Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Mencius, Book II

Book II.A (Gong Sun Chou I)

Much of Book II seems focused on Mencius in the state of Qi, where he spent several of his years. Most of the discussion that is given some explicit link to society is linked to Qi in some way, and II.B will end with Mencius leaving Qi.

Book II.A opens with a common theme throughout the work, Master Meng opposing common conceptions of success. Gong Sun Chou proposes two famous statesmen from the history of Qi: (1) Guan Zhong, a reforming Prime Minister who, by restructuring the revenues of the state and introducing new kinds of taxation, massively strengthened the state, making it possible for his king, Duke Huan, to rise to become hegemon of the feudal states loosely allied to the Zhou. (2) Yan Ying, also known as Ping Zhong or Yanzi, sometimes considered the most brilliant politician of the Spring and Autumn period; he is mentioned favorably by Confucius in the Analects for his humility despite the success of his plans and his position as advisor to three successive kings of Qi

Mencius replies by telling a story of Zeng Xi, the disciple of Confucius, who was asked specifically about these two. Zeng Xi repeats Master Kong's approval of Yanzi, but is offended at being compared with Guan Zhong because he accomplished so little despite having so much to work with. Gong Sun Chou is surprised at this assessment, noting that Guan Zhong made his prince a leader among leaders; but Master Meng replies that one could go much further: to make the King of Qi the King is "as easy as turning over one's hand" (p. 74). Gong Sun Chou points to the famous Chinese hero, King Wen of Zhou; even he did not manage to accomplish this. But Mencius is entirely admiring of King Wen. The difference is that while becoming the King is easy, not everyone starts in the same place. King Wen started at a time when aristocratic traditions were strong; there were many competent statesmen elsewhere in those days; and he had almost nothing to start with. The task may be easy but that does not mean that it does not take time, and King Wen, who famously lived to the age of a hundred, did not have the time given all of the difficulties he faced rising to power. But the modern day is not like this; Qi already has the territory, it already has the population, and all it requires is humane government to become the foremost power in China -- the people, who have suffered greatly, are practically crying out for it and, as Mencius says, it is easy to feed the starving and give drink to the parched.

The conversation with Gong Sun Chou continues in II.A.2, in which Mencius contrasts two extremes, of focusing too much on the external act and of focusing too much on the internal impulse, and emphasizes the importance of cultivating both properly. Thus we get the story of the Man from Sung (a proverbial expression for a stupid person):

There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realizing what he had done. "I am worn out today," said he to his family. "I have been helping the rice plants to grow." His son rushed out to take a look and there the plants were, all shrivelled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their rice plants grow. There are some who leave the plants unattended, thinking that nothing they can do will be of any use. They are the people who do not even bother to weed. There are others who help the plants grow. They are the people who pull at them. (p. 78)

II.A.6 is one of the most famous passages in the book. Master Meng argues that the principles of morality are found in human nature itself, in what he calls the shoots or sprouts. We see that these are in human nature by considering the case of a child falling into a well, and recognizing that human beings in such a case would be moved to compassion, but not because of any prior regard for profit or reputation. Analogous argument can be given for the sense of shame, the sense of responsibility, and the sense of right. Each of these shoots, properly cultivated, grows into a virtue. Thus we have the following correspondence:

Shoot Rough Meaning of Shoot Corresponding Virtue (Common Translation) Rough Meaning of Virtue
Sense of Compassion ce-yin: ache for the pain of others Benevolence ren: humanity to self and others
Sense of Shame xiu-wu: distaste for badness Righteousness yi: accordance with role and duty
Sense of Responsibility ci-rang: deference to others Propriety li: maintaining appropriateness of behavior
Sense of Right shi-fei: approving and disapproving Wisdom zhi: knowing how to act

The meanings given are all rough and approximated out of different common translations. The four virtues listed are four of the Five Constant Virtues based on Confucius's discussion of good character at Analects 17.6. The virtue that is missing here is xin, meaning something like fidelity, sincerity, integrity; the standard Neo-Confucian interpretation of this absence, if I understand it correctly, is that xin is just the virtue of having the other virtues with proper commitment.

The question often arises as to how the Confucian virtues relate to the Aristotelian virtues; a common view seems to be that Aristotle's phronesis or prudence is fairly close to the Confucian zhi or (occasionally) yi. I will not go into a full discussion of this here. But given Mencius's accounts both of the shoots and the cultivation, it seems to me that all of the Five Constant Virtues have a relation to character analogous to phronesis in action, and thus if one wanted to synthesize them, the route that would make the most sense is to see each of the five as expressing an aspect of phronesis.

The rest of this part focuses on the importance of humanity to self and others (II.A.7), the importance of being willing to learn (II.A.8), and the importance of moderation in how one relates to imperfect and sometimes awful human beings (II.A.9).

Book II.B (Gong Sun Chou II)

Many of the sections in the early part involve Mencius answering criticism of himself for his actions in the service of the state of Qi. In II.B.2, Mencius is getting in trouble for not showing the the king of Qi proper respect; he responds that he is the man in Qi who most respects the king, because he is the only one who insists on telling the king what he must do to be virtuous. When impatiently told that this is not the issue, but his failure to conform to proper rites, Mencius responds that since rank, age, and virtue all have their proper claim to be recognized with respect, the king should consult those with the latter, and not peremptorily summon them, as if age and virtue were somehow less important to the kingdom than rank.

Beginning with II.B.10, we get a series of sections discussing what happened when Mencius resigned his position and left Qi. A common theme is that Mencius will not remain for any price; he came to advise the king and was not heeded, so there is no point in his staying.

to be continued

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