencius beats his wings and shatters his weapons,—all in vain. He mentions a few ancient worthies who, he conceived, had always been, or who had become, perfectly virtuous. Above them all he extols Confucius, taking no notice of that sage's confession that he had not attained to conformity to his own rule of doing to others as he would have them do to him. No such acknowledgment about himself ever came from Mencius. Therein he was inferior to his predecessor : he had a subtler faculty of thought, and a much more vivid imagination ; but he did not know himself nor his special subject of human nature so well.

Our limits will not allow us to go into a detail of his views on other special subjects. A few passages illustrative of his style and general teachings will complete all that can be said of him here. His thoughts, indeed, were seldom condensed like those of "the master" into aphorisms, and should be read in their connexion ; but we have from him many words of wisdom that have been as goads to millions for more than two thousand years. For instance:—

"Though a man may be wicked, yet, if he adjust his thoughts, fast, and bathe, he may sacrifice to God."

"When Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, subjects him to extreme poverty, and confounds his undertakings. In all these ways it stimulates his mind, strengthens his nature, and supplies his in-competencies. "

"The great man is he who does not lose his child-heart."

"The sense of shame is to a man of great imjmrtance. When one is ashamed of having been without shame, he will afterwards not have occasion for shame."

'' To nourish the heart there is nothing better than to keep the desires few. Here is a man whose desires are few; in some things he may not be able to keep his heart, but they will be few. Here is a man whose desires are many; in some things he may be able to keep his heart, but they will be few."

' Benevolence is the distinguishing characteristic of man. As embodied in his conduct, it may be called the path of duty."

"There is an ordination for everything ; and a man should receive submissively what may be correctly ascribed thereto. He who has the correct idea of what Heaven's orjlination is will not stand beneath a tottering wall. Death sustained in the discharge of one's duties may be correctly ascribed to Heaven. Death under handcuffs and fetters cannot be correctly so ascribed."

"When one by force subdues men, they do not submit to him in heart. When he subdues them by virtue, in their hearts' core they are pleased, and sincerely submit."

Two translations of the works of Mencius are within the reach of European readers:— that by the late Stanislaus Julien, in Latin, Paris, 1824-29 ; and that forming the second volume of Legge's Chinese Classics, Hong Kong, 1862. The latter has been published at London (1875) without the Chinese text. See also E. Faber, The Mind of Mencius, or Political Economy founded on Moral Philosophy, translated from the German by A. B. Hutchinson (London, 1882). (J. LE.)

The above article was written by: James Legge, LL.D., Professor of Chinese, University of Oxford.

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