Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Mencius, Book III

Book III.A (Teng Wen Gong I)

The focus of Book III is on affairs along the border between Qi and Chu, particularly the realm of Teng, and understanding something about this little kingdom is valuable for understanding the philosophical arguments of this section of the Mengzi. The ruler of Teng who is of importance is Duke Wen; we met him in Book I (I.B.13-15), where he already gives some of the background.

Teng was immediately to the east and north of Song, which is why it's easy for Duke Wen (before he has ascended to become Duke Wen) to get advice from Master Meng residing in Song. It was also just south of Lu, of which it was often a vassal, and (if I am not mistaken amidst all the many border changes in this period) the also-tiny state of Zou, which was also often a vassal state of Lu and was where Mencius himself was born. It was located where the current city of Tengzhou, once its capital, is located; in fact, the entire ancient kingdom would easily fit within the jurisdiction of the modern city. Duke Wen inherited what is perhaps the single most unfortunate situation in the period: a tiny kingdom with a tiny population surrounded on almost all sides by more powerful neighbors, and, in particular, right at the border of political and military influence between two especially aggressive opposing kingdoms, Qi and Chu. In Book I.B, Duke Wen asks Mencius whether he should throw his lot in with Qi or Chu, and Mencius concedes the near-impossibility of finding an adequate answer to that particular question. Teng, then, provides some of the hardest questions of the day for political philosophy and statesmanship. Another significant fact about Teng is that it was the birthplace of the philosopher Mozi; it is thus unsurprising that we find a bit of interaction between Mencius and Mohist philosophers here.

III.A opens with a succession of episodes with regard to Duke Wen: his meeting with Mencius prior to ascending the throne, his consultation with Mencius on his father's funeral arrangement and the success he achieved in following Mencius's advice, and then a discussion of how a king should handle the economics of his kingdom. To be constant, the people need means of support, so working to make sure that they have it is a major and immediate priority. One of the policies that Master Meng discusses is the ching-field system. This is sometimes translated as 'well-field', because ching means 'well', but the system has nothing to do with wells. The reason it is called the ching-field system is due not to the meaning of the word ching, but to the fact that the Chinese character for it is two strokes crossed by two strokes -- in other words, it looks very similar to our hash, #. The ching-field system, therefore, divides an area into nine fields. The center field will belong to the state, the eight outer fields to various families; the center field will be cared for by the eight families together. This system provides a continual stream of revenue for the state, but much more importantly, it encourages cooperation among the people. In order to fulfill their responsibilities and keep their fields, people need to know their neighbors and find ways to work with them: "If those who own land within each ching befriend one another both at home and abroad, help each other to keep watch, and succour each other in illness, they will live in love and harmony" (III.A.3).

This part ends with Mencius's interaction with Mohists and Mohist-inspired philosophical movements in the region. Xu Xing preaches a philosophy of simplicity; according to tradition, he was the student of a student of Mozi, so he seems to be taking Master Moh's emphasis on simplicity to an extreme. The Mengzi says that he proclaimed the teachings of Shen Nong, the legendary creator of agriculture, so it's rural simplicity in particular that he advocates. A couple of Confucians, Chen Xiang and his brother Xin, convert to his teachings, and the former criticizes the economic policies of Duke Wen, and thus implicitly criticizes Mencius himself, whom we have just encountered giving Duke Wen economic advice. According to Xu Xing, the prince should farm along with the people and support himself by that means instead of filling up granaries by collecting from the people. You will note that this is not consistent with the ching-field system. Mencius points out that Xu Xing does not make everything himself; he must trade for most of it. And ruling an Empire is not an exception to this need for division of labor. He gives the example of the ancient hero-kings of China, who were involved in incessant projects for the good of their people. In addition, he sharply criticizes Chen Xiang himself for deviating from his Confucian teacher in order to follow "the southern barbarian with the twittering tongue, who condemns the way of the Former Kings" (III.A.4). Chen Xiang protests that the way of Xu Xing will restore honesty to the economic system by making everything equal, but Master Meng insists that it is this very fact that shows the intrinsic tendency of the policy to cultivate dishonest practices:

That things are unequal is part of their nature. Some are worth twice or five times, ten or a hundred times, even a thousand and ten thousand times, more than others. If you reduce them to the same level, it will only bring confusion to the Empire. If a roughly finished shoe sells at the same price as a finely finished one, who would make the latter? If we follow the way of Hsü Tzu, we will be showing one another teh way to being dishonest. How can one govern a state in this way?

In III.A.5, Mencius crosses arguments with the Mohist Yi Zhi over funeral practices for one's parents. The Mohists are big on simplicity and frugality, but Yi Zhi himself departed from this in giving his parents a lavish funeral. The rest of the passage is relatively obscure, and the exact interpretation somewhat disputed. Yi Zhi responds by appealing to the Confucian principle that the ancient kings did well because they cared for people as if they were caring for a newborn baby, and argues that it suggests not the Confucian doctrine of gradations of love but the Mohist doctrine of universal love. This is an argument of some potential bite, since, as we saw in Book II, Mencius's own argument for the rootedness of virtue in human nature was that we all will have compassion for a baby in danger.

It's unclear how it responds to the point about the funeral, but here is a rough possibility (partly suggested by Kwong-loi Shun's "Mencius' Criticism of Mohism: An Analysis of "Meng Tzu" 3A: 5", Philosophy East and West, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 203-214, although I am simplifying the idea somewhat and glossing over nuances): Yi Zhi is arguing that lavish funerals are in fact (contrary to what one would expect from Mozi himself) consistent with the Mohist principle of universal love, which itself is the root of the Mohist critique of lavish funerals. In particular, the problem Mohists have with lavish funerals when they criticize them is not merely that they are lavish but that they are so in a way harmful to the good of society, because they violate the Mohist principle of universal love. If one approaches the funerals the right way, as a stepping-stone to acting with universal love, there is no real inconsistency. The Confucians, on this view, are actually guilty of the inconsistency, because they recognize that we would all protect a baby, and that the hero-kings were righteous because they protected the people as one would protect a baby, and they take the hero-kings to be exemplars for behavior, but they wish to combine all of these things with a principle of gradations in love, when they really show the importance of equality in love. Mencius replies in turn that while we would all protect a baby, this does not mean that we love all children equally. The one impulse of compassion will apply to all babies, but it will naturally apply even more to family members and so forth. There is no need for the balancing act of guiding our natural expression of affection for our parents according to Mohist universal principles that do not derive from this affection, as suggested by Yi Zhi; the whole of one's treatment of people flows from one properly cultivated source. Why have a lavish funeral for one's parents in particular? Because our compassion does have special regard for our parents, as can be seen if we reflect on what happens if sons see their parents' corpses rotting in the sun.

Book III.B (Teng Wen Gong II)

At the beginning of III.B, Mencius reiterates against several suggestions by various figures, probably his students, that the proper motive for action, including Mencius's own teaching, is not profit; one must act according to principle, and not be deflected from it by purported benefits. He also corrects the mistake (III.B.4) of thinking that the moral person can never benefit for his work, because benefits should be apportioned to the actual achieving of good, not according to whether people were aiming to be benefited. We continue with advice for the situations in between Qi and Chu, particularly for the kingdom of Song.

III.B.9, however, is particularly interesting. Gong Du notes that other schools regard Master Meng as particularly disputatious, and asks why. Mencius replies by giving an account of his entire approach. He does not argue because he wants to do so, but because he is forced to do so by the situation. He does not live in a time of sage-kings and heroes, but in a period of degeneration, in which all sorts of aberrant and dangerous philosophical movements are springing up:

The teachings current in the Empire are those of either the school of Yang or the school of Mo. Yang advocates everyone for himself which amounts to a denial of one's prince; Mo advocates love without discrimination, which amounts to a denial of one's father. To ignore one's father on the one hand, and one's prince on the other, is to be no different from the beasts.

We know very little about Yang, beyond a story, common to several sources, that he said he would refuse the throne of the Empire if it required harming even a hair on his head, and so cannot measure how accurate Mencius's assessment is. But it seems clear enough from what Mencius does say that, from his perspective, Yang and Mo are in one sense opposites -- Yang holds that one must focus on one's self and Mo holds that one must regard everyone equally -- but they both share the notion that our moral life is to be governed by some kind of benefit or profit. Against this Mencius is advocating the teaching of Confucius, which can form a middle way because it does not build on the notion of profit or benefit, but on the more fundamental principles of human nature. This teaching is not a mere abstract or academic pursuit; it shows the way to be moral and human, and a society in which this is not cultivated is a society in which men will turn on each other like beasts, a state, in other words, of some form of civil war. This is the reason for Master Meng's emphasis on argument:

The Duke of Chou wanted to punish those who ignored father and prince. I, too, wish to follow in the footsteps of the three sages in rectifying the hearts of men, laying heresies to rest, opposing extreme action, and banishing excessive views. I am not fond of disputation. I have no alternative. Whoever can, with words, combat Yang and Mo is a true disciple of the sages.

The last section, III.B.10, is perhaps an illustration of this, because he criticizes rather sharply a man he otherwise respects, because of the extremeness of his views and actions.

to be continued

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