Philosophers: Meng-zi
(also known as Mencius and Mang-tsu)
(c.371-c.289 BCE)

[Life & work] | [On-line introductions] | [On-line texts]

Despite his position as the second-greatest Confucian philosopher, Meng-zi's life is very scantily documented. He has left an account of his movements and doings in the period of his public life, but what happened before and after that period of about twenty-four years is left untold. He was born either in Zou or the neighbouring state of Lu, and studied Confucianism with a disciple of K'ung fu-zi's grandson. Having developed his ideas, and finding himself living at a time of disruption and political fragmentation, he travelled round the various states of China in the attempt to influence their rulers. He seems to have been respectfully received, in general, but also to have had little practical effect. He therefore withdrew from public life, and (so far as we know) spent his remaining years working, with his disciples, on the records of his travels and his teachings (in the form of dialogues), which they arranged and edited into the Meng-zi (Book of Mencius or just Mencius. This eventually became one of the Confucian Four Books chosen by Zhu Xi, which were the set texts for the Imperial examinations.

Meng-zi argued that human beings are naturally good, and naturally act morally — they have compassion and the ability to tell right from wrong; evil, then, is the result of external influences. Thus the aim of all learning should be to regain our natural state which is latent within us, and indeed to become sages. This isn't easy, though, and it's important to work at wisdom — not in isolation, but among other people, for real wisdom concerns how we live with and treat others. It's not that everyone could become the equal of K.ung fu-zi, but we all have the capacity to become sages if we work at it and are helped by the correct teaching. It's important, though, not to try to become a sage, for then we'll will certainly fail. We have to behave well for its own sake, and cultivate our minds and hearts, and the "supreme spiritual force" will inevitably rise within us.

With regard to politics, Meng-zi opposed rule by force and tyranny, but supported rule by a single person, the sovereign. His position was a version of the European notion of the divine right of kings; heaven (tian) was the source of a sovereign's legitimacy, and heaven would act if the sovereign mistreated or tyrannised his people. Moreover, following K'ung fu-zi (and in a vein reminiscent of the political thought of European writers such as Francisco Suárez), if the ruler let down the people in a sufficiently serious way, their loyalty to him was rightly weakened, and in extreme cases they might have the right to revolt against him. In the hierarchy of importance, the people came first and the sovereign last, for the sovereign's power was justified purely in order to ensure that the people lived in peace and comfort. This material happiness was important not only for its own sake, but because without it we can't become sages. It's perhaps not hard to see why Meng-zi found little support for his ideas among the rulers of the time, nor that his works were considered dangerous by many later regimes.

Much of this may sound familiar, as it comes very close to the teachings of Mo-zi; however, Meng-zi was a true Confucian, and objected strongly to Mo-zi's doctrine of universal love; there must be a hierarchy of degrees of love, dependent on relationships of kinship and the social order. One should love things, but not to the degree that one loves people; one should love people, but not to the degree that one loves one's family.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
+ Mencius
Article by Kwong Loi Shun for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
+ Mencius
Article by Jeffrey Richey from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
+ Mencius
Article by Charles F. Aiken, from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
+ Mencius
Wikipedia article.
+ Meng-zi (Mencius)
China the Beautiful (Chinese text)
Provided by Charles Muller (Tōyō Gakuen university): Chinese text | Muller's translation (selections)
nothingistic (James Legge translation)
Internet Sacred Text Archive (James Legge translation)
Humanistic Texts (James Legge translation)

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