Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Mencius, Book V

Book V.A (Wan Zhang I)

In the fifth book we see Master Meng as a teacher, answering questions from students and commenting on texts. Many of the sections comment on various aspects of the reign of the legendary hero-king Shun. In addition to this theme, the book as a whole is also unified by the student Wan Zhang, who is in thirteen out of eighteen total sections (eight in A and five in B). Other themes that recur are the mandate of heaven and the responsibility for ministers to put the Way into practice.

In the first three sections Wan Zhang and Mencius discuss various things attributed to the life of Shun and how they relate to moral questions. V.A.1 discusses whether Shun, because he wept over the treatment his parents gave him, bore a grudge against his parents (i.e., failed to be dutiful to his parents); Mencius replies that it is part of the relation of son to parent to want to be loved by parent, and thus that it shows his dutifulness to his parents:

When a person is young he yearns for his parents; when he begins to take an interest in women, he years for the young and beautiful; when he has a wife, he yearns for his wife; when he enters public life he yearns for his prince and becomes restless if he is without one. A son of supreme dutifulness yearns for his parents all his life.

But Wan Zhang presses the point in V.A.2. When Shun married, neither he nor his father-in-law, the Emperor, told his parents, which seems a bad example to follow. Mencius is not impressed by the argument, though; the reason Shun's parents weren't told was that they would have opposed the marriage. Nor was this in any way undutiful; to have to forgo such an important relationship as marriage simply on one's parent's whim is, besides not good in itself, the sort of thing that makes one bitter against one's parents. Shun's younger brother Xiang, with the help of his parents, tried to kill him, but failed; Shun, however, went on as if nothing had happened, and Wan Zhang wonders whether Shun could have been so oblivious (presumably because it reflects on his wisdom)? Mencius, however, doesn't think he was oblivious but that he was just strongly attached to his brother. This leads in V.A.3 to a related question: Xiang constantly tried to kill Shun, but Shun made Xiang prince -- this seems problematic, because, as Wan Zhang notes, it seems a rather bad thing to do to the people he made Xiang prince over. But Mencius replies that a humane man loves his brother, and wishes him to do well. At the same time, however, he took care of the people by appointing officials to do the actual work of government.

The rest of Part A consists of a common pattern of someone (in every case except V.A.4 Wan Zhang) asking Master Meng whether something commonly said about some important figure is true; Mencius then goes on to argue that this common claim doesn't make any sense and that something else must be true. In the course of doing this he gives us a great deal of information about his views on several subjects. For instance, V.A.5 gives us Mencius's basic idea of the mandate of Heaven. According to common story, Yao gave the Empire to Shun, who succeeded him. Mencius, however, denies that this makes sense; the Empire is not an Emperor's to give. What actually happened is that Yao recommended Shun to Heaven and Heaven accepted the recommendation by turning the Empire over to Shun. This was seen reflected in the fact that his sacrifices went well and that the people flocked to his support without being in any way forced to do so.

This discussion continues with V.A.6, in which a contrast case is considered: people say that Yu tried to choose Yi as his successor, but whose successor ended up being his own son, thus showing that people were less virtuous. Mencius denies this, however; it is a matter of what Heaven does. When Shun recommended Yu, Yu did not grasp after the throne; Shun's son could have been Emperor, but people continued to treat Yu as Emperor because of all the good he had done in cooperation with Shun. The same thing happened in the case of Yu: Yu recommended Yi to Heaven, and Yi did not grasp after it. But the people did not flock to Yi; they flocked to Qi and supported him because he was the son of their Emperor. Yi had not helped Yu for as long as Yu had helped Shun or Shun had helped Yao; and, moreover, Shun and Yu were obviously better people than the dissolute sons who didn't get the throne, while Qi was not himself a bad or stupid man at all. Thus, Mencius says, it is not enough to be a good and virtuous man: one must also have the recommendation of the Emperor (which is why Confucius was never Emperor), and Heaven does not set aside the sons unless they are depraved (which is why a good man with the Imperial recommendation like Yi was never Emperor).

As is always the case in Confucian discussions of the mandate of Heaven, an obvious concern throughout this discussion is to insist that moral principle has a superiority over political will -- it is Heaven, not human design, that makes emperors -- but it is also true that Confucians never assume that ruling is only a matter of being virtuous.

Book V.B (Wan Zhang II)

The second part of Book V seems less structured than the first part, but a number of sections have to do with ministers serving princes. V.B.1 discusses a number of several different ministers who could seriously be considered sages, drawing lessons about the nature of wisdom from their cases. It also identifies the sense in which Mencius takes Confucius to be a great sage:

Po Yi was the sage who was unsullied; Yi Yin was the sage who accepted responsibility; Liu Hsia Hui was the sage who was easy-going; Confucius was the sage whose actions were timely. Confucius was the one who gathered together all that was good. To do this is to open with bells and conclude with jade tubes. To open with bells is to begin in an orderly fashion; to conclude with jade tubes is to end in an orderly fashion. To begin in an orderly fashion is the concern of the wise while to end in an orderly fashion is the concern of a sage. Wisdom is like a skill, shall I say, while sageness is like strength. It is like shooting from beyond a hundred paces. It is due to your strength that the arrow reaches the target, but it is not due to your strength that it hits the mark.

One significant aspect of this conclusion is that, as Mencius understands it, sagehood is consistent with many different styles and talents. The great ministers here, Bo Yi, Yi Yin, Liu Xia Hui, Master Kong, all had very different approaches. What makes Confucius the greatest of these was not so much that he was more of a sage but that he was adaptable, so that he was not merely skilled in this or that but able to adjust his actions to any circumstances. Other sages had the strength of character to 'hit the target', but their doing so depended to some extent on how well suited their talents were to their situation; Confucius, on the other hand, could hit the target under a wide variety of conditions. This adaptability is shown in V.B.4: "Confucius took office sometimes because he thought there was a possibility of practising the way, sometimes because he was treated with decency, and sometimes because the prince wished to keep good people at his court." It is likely that this is also at least part of the point of V.B.5 and V.B.7.

V.B.8 gives us another insight into Mencius's understanding of the importance of the ancients, calling it "looking for friends in history":

And not content with making friends with the best Gentlemen in the Empire, he goes back in time and communes with the ancients. When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence one tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as "looking for friends in history".

The truly noble in a sense transcend the times. Their rightful companions are determined by virtue (cp. V.B.3), not transient things.

to be continued

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