Mencius and Self-Cultivation

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: China, La Vida, Philosophy, Schoolwork

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