Mencius was an ancient Chinese philosopher born in 371 BC in a town close to the birthplace of Confucius. Second to Confucius, he is considered the most important Confucian philosopher. He embraced Confucius’ philosophy, which emphasized acting virtuously, and to this he emphasized man’s innate goodness. Confucius believed that people are by nature good, and that this goodness needs to be cultivated, while negative things in the world must be avoided. By acting with humanity (ren) and righteousness (yi), one can both serve heaven as well as fulfill his destiny.
Like Confucius, Mencius lived in a time of political unrest. Also like Confucius, his father died when he was young and he grew up poor and was raised by his mother. Mencius became the student of Confucius’ grandson. Their lives are quite similar as Mencius also would travel throughout China for 40 years advising rulers, mourned the death of his mother for 3 years (this is known as filial piety), and at one point served as an official himself. Also like Confucius, he would ultimately be disappointed that his advice had not been implemented and so retired from public life. His teachings are contained in the Mencius, which would be considered one of the Four Books of orthodox Confucian teachings by later Neo-Confucianists.
Mencius believes in the inherent goodness of human beings. He demonstrates that people are inherently good with the example of a child falling into a well. He explains that since everyone will feel distressed and want to help the child immediately, therefore humans are by nature good. The problem is that society can corrupt one’s inner goodness. If people follow the wrong beliefs, such as being more concerned about making money than with acting humanely (ren) and with righteousness (jen), then their character will suffer. One must nurture their inner goodness throughout their lifetime.
One must cultivate their character the way one provides a plant with water and sunlight and rich soil. Mencius says that man has Four Beginnings: “The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.” By cultivating these Four Beginnings, man is able to live in harmony with others and fulfill his destiny.
Unfortunately, many people do not recognize what is important. Mencius uses the example of a man who has a crooked finger. He explains, “he would not mind going as far as to the states of Ch’in and Ch’u because his finger is not like those of others, yet he does not hate the fact that his mind is not like those of others.” In this way, people’s priorities are out of order. Likewise, he discusses those who “cultivate the t’ung and tzu trees,” yet don’t know how to nourish themselves. Mencius explains, With proper nourishment and care, everything grows, whereas without proper nourishment and care, everything decays.”
Just as the individual must cultivate his inner goodness, likewise so must a ruler. Mencius believes that if a ruler does not act humane and just, he should be removed from office, even killed. This is because it is the ruler’s responsibility to be like a parent to his subjects, who he should protect as if their his own children. When a ruler is a tyrant rather than a king, treating his subjects poorly, he is not fit to rule. A true king is loved by the people. He explains, “When force is used to overcome people, they do not submit willingly but only because they have not sufficient strength to resist. But when virtue is used to overcome people, they are pleased in their hearts and sincerely submit.”
Mencius explains how a ruler can be a true king by acting both humanely and with righteousness. He explains that such a ruler must honor those who are worthy, and hire those who are wise. He should not impose high taxes or fines, in order to encourage trade and to keep the cost of living within reason. He should make traveling easy and encourage farmers to reap the benefits of their hard work. If a family fails to produce a certain amount, they shouldn’t be punished. Mencius explains, “If a ruler can truly practice these five things, then the people in the neighboring states will look up to him as a parent. Ever since there has been mankind, none has succeeded in leading children to attack their parents. Thus such a ruler will have no enemy anywhere in the world, and having no enemy in the world, he will be an official appointed by Heaven.”
Because of his emphasis on the importance of people, Mencius is considered the most democratic of the Chinese philosophers. He sees the people as being even more important than the ruler himself. The ruler’s function is to look after the welfare of his subjects. He explains, “If they have a secure livelihood, they will have a secure mind.” Mencius also advises rulers that they should employ individuals who are not only liked by their ministers, but that are also approved by the people. In this way, the ruler is seen as a parent.
Mencius strived to counter what he believed were bad philosophies, such as Mozi’s belief that the ruler should act in the way that is most profitable. Mencius explains, ““Why must Your Majesty use the term profit? What I have to offer are nothing but humanity and righteousness. If Your Majesty ask what is profitable to your country, if the great officers ask what is profitable to their families, and if the inferior officers and the common people ask what is profitable tho themselves, then both the superiors and the subordinates will try to snatch the profit from one another and the country will crumble.”
He would also oppose the egoistic (“do what’s in your best interest”) philosophy of Yang Zu. Mencius explains, “The man of humanity loves others. The man of propriety respects others. He who loves others is always loved by others, and he who respects others is always respected by them.” What is right is acting virtuously, not profitably. Mencius says, “He who seeks to be rich will not be humane. He who seeks to be humane will not be rich.” But the man who acts humanely will also have no enemies.
In contrast to Mozi’s believe that one should love everyone equally (universal love), Mencius uphold’s the Confucian virtue of loving that which is close to oneself, such as one’s family and ruler, more than others. Just as there are many things in the world (the “myriad things”), so there should be different relations between them. He explains, “between father and son, there should be affection; between ruler and minister, there should be righteousness; between husband and wife, there should be attention to their separate functions, between old and young, there should be proper order; and between friends, there should be faithfulness.” These are known as the Five Relations and they served as the foundational structure of Chinese society.
For Mencius, what is most important is doing what’s right. For example, as men were not supposed to touch the hands of a woman according to the rules of Chinese conduct (li), he was asked whether it was acceptable to extend your hand in order to rescue a woman who is drowning. Mencius explains that if one didn’t extend their hand, they are no more than an animal. Likewise, he explains that actions should be done not for show or for personal benefit, but out of virtue. He says that “The superior man practices principle and waits for destiny (ming), to take its own course.” Like Confucius, Mencius believes that while we wait for our destiny to be fulfilled, it is also up to us to act properly. He says, “he who knows destiny does not stand beneath a precipitous wall.”
Mencius would continue Confucius’ belief that one should act virtuously and that man is responsible for his actions (humanism). To this, he will emphasize the inherent goodness of human nature, and the need to cultivate this goodness in life. These principles will be embraced by later Confucian thinkers as well as the Neo-Confucianists. In this way, he presents a philosophy of life that applies equally to subject and ruler, allowing one to live in harmony with humanity and nature.