MENCIUS (371-289 or 391-308 BCE)

Taught by a disciple of Confucius’ grandson, and the events of his life paralleled Confucius’s very closely.  He claimed to have reached full contentment (an unpreturbed heart) at age 40, the same year as Confucius (2a2).

The four "beginnings"—Ren*, yi, li, and zhi. Not "original goodness" but potentials inclined to the good (Mencius 6a1).   Note: for Mencius "potential" must mean something already on the way to actualization.  The actual Chinese character is the one for "sprout" not "seed."

Doctrine of graduated love vs. the universal love of the Mohists. Confucius, too. For the latter at the outer reaches of any social circle ren* becomes hui (generosity).

"Treat your elders as elders, and extend it to the elders of others; treat your young ones as young ones, and extend it to the young ones of others; then you can turn the whole world in the palm of your hand" (1a7).  Goverance of the state begins with governance in the family.  Once kindness has been prefected here, then it can be extended to the Four Seas. (Recall Confucius' reply when someone asked him why he did not take up a post: he was already doing politics by being filial.)  These actions are reciprocal in that those who do not extend kindness beyond the family risk losing it at home as well.  This is the key to understanding the large (=extended) person as opposed to the small (=restricted) person.


1. For Mencius ren* must reach out even to animals.  See King Xuan's care of the ox at 1a7.  But a sheep is sacrificed instead.  His feeling (xin) for the ox was enough, according to Mencius, to qualify him as a king.  It was presumbably sufficient evidence of a potential in him for caring his people.  As Mencius says: "This is how ren* works."  A junzi cannot bear to see any living being suffer.

King Xuan, therefore, is not acting on the sprout of virtue that is shown in his saving the ox. He must now act to extent his hear to his people as well.  In 19th Century England laws protecting animals from harm were then used to ban child labor.   The English were just like King Xuan and many of our own people today: some care far more for their animals than they do for humans in need.  Mencius concludes that the king's failure was not for the lack of virtue but a failure to fully act on it.

2. Mencius’ most radical innovation: the right to revolt against dictators.  See 1b8.

Development in dialectical skills (not an innovation, but present throughout this period). Analogical reasoning and reductio ad absurdum. Dialectical exchanges and extended give and take. No simple appeal to authority.

Apparently Mencius did this reluctantly--only to be able to defeat the views of his opponents. "Outsiders all say," says Gongduzi his disciple, "that you are fond of argument. I venture to ask why? "I am not fond of argument," announces Mencius, "I simply have no alternative [in a world of Mohist dialectic and his view not favored]" (3b9).  As long as the states were in chaos people would dispute with one another.  When they were at peace under the sage kings, it was obvious that one should follow the li.

Please note the elevation of Confucius above the sage kings. Zaiwo: "In my view, the Master surpassed greatly Yao and Shun [great sage kings]"; and Zigong adds that "through the rites of a state he could see its government; through its music, the moral quality of its ruler. Looking back over a hundred generations he was able to appraise all the kings, and no one has ever been able to show him to be wrong in a single instance. Ever since man came into this world, there has never been another like the Master" (2a2, Lau trans.) Confucius would have been surprised at this claim of infallibility.

    2a2: unperturbed xin linked with courage and yi. True courage always joined with doing what is right (yi).  No courageous thief! Gaozi is wrong about not consulting xin when one does not understand words. “The will (zhi*) is commander over qi while the qi is that which fills the body.” The Confucian will is a directed heart-mind. Mencius’ strong points: “I’m have insight into words.  I am good a cultivating my flood-like qi.”

qiguy.jpg (35558 bytes)

The Child in the Well (2a6): Chan: "All men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others." Lau: "No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the sufferings of others."

Correlation between feelings (qing) and virtues (de).

Feeling of commiseration <———> ren*

Lau: heart of compassion

heart of shame [van Norden: disdain] <———> yi ("one's proper path," van Norden)

Schwartz: sentiment of respect <———> li

sentiment of right and wrong<———> zhi

Mencius believes in the unity of the virtues just as the Greeks did.  He likens the four virtue sprouts with a person's four limbs, so one is handicapped morally and physically if one of the four is missing.

Another sign of the unity of virtues is Mencius' tendency of joining ren*yi (6a1), ren*li (4b28), and li yi (4a10). 

4a4: Mencian equivalent to Analects 14.36.  Do not return love for hatred, but look into yourself and be true to yourself.  "If others do not respond to your love with love, look into your own benevolence; if others fail to respond to your attempts to govern them with order, look into your own wisdom;l if others do not return your courtesy, look into your own respect" (Lau).

4a17 and 7a26:  The use of discretion (quan): men and women should not touch each other, according to li; but if your sister-in-law is drowning, then you must lend your hand.  If the whole world were going under, then you would use the Dao in the same way.  Is it true that one can use the Dao in the same prudential, means-to-ends way as using your hand in rescue?  The analogy should be that one would use force if all chaos reigned, but would use the way of virtue under normal circumstances.

What do think of the following correlations of the four virtues with the family: "The core of ren* is serving one's parents.  The core of yi is obeying one's elder brother.  The core of zhi is knowing these two and not abandoning them.  The core if li is to regulate and adorn these two.   The core of music is to delight in these two" (4a27).  Notice how important music is for development of the virtues.  An note also the "dance of virtue" that follows in the same passage.

The character for music and joy is the same and Mencius celebrates the joy he feels in virtue and how it conduces to the happy life.  The following chart reveals some significant differences between simple pleasure, joy, and happiness, the latter defined as Aristotle's eudimonia, literally "having a good spirit."

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6a6: "No one can develop his [one’s] original endowment to the full extent." Not even the sage?



Philosophical analogies approximate the form of mathematical proportions and therefore might appear to be tight deductive systems. For example, A is to B as C is to D has the same form as 1/2 = 2/4, but the "numerators" and "denominators" of philosophical analogies are never mathematically identical. This ultimately makes mathematical proportions and philosophical analogies quite different. It makes them inductive arguments, an argument that does not lead to necessary truths. Only deductive arguments give us truths that are true in all cases and without exceptions, e.g., the truths of logic, math, and geometry.

In assessing the value of philosophical analogies, we must ask two questions: Are the things compared similar? and are the things similar in the particular respect in question? If these two questions can be answered in the affirmative, then a convincing argument from analogy probably exists.

In his book Practical Logic, Monroe C. Beardsley contends that there is no such thing as an argument from analogy. "Analogies illustrate, and they lead to hypotheses, but thinking in terms of analogy becomes fallacious when the analogy is used as a reason for a principle" (p. 107). Beardsley does, however, give a good example of an analogy which is "strong" and which can be used to represent one thing as another. This is the analogy of a map: "The dots on the map are not very much like actual cities, and the lines on the map are not all like mountains or wet like rivers.... But the structure of the map, if it is a good one, corresponds to the structure of the country it represents. That is, the shapes of the states are like the shapes on the map; ...and the relative distances between actual cities are like the relative distances between the dots on the map" (p. 106). It is clear that such analogies can be very helpful in clarifying the form and structure of some arguments, even to the point of discrediting a specific argument.

Parallels vs. Analogies

A parallel argument: all elements are equal or similar in all essential particulars;

Or at least identical syntactical elements in corresponding positions.

Analogies have neither of these features.

Mathematical ratios are perfect parallel deductive arguments.paranal.jpg (14493 bytes)


Chap. 6 Mencius

Discussions about human nature (xing):

1. Neither good nor evil: Gaozi.

2. It’s good or evil, depending on who rules (or environment?).

3. Intrinsic goodness (Shun) and intrinsic badness (Shun’s father).

4. It is good, or more accurately, humans have the potential for goodness: Mencius.

5. It’s evil or more precisely: humans tend to evil: Xunzi (Hsün-tzu).

For Gaozi ren* simply means love as a natural affection that stems from a basic sexual desire, which along with hunger, are Gaozi’s two beginnings. Therefore, that which is sheng* (inborn)—desire for sex and food—is xing—human nature.  Such desires obviously can lead to either good or bad.

Who is Gaozi anyway? A Daoist, as some say? Much more likely, as Schwartz says, he is a Confucian (2a2 speaks of him almost as a colleague) who simply disagrees with Mencius about human nature. He is, for example, closer to Mencius than the Confucian Xunzi is. He also attained an undisturbed heart at an earlier age than did Mencius (2a2).

6a1       wood                           xing

                   ____            is to           ___

        cups and bowls             morality (ren*yi)

The wood is destroyed in making cups and bowls, but Mencius thinks that it is absurd to think that xing is destroyed in making humans moral.

D. C. Lau puts the reductio ad absurdum in an interesting way. The analogy of doing violence to the wood is moral evil, so the implication of Gaozi’s analogy is that it is evil to make humans moral.

Further implication: Violence is done to the wood whether we make good bowls or bad ones. So violence is done to human nature whether the person becomes immoral or moral!

Gier’s version of 6a1:

wood          good cups               xing

____           __________          _____

natural grain   with the grain    natural good

This reading fits Confucian virtue ethics must better. It gives a picture of crafting a noble soul from raw material that already has a potential for virtue-beauty in it. It also gives an argument for the goodness/beauty of this potential.  This firmly supports to a Confucian aesthetics of virtue.

6a2 In the second argument Gaozi reaffirms his position that human nature is neither good nor evil, just as water can be made to go east or west.

whirling water        xing

__________        ___

its going east    good or bad


 whirling water       xing

___________    ______

its going west     good or bad

6a2: Mencius’ answer:

water                          xing

____                           ___

flows downwards     tends to the good

"Xing is naturally good just as water naturally flows downward." Couldn't Xunzi (the next Confucian who believes that humans tend to evil) use this same analogy and simply say that downward flowing water symbolizes the tendency of humans to become evil?

6a3: Gaozi believes that which is sheng* (that which is inborn; Ware "life" is misleading) is sex and a desire for food. So for Gaozi sex and desire for food is human xing. If sheng  is xing, then:

whiteness           whiteness        xing ?          xing ?            xing?

_______   =     _______             ___              ___             ___

white feather    white jade          dogs          oxen          humans

Mencius: In that case all natures are the same? Reductio ad absurdum. Further analysis: "nature" is an "empty, formal term" and has to be filled with specific content, while "whiteness" already has minimum specific content, which will define it as the same predicate for all things that are qualified by it. As Lau states: "The nature of a thing depends entirely on what the thing is, while whether a thing is white or not depends on whether it includes the characteristic which we define as whiteness independently." The first is inherent, innate, internal; the other is accidental, external. Nature of whiteness is not the same as the essential nature of something. Aristotle: the essence of the feather is not whiteness.  Many different things can share “whiteness,” but only oxen can share the ox nature.

7a21: The physiognomy of virtue means that inner virtue shows on the outside: The four virtues are "rooted in his heart, and manifests itself in his face, giving it a sleek appearance.  It also shows in his back and extends to his limbs, rendering their message intelligible without words" (Lau).   A fusion of the inner and the outer.  The Great Learning, a later Confucian text, relates the physiognomy of virtue to the practice of "self-watchfulness" (shen du) and making the will sincere.  While the evil person thinks that he can do anything that he likes in private, the virtuous person knows better. "For other people see him as if they see his very heart.   This is what is meant by saying that what is true in a man's heart will be shown in his outward appearance. . . . wealth makes a house shining and virtue makes a person shining.  When one's mind is broad and his heart generous, his body becomes big and is at ease" (Chan, pp. 89-90).

7b25: Ames translates as follows: "Being sage, to be unfathomable, is called 'divinity' (shen)." Ames has probably mistranslated this passage, for it is clear that the character shen is predicative not substantive. If shen is predicative, then a standard Chinese-English dictionary dictates that the sage is "wonderful, marvelous, miraculous," not divine. In his annotated Mencius Yang Buojun lists five instances of the character shen--three substantive and two predicative, and 7b25 is definitely one of the latter.

Tu Wei-ming quotes this passage from the Lau translation ("to be a sage. . . is called 'divine'"), but qualifies it by observing that "the idea of spiritual in this connection by no means signifies a 'spiritual being' (shen ren) which rises above the sage." Even if Mencius actually meant to divinize the sage, this is clearly not the original position of Confucius. It is consistent with his position to call the sage "goodness itself," but neither the Analects nor the other early literature support the deification of the sage.

Ames and Hall's use the of the Doctrine of the Mean is also problematic. They quote the famous passage: "So earnest and sincere--he is humanity! How deep and unfathomable--he is abyss! How vast and great--he is Heaven (tian). Who can know him except he who really has quickness of apprehension, intelligence, sageliness, and wisdom, and understands [the] character of Heaven?" Ames and Hall's interpretation goes wrong for at least two reasons: (1) they ignore the obviously figurative nature of this passage; and (2) they do not read the passage in its own context or the context of traditional and contemporary commentary. On the first point, Ames and Hall overlook the nature of the text's language. Just as we are not to believe that the sage is actually an abyss--he is only "deep and unfathomable" as an abyss--we are not to think that the sage is literally Heaven.

Even so, we can learn a lesson from the prophet Isaiah. When he describes the Messiah as "mighty God" ('el gibbor), he is not deifying him; rather, he is only saying that the Messiah will act with the power of God. The Hebrew word 'el (God) is sometimes used to make superlatives, such as harere'el--"towering mountains" not divine mountains--and 'arze'el--the "towering cedars" of Lebanon. Just as the Confucian sage is great like Heaven, so too will the Messiah be mighty like God. Ames and Hall are making the same mistake as Christian commentators do, when they claim that the Hebrew prophets spoke of a divine Messiah. Most Confucian philosophers have resisted the deification of Confucius with the same fervor that the Jews have rejected the divinity of Jesus, and we should do the same. The four paragraphs above are cited from N. F. Gier, Spiritual Titanism, pp. 184, 186.