Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Mencius, Book IV

Book IV.A (Li Lou I)

Unlike most of the books of the Mengzi, this book is not named after Mencius's first interlocutor, but after the first person he mentions. Much of the book seems to take place in, or discuss matters relevant to the state of Qi, but thematically benevolence or humanity to self and others, especially in government, comes up often. The beginning of IV.A, in fact, has a number of sections that together make up a fairly thorough discussion of the subject.

IV.A.I gives Master Meng's account of why he insists so much on the importance of the Former Kings. In a given art, to reach new heights, the genius or sage has to strain himself to the utmost. However, one of the things that happens in the progress of an art is that the one wise in it also comes to invent ways to do it more easily. Thus it once took the very best draftsmen to draw excellent squares and circles; but one of the things those great draftsmen learned how to do was to use carpenter's squares and compasses. Once tuning took an extraordinary ear; but with this extraordinary feat came also, eventually, the pitch-pipe. And so too the sages of a former day strained themselves to the utmost to govern well, and through this they learned the basic principles of benevolent government. To try to govern without building on their discovery is like insisting on drawing perfect circles without any help. A state depends on its governors having principles, so that they can be understood, their courtiers know how to act, the measures that make trade possible can be regarded with complete trust as uncorrupted and incorruptible, the nobles are not degenerate, and the commoners are not in constant danger of punishment. The sages of yesterday are the templates, the compasses and squares, for good governance (IV.A.2). And this is seen by the fact that genuine success, seen through the long lens of history, is so closely connected with the question: empires on the rise become famous for making people's lives better, while those in decline become famous for cruelty and suffering; humane lords tend to prosper and cruel ones we see to be sowing the seeds of their own destruction; and so on down to the commoner who is more likely to live a long and enjoyable life if he is humane than if he is cruel (IV.A.3). Through humanity to self and others rulers become loved and their realms orderly (IV.A.4, IV.A.5, IV.A.6). When people do not follow the Way, the entire order of things becomes unstable and upside down, with those who are unable to rule well ruling those who would be able to rule well, but one who takes the Former Kings as model can become truly great in a very short time (IV.A.7; cp. IV.A. 13). Nor is this surprising: cruel men are the men least inclined to listen to reason, thus contributing to their destruction (IV.A.8), and a state depends on the love of its people, which requires being humane to them (IV.A.9).

What is more, it is the more natural path, that one that requires doing less violence to oneself and others, the one that makes things work with the least effort. It is something of which we are all capable:
Benevolence is man's peaceful abode and rightness his proper path. It is indeed lamentable for anyone not to live in his peaceful abode and not to follow his proper path (IV.A.10).

What is required to start achieving it is to love one's parents and defer to one's elders (IV.A.11). (IV.A.12 is often regarded as an interpolation, because it has a number of stylistic differences from most of the rest of the book, but it does fit in fairly well with the thought that the book has developed so far.) All of this is a matter of actually doing, not merely saying the words (IV.A.21, IV.A.22, IV.A.23).

IV.A.27 gives us the key elements of the virtuous life, along with the actions by which we begin to express them:

ren benevolence (humanity to self and others) serving one's parents
yi rightness (correctness, dutifulness) deference to one's elder brothers
chih wisdom (understanding) understanding & committing to benevelence & rightness
li rites (appropriate norms of behavior) orderly adornment of benevolence & rightness
yue music delight in benevolence & rightness

It seems reasonable to see a progression here: benevolence and rightness make possible wisdom, which, because it is an understanding and commitment to them, inevitably leads to rites that show forth their excellence; and when this is done, they begin to take forms that are delightful. When that happens, the moral life has begun to flourish.

Book IV.B (Li Lou II)

IV.B is more of a mixed collection than IV.A, with some extended passages and many brief aphorisms, as well as a section (IV.B.33) in which Mencius doesn't appear at all. A number of the sections have to do with the Former Kings, so we can perhaps consider this part of the book as extending and commenting on the main arguments of IV.A.

Since a number of sage kings show up, it is perhaps worthwhile to say something about them.

Shun (IV.B.1, IV.B.19, IV.B.28, IV.B.32): According to tradition, he died somewhere around 2184 BC. He was a minister under Emperor Yao, and was so effective at administering everything that Yao named him his heir. His rein is continually associated with ritual order. He was careful and thorough with sacrifices, regularized weights and measures, divided the realm into administrative units, and enforced ceremonial norms.

Wen Wang (IV.B.1, IV.B.20): He died about 1056 BC, and was one of the greatest epic heroes of Chinese legend. He was considered the founder of the Zhou dynasty, although he himself did not live to see the victory of the Zhou dynasty over the Shang dynasty. He rose to power by the sheer force of respect: his officials admired him, other nobles admired him, allied powers admired him, and so when he needed resources to accomplish his goals, he easily found them. By tradition he is the originator of the principles that later became embodied in the I Ching.

Yu (IV.B.20, IV.B.26, IV.B.29): By tradition, he died around 2100 BC. He is said to have been the founder of the Xia dynasty and his most famous and legendary feat is controlling the flood. His father, Gun, had been charged by Emperor Yao with finding a solution to the many floods that plagued the land, but despite a great deal of ingenuity was unable to find one. Yu followed in his father's footsteps, studying the ways of water and the system of rivers, and discovered the key: the reason all the ingenious solutions had failed was that they were acting against the nature of water. The way to handle the flooding was to work with the water. In other words: the problem is solved not primarily by making dams, which could only be supplemental, but by making irrigation canals. Instead of holding the flood back, direct it to the fields where it could be useful. This was a hard task, requiring much digging and dredging, and Yu was said to have lived with the common workers while he did it. This tale could hardly have been a better allegory for Mencius's idea of the moral life if it had been specifically invented for the purpose, so it is unsurprising that Mencius puts a fair amount of emphasis on it.

Tang (IV.B.20): Tang died around 1646 BC and was the founder of the Shang dynasty. He overthrow Jie, the corrupt ruler of the Xia dynasty, by taking advantage of the fact that Jie mistreated those under his command; he offered the people and nobles better treatment, and also had a sense of when someone had useful talent. When he reigned, the kingdom expanded and became more powerful even while taxes were lowered and the army became less dependent on conscription.

Wu Wang (IV.B.20): He was the second son of King Wen and the actual first king of the Zhou dynasty. His elder brother, the Duke of Zhou, was part of the secret of his success, and also managed to hold onto the kingdom after King Wu's death, despite extensive rebellions and attempts by the Shang to regain the hegemony.

Qi (IV.B.29): He was the son of Yu and the second king of the Xia dynasty. He was actually not his father's heir, but he was so widely admired by the nobles for his work in his behalf that the heir had to step aside for him.

Yao (IV.B.32): He is, with Shun his successor and Yu the Great, one of the great legendary kings of ancient China. He organized the kingdom, worked on the development of an accurate calendar through astronomical observation, and he and Shun are often credited with inventing the earliest version of the game of Go, weiqi, in an attempt to give his wanton playboy son a more wholesome and beneficial pastime.

Despite the emphasis on the ancient kings, one of the recurring themes of this book is that the way of the Former Kings is in fact available to us all; one of the striking examples of this is in IV.B.29, in which he puts Confucius' student Yan Hui in the same class as Yu and Qi, which is extraordinarily high praise.

One of the interesting short comments in this part of the Book is IV.B.22, in which he says that influence only lasts to the fifth generation. Mencius himself is, according to tradition, the fourth from Confucius: his teacher is said to have been Zisi (Confucius's grandson), who was taught by Boyu (Confucius's son), who was, of course, taught by Confucius. The comment can perhaps be seen as expressing Mencius's sense that even the teachings of great teachers need regular renewal or they fade, and that the Confucian way that he upholds is in danger of approaching its end already. The comment also shows a savvy historical awareness of philosophical influence, which proceeds by chains of indirect teaching, each step increasing the risk of confusion, loss of thought, or loss of emphasis.

to be continued

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