MENGZI . The name Mengzi, meaning literally "Master Meng," is the honorific epithet of Meng Ke (391–308 bce), known in the West as "Mencius." Mengzi defended and developed Kongzi's (Confucius's) teachings in response to various challenges in the highly diverse and contentious intellectual world of fourth-century bce China. In the process, he expounded innovative views about heaven, human nature, the mind, and self-cultivation that proved to be of profound and enduring importance in the later Confucian tradition.
Mengzi was a native of Zou, a small state located at the base of the Shandong peninsula. Traditional accounts claim that he studied under Zisi, Confucius's grandson, but it is more likely that he was a student of one of Zisi's disciples. Mengzi's teachings bear some similarities to parts of the Li ji (Book of rites), which tradition ascribes to Zisi. One also finds common themes and ideas in recently excavated texts, which show that Mengzi was participating in an ongoing debate about the nature of the emerging Confucian tradition.
The earliest information we have about Mengzi's life comes from the text that bears his name. In its present form, the Mengzi consists of seven books, each of which is divided into two parts, which are further subdivided into sections of varying length. The shortest sections consist of brief dicta, while the longest extend to over two thousand words. These purportedly record the teachings of Mengzi and conversations he had with various disciples, friends, royal patrons, and rivals. Some accounts claim that Mengzi himself composed the text, others that it was compiled by his disciples with his approval and advice. In the second century ce, the Mengzi was edited and several "chapters" were discarded by Zhao Qi, who also wrote the first extant commentary.
The Mengzi had a place, but not a distinguished position, among Confucian writings until its remarkable ascent toward the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907). In the following Song (960–1279), Yuan (1206–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties it came to occupy a singularly important place in the Confucian scriptural pantheon. The great Zhu Xi (1130–1200) wrote a highly influential commentary on the Mengzi and included it, along with the Analects, Great Learning, and Doctrine of the Mean, as one of the "Four Books"—a collection intended to serve as the gateway to Confucian learning. In 1315 the Mongol court recognized the Mengzi as a classic and secured its preeminent position within the tradition. Since that time the text has enjoyed remarkable influence and prestige. It is one of the most highly studied Confucian classics among contemporary scholars.
Mengzi is renowned for advocating the theory that "human nature is good" (xing shan ; 6A2, 6A6). A central claim of this theory is that heaven has endowed human beings with nascent moral "sprouts" (duan ), which are the defining features of human nature (2A6). These innate moral tendencies are active and observable aspects of human nature, but they do not exhaustively describe the nature of human beings. They are the beginnings of morality, but like all sprouts they require a period of growth, care, and the right kind of environment in order to reach maturity (2A2, 6A7). The sprouts of morality are sensibilities of the heart-and-mind (xin ), which is also the seat of human cognition, emotion, and volition. For Mengzi, the task of cultivating one's nature begins with an awareness of the moral aspects of the heart-and-mind, and consists in mobilizing the various faculties of the xin to protect, nurture, and develop these nascent moral assets. Successfully cultivating the moral sprouts, and thereby fulfilling one's nature, is the proper way to serve heaven, and in the course of this process one comes to understand heaven's decree (7A1).
Mengzi claims that four moral sprouts constitute the core of human nature; these serve as the bases of his four cardinal virtues: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom (2A6). Throughout one's life, these moral sprouts regularly spring up—even though one often fails to notice or cultivate them. In certain contexts, in unguarded moments, they break through accumulated bad habits and indifference to manifest themselves in small, spontaneous moral acts. One of Mengzi's main tasks as a moral teacher is to help people notice, appreciate, and focus attention on such "giveaway" actions.
Giveaway actions are one of several types of evidence Mengzi adduces for the existence of the moral sprouts. He also supports his claim about innate moral tendencies by posing hypothetical scenarios or thought experiments designed to illustrate the universal presence of moral feelings in human beings. For example, he asks us to imagine what one would feel if one were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well (2A6, 3A5). Mengzi claims that every person facing such a scene would feel alarm and concern for the child. This spontaneous feeling of compassion shows that by nature we are creatures who care for one another.
Mengzi argues further that there is a heavenly endowed structure and hierarchy to human nature (6A14–15). Each of our various parts has a natural station and function that determine its place within the hierarchy and its relative value. No one who is aware of the natural hierarchy and its different functions would act against them, nor would such a person sacrifice a part of greater importance for one of lesser importance. The natural function of the xin is to reflect on and determine the relative merit of different courses of action because it alone has the capacity to consider, weigh, and judge among the various alternatives we face.
Mengzi never claimed that our innate moral tendencies alone guarantee moral development. These are only the beginnings of virtue; they need attention, effort, and the right kind of environment to attain their full forms. Without sustained and concerted work, human beings will not become moral. His central metaphors for self-cultivation are agricultural (not merely vegetative) and farming requires attention, persistence, and a great deal of hard work. According to Mengzi, people are not born good; but rather are born for goodness (6A6). Our moral sprouts must ripen, as grain must ripen (6A19), before our true nature is revealed.
Toward the end of the Tang dynasty, Mengzi and his teachings became a rallying point for a broad revival that modern scholars call neo-Confucianism. This important movement was propelled by a series of political, military, economic, and social crises that together motivated many Chinese intellectuals to regard their contemporary culture as corrupted, weak, and ineffective and to seek a renewal in an older, indigenous Chinese culture. A number of influential late Tang thinkers pointedly criticized Buddhism and Daoism for eroding and undermining Chinese culture. The former was especially castigated as a "foreign" and baleful influence on indigenous culture and was held responsible for a litany of social problems. Accompanying such criticisms were calls for a return to "traditional" Chinese culture, and the Mengzi proved to be one of the most important texts singled out for renewed interest.
Modern scholars tend to describe this rediscovery of the Mengzi in strategic terms. That is to say, the Mengzi's teachings on human nature and the cultivation of the mind offered a version of the tradition that could effectively engage the sophisticated philosophies found in Buddhist and Daoist rivals. While there is some truth in this, such an account obscures the degree to which these "rival" traditions transformed the way all Chinese intellectuals thought about themselves and their world. It is more accurate to say that the Mengzi and other early texts favored by neo-Confucians, such as the Doctrine of the Mean and the Great Learning, were chosen because they fit what had become a new, general paradigm of thought, one that owed a great deal to the influence of Buddhism and Daoism.
Among the features of this new paradigm was a belief in a hidden, pure, fundamental nature and a manifest, defiled, physical nature. The former defines what we and other creatures really are while the latter corrupts our "original" nature and gives rise to everything bad. Our fundamental nature is shared with all things in the universe and unites us not only with all other human beings but with all creatures and things as well. Those who fully appreciate the true character of their nature understand this, and such insight allows them to "form one body" with all things. However, the understanding of most people is beclouded by the errant aspects of their physical nature, which give rise to and are reinforced by "selfish desires." The task of cultivating one's original heavenly nature consists primarily of eliminating the obscuring influence of such errant aspects. As a practical matter, this entails the elimination of selfish desires, a process that enables one to find the "Mind of the Way" (daoxin ) within the "Human Mind" (renxin ).
Under the influence of this new paradigm, neo-Confucians reappropriated Mengzi's teachings about a heavenly-conferred, morally good nature, along with its focus on the cultivation of the heart-and-mind. However, seen through this new lens, Mengzi's original teachings took on a dramatically different form. For example, while Mengzi had advocated the sustained and gradual development of moral sprouts, neo-Confucians sought to discover and bring into play a fully-formed moral mind. This change generated a new and unprecedented belief in the inherent perfection of all human beings and a corresponding concern with "enlightenment" as a religious goal. Mengzi did not employ the stark contrast, common to most neo-Confucian thinkers, between a pure, fundamental nature in opposition to a corrupt yet reformable physical nature. Nor did he ever envisage anything resembling the way neo-Confucians deployed these basic metaphysical notions to construct a scheme in which human nature was fundamentally united with the rest of the universe. Nevertheless, the major neo-Confucian thinkers all saw themselves as inheritors and defenders of Mengzi's line of the Confucian tradition.
The neo-Confucian revival was a vast, complex, and exceedingly rich movement that continued for more than a thousand years. However, many of its main themes were defined by the Lu-Wang and Cheng-Zhu schools. Both of these "schools" are loosely defined in terms of their respective emphases regarding the nature of the xin and the proper methods of self-cultivation. The former takes the thought of Lu Xiangshan (1139–1193) and Wang Yangming (1472–1529) as its primary sources of inspiration, whereas the latter looks to Cheng Yi (1033–1107), Cheng Hao (1032–1085), and Zhu Xi. Roughly speaking, members of the former school express a greater faith in the inherent purity and power of the xin. As a result, they tend to emphasize an extreme form of particularism in which every ethical decision and action is strongly dependent upon context, and moral progress is primarily a matter of personal reflection and struggle. They distrust rules, precedents, and conventions and advocate a radical independence on the part of individuals. Followers of the Cheng-Zhu school have an equally strong faith in the existence of a fundamental nature. However, they believe that human beings are guided to this nature primarily through a course of careful and dedicated study, practice, and reflection. They view adherents of the Lu-Wang school as self-indulgent and undisciplined and see their teachings and practices as the road to spiraling selfishness and deepening delusion.
Later Confucian thinkers such as Yan Yuan (1635–1704) and Dai Zhen (1723–1777) sharply criticized the followers of both the Lu-Wang and Cheng-Zhu schools for abandoning Mengzi's original legacy. Both of these Qing dynasty (1644–1911) critics accused earlier neo-Confucians of incorporating too much Buddhism and Daoism into their philosophy. They rightly pointed out that much of the metaphysical speculation underlying both Lu-Wang and Cheng-Zhu thought was alien to Mengzi and his age. Moreover, these foreign elements worked to obscure some of the most profound insights of Mengzi's original vision. Prominent among these is his emphasis on certain shared human reactive attitudes as the basis of the moral life. Both Yan and Dai insisted that our physical, embodied life, with all its feelings and desires, is the site of both our best and worst aspects. We must not look to obscure metaphysical theories for moral guidance. Heaven has endowed each of us with the means, and the Confucian tradition provides all of us with the Way. The challenge is to understand and practice the Way in order to develop the best parts of our nature to their full potential.
Implications of Mengzi's Thought for Religious Ethics
Traditionally, religious ethics has had a difficult time bringing together a more anthropological, descriptive account of what is good for human beings and the prescriptions of revealed religion. An echo of this tension is seen as the central problem of modern philosophical ethics as well: how to reconcile one's personal interests with the demands of morality. Mengzi's thought appears to avoid many of the problems associated with at least the religious version of this type of challenge. For according to Mengzi, heaven has created us in such a way that we live the best lives possible for creatures like us only when we fully realize our heavenly endowed moral nature. Moreover, part of what heaven instills in us is a natural tendency and taste for morality and a natural aversion for what is morally bad. On such a view, there is no conflict between human flourishing and what heaven commands. In fact, a life in service to heaven is the only way to the most satisfying and pleasant life that human beings can have.
Such a view might lead one to ask if heaven is just an honorific term used to express approval for what human beings naturally find most satisfying. Does heaven place restrictions on what constitutes the human good? One possible response, which incorporates early Confucian concerns about the importance of natural harmony, is that heaven does constrain conceptions of the human good by serving as the source of all things in the universe. Humans seek harmony within the natural order but cannot fundamentally alter or damage this order without violating heaven's plan. While heaven is not a personal deity for Mengzi, it is an agent with a plan for the world, and that on occasion acts in the world to realize its will.
Mengzi's description of the religious life in terms of the dao and the degree to which knowledge of the Way is accessible to human beings are also issues of interest for religious ethics. Mengzi's reverence for Confucian learning, with its legacy of sacred texts, rituals, and sagely teachers, seems to privilege those within this tradition. On the other hand, he insists that heaven has endowed all human beings with the nascent sprouts that are the basis of moral knowledge. This seems to open up the Way to all who are prepared to dedicate themselves to the task of self-cultivation. In thinkers like Wang Yangming, these aspects of Mengzi's teachings find expression as a profound faith that each and every person has a pure and perfect divine guide within.
These brief remarks only sketch Mengzi's thought and offer some suggestions about its value as a source for religious ethical reflection. What is beyond dispute is that his religious vision has inspired many of the best minds throughout East and Southeast Asia for more than two thousand years, and the Mengzi continues to challenge and inspire contemporary thinkers throughout the world.
Lau, D. C., trans. Mencius. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1970. A readable and reliable translation with indispensable introduction and appendices.
Legge, James, trans. The Chinese Classics; Vol. 2: The Works of Mencius (1861). Reprint, Hong Kong, 1970. A classic translation with Chinese text, extensive notes, and supporting material. This edition includes Arthur Waley's notes on translation.
Nivison, David S. "On Translating Mencius." Philosophy East and West 30 (1980): 93–122. A remarkable and philosophically revealing review of translations of the text into English and other languages.
Chan, Alan K. L., ed. Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations. Honolulu, 2002. A conference volume exploring Mengzi's thought from a variety of perspectives.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. 2d ed. Indianapolis, 2000. An introduction to the Confucian tradition focused on the work of seven major figures, including Mengzi and several others discussed in this entry.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mengzi and Wang Yangming. 2d ed. Indianapolis, 2002. A study comparing Mengzi's philosophy with that of the neo-Confucian Wang Yangming.
Liu, Xiusheng, and Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi. Indianapolis, 2002. An anthology of classic and contemporary works on Mengzi's moral philosophy.
Nivison, David S. The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. Edited by Bryan W. Van Norden. LaSalle, Ill., 1996. An anthology containing a number of seminal essays on Mengzi's thought and its later influence.
Shun, Kwong-loi. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Stanford, Calif., 1997. A thorough, meticulous, and carefully argued study of various aspects of Mengzi's moral philosophy with particular emphasis on how it has been read by traditional and contemporary interpreters.
Tu, Wei-ming. Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought. Berkeley, 1979; reprint, Boston, 1998. A collection of essays on historical figures and contemporary issues from the most influential spokesman for the contemporary Mengzian religious vision.
Yearley, Lee H. Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage. Albany, N.Y., 1990. An excellent and revealing comparison of Mengzi and Thomas Aquinas as virtue ethicists with a focus on courage as a virtue.
Philip J. Ivanhoe (2005)