Book VI is perhaps the book of the Mengzi that has had the most scholarly focus; it relates Master Meng's views to a number of longstanding debates in Chinese philosophy and therefore plays an important role in understanding how his claims fit into context.
We know almost nothing about the philosopher Gaozi who is Mencius's first interlocutor; he is mentioned favorably in passing in II.A.2, and other than that almost all of our knowledge of him comes from VI.A itself. One of the major disputes in Confucian philosophy has always been the goodness or badness of human nature (renxing) -- Mengzi takes a fairly strong stand arguing that human beings are naturally good, Xunzi famously takes an opposing stand that they are not. Master Gao seems to want to advocate a third position, in which human nature is neutral. Thus he compares human nature to willow wood and morality to carved cups and bowls (VI.A.1); he also compares human nature to whirling water and says that human nature will go where there is an outlet (VI.A.2). The reason for this view is that he takes human nature to be what is itself innate (VI.A.3), like desire for food and sex (VI.A.4). Mencius thinks is a defective understanding of what a nature (xing) is in the first place; the thriving of a thing is natural to it, and thriving is neither neutral nor merely innate like desire for food and sex. We have seen the basic idea already in Mencius's account of the sprouts of moral life:
The heart of compassion is possessed by all men alike; likewise the heart of shame, the heart of respect, and the heart of right and wrong. The heart of compassion pertains to benevolence, the heart of shame to dutifulness, the heart of respect to the observance of rites, and the heart of right and wrong to wisdom. Benevolence, dutifulness, observance of rites, and wisdom are not welded on to me from the outside; they are in me originally. (VI.A.6)
This thriving, however, is affected by cultivation as well, just as the growth of a plant is affected by cultivation (VI.A.7; VI.A.8; VI.A.9). Learning involves seeking our own hearts when we stray from them (VI.A.11); the difficult thing is that when we do so, we lose our sense to recognize that we are straying in the first place (VI.A.12). Cultivating our nature requires having a right sense of priorities, and recognizing, for instance, that there are more important things than food and drink (VI.A.14) or that things conducive to virtue are higher honors, endowed by Heaven, than any human honor (VI.A.15; VI.A.16).
VI.A.15 is an important passage for understanding the key Mencian idea of solicitude (si). If our nature is good, what makes one man greater than another? Some parts of us are of greater importance than other parts (cp. VI.A.14). Those who cultivate their greater parts more become greater. Eyes and ears see and hear, but they do not care (si), they do not pay attention. The office of the heart is to attend. One only becomes great by caring enough to concentrate on greater things. (This is, incidentally, a point of potential contact with Aristotelian virtue ethics, since the proper act of prudence is solicitude, alert attention to what is to be done, which at least has an affinity to what Mencius means by si.)
Book VI.B (Gaozi II)
In VI.B.1 Mencius continues the line of argument developed in VI.A by claiming that rites (li) are more important than food or sex. The objection, however, is that if we were starving we would certainly choose food rather than rights. Master Meng is unimpressed with the objection, however. If you only measure sticks by where their ends end up, it is easy to treat them as all equal; but in reality you need to know the base as well as the tip. If you rig situations so that relatively unimportant parts of human nature have, in the cirumstances, a greater than usual importance, this does not tell you whether they are actually more important than other things: "In saying that gold is heavier than feathers, surely one is not referring to the amount of gold in a clasp and a whole cartload of feathers?"
In VI.B.4, Mencius talks with another philosopher, Song Keng, who was a pacifist. Mencius finds him going to try to stop the hostilities between Qin and Chu by going to talk to the king of Chu to argue that war is unprofitable, and, if that does not work, doing the same with the king of Qin. Mencius likes the goal, but regards the means as defective: appeals to what is profitable or useful or beneficial are themselves problematic. Societies are held together by people regarding something as higher than their own benefit; they cannot be preserved by treating benefit as the essential thing. Song Keng would do better to pursue his goal on moral grounds.
Mencius reflects in VI.B.15 on the fact that a large number of great men came from difficult backgrounds:
...Heaven, when it is about to place a great burden on a man, always first tests his resolution, exhausts his frame and makes him suffer starvation and hardship, frustrates his efforts so as to shake him from his mental lassitude, toughen his nature and make good his deficiencies.
Human beings generally learn best from adversity; they are more likely to use their ingenuity if faced with difficult problems; they need a threat hanging over their heads to avoid degeneration: "...we survive in adversity and perish in ease and comfort."
to be continued