Archive for March 2008

Mencius and Self-Cultivation

March 31, 2008

In his writing on self-cultivation, Mencius not only provides a unique perspective through which to understand the human heart but also an expansive and insightful program to develop it to the fullest. Like the Analects, the Mencius presents its arguments in aphorisms and short dialogues which are not thematically organized, so one must do some heavy exegesis to get the full picture of this theme.  First I will describe Mencius‘s conception of human nature.  Next, I will address his advice on self-cultivation through learning, family, introspection, the use of objective standards, relationships with others, environment, and will.  I will follow this with a short critique of Mencius’s thought.

What is the basic material that human beings are cultivating?  Mencius presents man as the sum of his senses and heart, which he calls organs, and an implied ego which is the source of consciousness and maker of decisions.  Our senses, which tell us about the world, draw us towards that which delights them, but the heart, our moral center, can contemplate relative value and decide what path is best (VI.A.15).  This heart concept, in addition to holding the more serious emotions, has the thinking faculty we normally assign to the brain.  The flights of fancy the West normally assigns to the heart (Cupid’s arrows, etc.) belong to senses according to Mencius.

If we did not have a heart to follow, says Mencius, we would be no different from beasts (IV.B.19).  He explains this in IIA6 and VIA6: man has “four hearts[1]” which are the source of our positive characteristics:(1) the heart of compassion, which leads to benevolence; (2) the heart of shame, which leads to dutifulness; (3) the heart of courtesy and modesty, which leads to the observance of rites; and (4) the heart of right and wrong, which leads to wisdom.  Mencius further mentions hao jan chih ch’i, which D.C. Lau translates as “flood-like ch’i,” and which Mencius calls the the breath of life (II.A.2, xxiv).  If the heart is like the Western concepts for both heart and mind, then the ch’i is analogous to ether or soul.

Mencius’s most famous insight is that human nature is innately good.  Any man, when he sees a baby about to fall into a well, will involuntarily feel compassion toward it, so we must have a germ of compassion, and by analogy we have germs of the other hearts as well (II.A.6).  When Kao Tzu says morality proceeds from nature like cups and bowls from the ch’i willow, Mencius retorts, “Do you have to mutilate man’s substance to make him moral, like you do plates and cups from wood?” (VI.A.1).  In other words, Kao Tzu’s connection of morality with man’s nature is still not harmonious enough for Mencius, who believes that humanity is inclined toward good like water is pulled to the earth by gravity (VI.A.2).  Morality is universal, so moral greatness attracts the majority in the same way great art and great cooking do (VI.A.7).  A gentleman delights in a healthy family, a clean conscience, and talented pupils (VII.A.20), and a benevolent man extends his love from those he loves to those he does not love (VII.B.1).

Mencius, like other Chinese philosophers, refers to the Dao, or “The Way,” as the state of moral rectitude.  He does not mention it by name quite as much as Confucius does; the term “benevolence” seems to appeal to him more.  In his writings on the benevolent ruler, Mencius emphasizes non-aggression (I.B.3), preference of worthiness over personal connections (I.B.6-7), generosity (I.A.2, I.B.4), and orderliness (IV.A.7), and it’s safe to say these are proper qualities for non-regal gentlemen, as well.  Most likely Mencius’s gentleman also displays the classic Confucianist principles like li and wu-wei, as well.  He also has mental clarity and focus: the more desires a person has in his heart, the less room he will have for ch’i, and stumbling, hurrying, and worrying will also drain it (II.A.6).

Having defined the materials we are developing and the qualities we want to develop, let us discuss how to develop those qualities.  To Mencius, change starts in the mind, then becomes policy and then becomes practice, so cultivation is often called learning, which helps us track down our hearts, which have strayed from goodness (VI.A.11).  One should learn widely and in depth so one can return to the essential (IV.B.15).  Nor should one abandon a program simply because one is not seeing results at first; the foolish man of Sung likewise uprooted his crops to find out why they weren’t growing and in so doing ruined his harvest (II.A.2).

Mencius, like his mentor, believes that benevolence begins in the home.  Serving parents is the most important duty (IV.A.27, VI.A.15).  A good man will take care of his parents, but a morally lost man cannot even do this thing (IV.A.19).  Mencius even ventures some parenting advice of his own: parents assign equal importance to moral education and to providing the necessities, for love and respect are as important to development as food and drink (VII.A.38).  With regards to technical education, however, a father should not teach his sons because his anger at the child’s mistakes could damage their relationship, and it’s better not to risk estrangement (IV.A.18).  Such a condition ruins one’s enjoyment of everything (IV.A.28).

A unique feature of Mencius’s ethics is his emphasis on introspection.  He says that one should not leave his field to tend the fields of others but instead should work on his own self (VII.B.32), and there is joy in undergoing introspection and then finding you are true to yourself (VII.A.4).  A gentleman seeks the answer to failure within himself (II.A.7) and admits a mistake rather than ignoring it (II.B.9).  If your benevolence, order, courtesy, and respect do not produce like responses from others, says Mencius, look inside yourself because you are most likely the cause (IV.A.4).  Certain sages even delighted in being reprimanded or humiliated because such an experience immediately taught them how to change their ways (II.A.8).

We should not self-assess ourselves indiscriminately, however, for Mencius warns us that a hungry heart will accept anything placed before it (VII.A.27), even harmful ideas.  Despite man’s personal qualities, he still needs tools and objective measures in order to succeed (IV.A.1, VI.A.20).  The sage is the measure of humanity, akin to a compass or carpenter’s square, for he provides a perfect guide for us to follow.  As water follows the pattern of cracks in stone, so the gentleman does not find the Way unless he achieves a beautiful pattern for his works to follow (VII.A.24).  An outstanding man seeks improvement even when he has no immediate models (VII.A.10).  For instance, he can read books to learn the ways of the sages, which Mencius calls “looking for friends in history” (V.B.8).  Once he has embraced objective standards, however, he must follow them even when they seem to reduce his benefit (III.B.1).  He will not wash in muddy water (IV.A.8), and he will abandon whatever habitual sins he wanted to limit more (III.B.8), for “a man whose mind is set on high ideals never forgets that he may end in a ditch; a man of valor never forgets that he may forfeit his head” (V.B.7), and a man is capable of doing great things only when there are things he is not willing to do (IV.B.8).

Another teacher which Mencius greatly admires is adversity (VI.B.15, VII.A.18).  Heaven first tests the great ones with hardship and exhaustion: working as a fisherman or builder or farmer, for instance.  The blood, sweat, and tears they shed cleanse them of their imperfections.  Po-kung Yu and Meng Shih-she developed courage because they were willing to fight in any situation, and these consistent tests developed their strength (II.A.2).  “As a rule, a man can mend his ways only after he has made mistakes.”  Frustration is the source of innovation whereas ease, comfort, and peace will destroy a kingdom.  Shame is similarly didactic: when we feel embarrassed by our behavior, we are more likely to change it (VII.A.7).

Mencius’s advice regarding relationships with others is some of his most insightful.  He says that one should not bother with people who don’t believe in themselves.  They will attack morality (IV.A.10) or say it is impossible to survive without ever doing something immoral and that the person who tries to do so will be a burden on others (III.B.10).  A great man doesn’t necessarily keep his word or see things through to the end.  He aims at what is right, which might disqualify these past commitments (IV.B.11).  Finally, one should make friends on account of shared virtue, not worldly benefits (V.B.3).  The worthy will gravitate toward the good: sages flocked to the government of King Wen, for instance (IV.A.13, VI.B.13).

This counsel about friendships extends to environment, which Mencius considers crucial to self-cultivation.  People react to a benevolent man’s good works with good works of their own (IV.A.4), but the reverse can happen as well.  He compares the common land exhausted by cattle to a man whose soul has been exhausted by the evil all around him (VI.A.8).  “Given the right nourishment, there is nothing that will not grow,” it is said, yet this man has fallen before evil.  As a child learns the language of the region in which he lives, so a man adapts to what is around him (III.B.6).  This would seem to make Mencius a determinist, but there is a key difference: man can choose his own environment.  The philosopher encourages us to live in a neighborhood where benevolence is (II.A.7).  So, a man still freely chooses what sort of person he becomes.

Indeed, will is an essential part of Mencius’s philosophy.  “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” is an old English proverb but it could have come from the Mencius as well.  It would be possible for everyone to become a sage, for the Way is wide, but so few have the will to carry it through (VI.B.2).  Being a Gentleman is not as difficult as walking on water or carrying a mountain; it merely requires one humble service like making obeisance to one’s elders (I.A.7).  Two of the sage kings were barbarians, so the great ones can come from anywhere (IV.B.1).

This sense of will ties into another of Mencius’s points: Tseng-tzu was the most courageous man because he realized the basis of courage is belief in the cause for which one is fighting (II.A.2).  Hence a strong moral framework can expedite the development of good character traits.  In contrast, the opulent and the village worthy are both cause for derision because they both act to impress others rather than to achieve a higher purpose (VII.B.34, VII.B.37).

How does Mencius’s philosophy hold up today?  Will the man who follows it grow to tend the four seas (VII.B.35)?  I think he has some useful advice, especially about friendships and environment, and I am impressed about the universalism of his claims: if they do not impress us, it is because they express thoughts that are now common Western knowledge, such as “no pain, no gain.”  That said, I think Mencius is overdoing his argument about human nature, and a little more clarity would be a boon to his followers.  I would propose to him that if goodness came to us as easily as water running downhill, many more people would be sages.  Certainly, humans have the capacity for greatness, and in a sense a sage is more clearly human than the rest of us because he is the exemplar of all that we can be, but man must fight his selfish desires every step of the way, so there is more than a little truth to Xunzi’s opinion on this subject.  Furthermore, it is my experience that while the good man inspires others, he does not have nearly the awesome power Mencius makes him out to have.  Confucius did not change the kings he advised, and Barack Obama, who a third of the country considers a sage, has not even changed his wife and his pastor into optimistic, pleasant, reasonable people.  People become good through the hard work of cultivating themselves, not by filling up with the ch’i of gentlemen[2].

I also missed the holism of Confucius’s concept of self-cultivation.  To Confucius, everything a man partakes in, from entering a room to listening to music, is an expression of his personality and an opportunity for self-improvement.  Much of the Analects is devoted to matters like the proper way to do ritual and the way that classical music is beautiful.  Mencius broaches these topics, but he seems to do so in order to respond to Mozi: Mencius defends the importance of funeral rituals (III.A.2, IV.B.3), and he praises music but says that the king’s obligation to share this comfort with all (I.B.1).  Perhaps he did not want to repeat Confucius’s words, but he could have given the rituals and the arts more attention, especially given the high importance Xunzi accords them in his own work.  On balance, however, Mencius’s work is thought-provoking and a worthy addition to the ethical canon.


[1] Oddly enough, the heart actually has four chambers.

[2] And another thing: the ch’i concept could use a sight more philosophical rigor.

Your Blues: Connecting Blues Perspective with Community Catharsis

March 31, 2008

An essential aspect of blues is its attempt to chronicle the individual’s experience while making that experience sympathetic to everyone.  The interplay between individual and collective identity in the genre is an excellent example of this.  Individuals in blues songs truly represent groups of people.  Pronouns stack up without antecedents, and third-person characters (and even second- and first-person characters) are archetypes.  This generalization makes the music more accessible and hence makes possible the African-American Saturday night community catharsis that Albert Murray portrays as a twin to Sunday morning church services in Stomping the Blues.

If it seems questionable to argue that this goal distinguishes blues from other styles of art – doesn’t everyone want to be universal? – consider some art forms also popular at the time of the blues.  T.S. Eliot filled his poetry with erudite references that, apropos as they were to the way he felt, would have lost 95% of his readers given the absence of Wikipedia at that time.  Orchestral music and opera are well-disposed to communicating universal feelings (though opera songs make more sense inside the context of a larger work with a distinctive plot and characters), but due to monetary cost and segregation they were largely inaccessible to black people.  Blues, folk, and the like lower the common denominator, but that doesn’t automatically inferior.  If music is communication, then a hit song like “Sweet Home Chicago” should be celebrated as much as “Nessun Dorma.”

Almost all blues songs and poems are written in first person about the problems of the narrator.  If a second person is addressed, it is usually the narrator’s lover (“you sprinkled hot foot powder / all around my door”)[1], such that the song reads like an open letter.  Works written about a third person, such as Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues,” still often feature the narrator as an observer (“I heard a Negro play”) or else quote the third person so heavily that the story may well be the narrator’s way to speak obliquely about herself (“Gimme a Pigfoot”).

The third person is most often an archetype.  The fortune-telling gypsy woman is featured in “St. Louis Blues” and “Hoochie Coochie Man,” among others.  Of course, her oracles are correct, or else why would she be in the story?  The incompetent doctor, though not featured in our book, features in Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues[2].”  Hannah Brown, the “woman from across town,” is another fairly popular blues character.  She is a wild, fun-loving woman, and this name symbol gets the point across faster than a barrage of adjectives would.  Her name is a tool than any writer can use, like a hammer or a socket wrench.

Two individuals who are named are Clorinda of “Beale Street Blues” and Ma Rainey’s C. C. Rider.  Both of these names could be references which link the characters to larger traditions or feelings, however.  Given Langston Hughes’s erudition, it is possible that the name “Clorinda” refers to the character from “Jerusalem Delivered,” an epic poem by Torquato Tasso.  Clorinda is a Muslim warrior-maiden who is accidentally killed in battle by Tancredi, a Christian who loves her.  Before she dies, she converts to Christianity.  So just as the Clorinda of the epic was saved directly after violence, the woman in Hughes’s poem is saved by the music, be it jazz or simple chin music, she receives from her male counterpart.  Clorinda could also identify the character as an African-American woman, as it has the same lush European stylization as popular African-American names such as Cassandra and Marcus.  C. C. Rider’s name seems to be a pun, not only on the admonition “see, see rider” but also a reference to an “easy rider,” a sexually promiscuous person.  So even when individuals are named, it is to cleverly identify them with larger groups such that the songs are really about a class.

The writer must already sacrifice some individuality to fit into a certain genre.  This is as true for blues as it is for limericks and sonnets.  By choosing a certain form, a poet proscribes his range to fit the rhythm, mood, and structure of the piece, and even taps into the historical memory, including the beliefs and prejudices of people from that era.  A sonnet, for instance, will always remind one of frustrated 15th-century love, if only for an instant.  Sometimes genre will stifle an artist, and he will fight the record label to break free of it, as Marvin Gaye did with “What’s Going On,” but other writers seem to draw strength from inclusion in a certain tradition: see Jayne Cortez’s blues homage “You Know.”

The advent of the record player contributed heavily to the generalization of music lyrics and blues in particular.  Prior to records and radio, one could only hear music in person at live performances.  Each of these would be unique and often catered to the local audience (as did Johnny Cash’s famous set in Folsom Prison).  Whereas a live performance is distributed to a few hundred people, records are distributed nationally, so major labels are inclined to erase local color unless they can successfully advertise it as “authenticity.”  More importantly, because records are mass-produced, one take of a song will become the definitive version.  Recording has even changed the way we experience live music: bands are practically obligated to play their most popular recordings at every show because the audience comes largely to validate the experience of their favorite albums.  The more people can relate to a song, the more will buy it, and this is another incentive for blues writers to find the most universal subject matter possible.  Before records, “St. Louis Blues” might have had more local color in order to have a greater impact on its St. Louis listeners, but as is it’s about the city in name only.

There is a part of the blues community that seems fiercely individual, however: the musicians.  They had a keen interest in promoting themselves because popularity would help sell records and concerts.  Murray writes that although many musicians don’t admit it, they put a good deal of effort into creating a “look,” and the many photos in his book attest to that.  The performers expand on the blues aesthetic, including its clothing style, the same way they expand on the written music with improvisation.  Dizzy Gillespie is only the most obvious example.  Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington all dressed in classy suits which were part of the jazz look, but each had a personal twist: a crushed top hat, an uncomfortable-looking double-breasted suit, and a pencil thin moustache, respectively.  Also, whereas a symphony orchestra or a string quartet will put the pieces it is playing front and center in its advertisements and records and the identity of the performers (which is just as important to one’s purchase) in the liner notes, the album advertisements for Clarence Williams, Clara Smith, and Mamie Smith provided in Stomping the Blues give three quarters of the space to an artist profile and biography and a mere quarter to the songs being performed.  A number of the more contemporary blues poems in Kevin Young’s collection are about individuals, but note who the individuals are: Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Robert Johnson…these are public figures, heroes of the blues, and these poems attempt to tap into the collective memory of their music.  Blues heroes as currently presented bear more than a passing resemblance to the gods on Mount Olympus.  The performers’ individual talents deserve to be celebrated, though, because their talents help make the moment possible for the community, as Sterling Browne demonstrates in “Ma Rainey.”

The generality of the songs does not drain them of personal interest.  Songs like “Empty Bed Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail” have interesting plots, and the listener hangs on to every word to learn that becomes of the characters, as if they are three-minute soaps.  The purpose of these songs, rather, is to relate to the millions of people who feel like they are suffering alone, as the narrator is.  “Ma Rainey” demonstrates how this experience: the first two stanzas catalogue the diverse transportation methods and hometowns of the thousands of people who come to hear Ma Rainey.  The third is a message of encouragement from the community to singer who inspires them.  In the fourth, the narrator recounts his friend’s story about Ma Rainey singing “Backwater Blues,” a song about someone who sees her home destroyed in a flood.  Note the nested perspective of this stanza: the narrator quotes his friend who is quoting Ma Rainey who is quoting “Backwater Blues,” meaning the story has run through four different people before the reader got a hold of it, an elegant representation of collective memory.  Thousands of people have nowhere to go now, but she does not end the poem with an expression of hope for her community.  Rather, she reflects more upon her own trouble: “Backwater blues done caused me to pack my things and go / ‘Cause my house fell down and I can’t live there no mo’ / Mmmmmmmmm, I can’t move no mo’.”  The last line is an interesting grammatical turn: “There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go.”  By using this particular colloquial structure, the narrator is simultaneously talking about herself and the entire class of poor old girls[3].  Ma Rainey’s performance is a cathartic experience for the community: “An’ den de folks, dey natchally bowed dey heads an’ cried.”  Ma follows some of the folks outside, showing her solidarity with them.  The experience could not happen without her, but it also could not happen if she were not one of them[4]. The blues balance between the individual and the community, manifested in lyrics, poetry, and performance, has created a triumph.


[1] Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”

[2] While these are Bob Dylan songs more than they are blues songs, they borrow enough of the blues structure, from rhythm to chord changes to storytelling style (starting with the vintage titles) to deserve mention.

[3] The Rolling Stones, who are often connected with blues, provide another example of this strategy: “But what can a poor boy do / Except to sing for a rock n roll band? / ‘Cause in sleepy London Town / There’s just no place for a street fighting man.”

[4] I suspect this is one reason for Murray’s disregard for talented white jazz musicians Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa.