Mencius, Wrong But Right
Mengzi (孟子), aka “Mencius” in the West, was born 372 BC, 180 years after Confucius. What was his contribution to Confucianism?
On the problem of ordering society, to avoid barbarism and limit collapses, Confucius pioneered the pragmatic system of regular social rituals with proper form (禮) which cultivate humanity (仁). To do this, what works, was to do enough. Confucius was mostly silent on the question of humans’ core nature.
So what did Mengzi (pronounced like “Mung-za”) add to Confucianism which was not already there? Mengzi made one big claim: that human nature is originally “good.” He also provided evidence for this claim. In this way he’s been labeled as an idealistic orthodox Confucian. He believed that people are born fairly similar, that they are perfectible, and it is the nourishment and cultivation which makes them different. “Therefore with proper nourishment and care, everything grows, whereas without proper nourishment and care, everything decays” (Mencius, 6A:8).
As proof of our innate knowledge of human “goodness” Mengzi cited what he called the Four Beginnings: a feeling of 1) commiseration, 2) shame and dislike, 3) deference and compliance, and 4) right and wrong.
“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. Men have these Four Beginnings just as they have their four limbs. Having these Four Beginnings, but saying that they cannot develop them is to destroy themselves.” — Mencius 2:A6
For example—normal people do not like to see blood and thus recoil in disgust, parents feel an instinct to protect their children, people naturally feel shame and try to hide what they did thus they must naturally know they did wrong? Mencius himself provided the following example…
“When I say that all men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning may be illustrated thus: Now, when men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they all have a feeling of alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child.” — Mencius 2:A6
This was a breakthrough proof of innate (i.e. biological) moral knowledge which all later Confucianists have accepted, and no philosopher since, neither East nor West, has been able to falsify. Rather it’s been confirmed in numerous scientific experiments observing human behavior; consider that a lie detector test is measuring this emotional reaction to “right and wrong”.
What Mengzi was actually on to is that evolutionary biology programmed us over time for functionality. These traits nature found useful, for our survival. By our survival, they are known as useful. Morality is extremely subjective, and fluid, but here we find biological beginnings (anchors) which can be built upon. This, I think, is his most important philosophical contribution.
Cultivate the Seed
Mengzi also realized that if you have two seeds, one better than the other, if you fail to water the better seed the worse one can end up being a tastier dinner. Genetic destiny is what it is, but our actions are up to us. Therefore, it is with this cultivation committment and his prior observation on innate qualities, that his philosophy is based— we are born “good” but it must be cultivated.
“Take for instance the growing of wheat. You sow the seeds and cover them with soil. The land is the same and the time of sowing is also the same. In time they all grow up luxuriantly. When the time of harvest comes, they are all ripe. Although there may be a difference between the different stalks of wheat, it is due to differences in the soil, as rich or poor, to the unequal nourishment obtained from the rain and the dew, and to differences in human effort. Therefore all things of the same kind are similar to one another. Why should there be any doubt about men? The sage and I are the same in kind.”—Mencius, 6A:7
Nature, and “Good” Humans
Mengzi was “wrong, but right,” or perhaps strategically wrong? His entire add-on philosophy is built upon an unnecessary or at least misphrased question.
Nature does not see things as “good.” As Laozi correctly understood, nature is indifferent. A frog is not “good” nor “bad” because it kills flies, it just does. The most that can ever be said, while remaining grounded in natural law, is that it is functional. To survive, is “good.” Furthermore, across an evolutionary timeline it is impossible to know “good,” until it’s too late. Maybe Paleolithic tribes killing each other leveled-up our genetic intelligence, maybe Neolithic civilization decreased it? After all, cranial capacity has been shrinking for the last 10K years.
The way to avoid pointless linguistic games not grounded in a corresponding reality, as Western philosophers are so fond of, is to never start. This is the beginning of delusion, my problem with Mengzi’s question. And this was the brilliance of Confucius’ silence.
But additionally, Mengzi cherry picks “good” parts of our evolution. Why does he not mention tribalism, which manifests as racism and war? Is tribalism thus “bad”? But without tribalism we wouldn’t be a functional cooperative species. Is tribalism thus “good”? He’s highly selective in his observations, and his question seems strange.
What Mencius was actually attempting to label are the characteristics which work well with Neolithic (and now Industrial) society, and to parse those from anti-social characteristics which disturb—then water the prior seeds and disincentivize the later, to achieve functional moral society. Also remember that since society changes, and different societies value different things, what we consider to work in society (i.e. “good”) also changes. Better to say “functional” than “good.”
Despite Flaws, His Ideas Survived
He either told white lies, or was slightly flawed in his language, but these could be used to cultivate better people thru their own work and hope. Wrong, but useful?
Criticism aside, the fact is Mengzi’s thinkings overall worked. As with evolutionary biology, in the evolution of applied philosophy — nature tests our ideas across time, and only the functional ideas survive. It decides. And Mengzi’s thinkings survived, thus they are “good” and “right.”
Today, 2400 years later, 50 million Koreans know the name of Mengzi (맹자). Although they know him no better than Americans know Columbus, every member of society follows his teachings day to day. Neo-Confucianists like Han Yu, Zhou Dunyi, and Zhu Xi used his thinkings to build up their applied philosophy which would last a thousands years to present day.
Perhaps there is also a “feels good” aspect to his selectively-true theories, which makes them work? How are you going to get members into your club if it feels bad? Christianity did that “you’re a sinner,” but that’s complicated and another conversation. The belief that humanity is originally good ends up persisting thru most of Chinese history, along with a belief in natural law (which may not agree with the prior). Mengzi is perhaps responsible for Eastern philosophy being more positive on human nature, while Western is more negative.
Mengzi was not a deep ungraspable mind (Laozi), nor a broad mind (Kongzi), nor a man of deep humanity (Zhou Dunyi). He routed Chinese philosophy off on the tangent of a “good” vs “bad” human nature, for thousands of years. But he’s perhaps the most influential Confucian in history, arguably even more-so than Confucius. In the end, Mencian ideas worked.