Mencius' philosophical concerns, while scattered across the seven books of the text that bears his name, demonstrate a high degree of consistency unusual in early Chinese philosophical writing. They can be categorized into four groups:
- Human Nature
Again, as with Confucius, so too with Mencius. From late Zhou tradition, Mencius inherited a great many religious sensibilities, including theistic ones. For the early Chinese (c. 16th century BCE), the world was controlled by an all-powerful deity, "The Lord on High" (Shangdi), to whom entreaties were made in the first known Chinese texts, inscriptions found on animal bones offered in divinatory sacrifice. As the Zhou polity emerged and triumphed over the previous Shang tribal rule, Zhou apologists began to regard their deity, Tian ("Sky" or "Heaven") as synonymous with Shangdi, the deity of the deposed Shang kings, and explained the decline of Shang and the rise of Zhou as a consequence of a change in Tianming ("the mandate of Heaven"). Thus, theistic justifications for conquest and rulership were present very early in Chinese history.
By the time of Mencius, the concept of Tian appears to have changed slightly, taking on aspects of "fate" and "nature" as well as "deity." For Confucius, Tian provided personal support and sanction for his sense of historical mission, while at the same time prompting Job-like anxiety during moments of ill fortune in which Tian seemed to have abandoned him. Mencius' faith in Tian as the ultimate source of legitimate moral and political authority is unshakeable. Like Confucius, he says that "Tian does not speak – it simply reveals through deeds and affairs" (5A5). He ascribes the virtues of ren (co-humanity), yi (rightness), li (ritual propriety), zhi (wisdom), and sheng (sagehood) to Tian (7B24) and explicitly compares the rule of the moral king to the rule of Tian (5A4).
Mencius thus shares with Confucius three assumptions about Tian as an extrahuman, absolute power in the universe: (1) its alignment with moral goodness, (2) its dependence on human agents to actualize its will, and (3) the variable, unpredictable nature of its associations with mortal actors. To the extent that Mencius is concerned with justifying the ways of Tian to humanity, he tends to do so without questioning these three assumptions about the nature of Tian, which are rooted deep in the Chinese past, as his views on government, human nature, and self-cultivation will show.
Mencius is famous for claiming that human nature (renxing) is good. As with most reductions of philosophical positions to bumper-sticker slogans, this statement oversimplifies Mencius' position. In the text, Mencius takes a more careful route in order to arrive at this view. Following A. C. Graham, one can see his argument as having three elements: (1) a teleology, (2) a virtue theory, and (3) a moral psychology.
Mencius' basic assertion is that "everyone has a heart-mind which feels for others." (2A6) As evidence, he makes two appeals: to experience, and to reason. Appealing to experience, he says:
Supposing people see a child fall into a well – they all have a heart-mind that is shocked and sympathetic. It is not for the sake of being on good terms with the child's parents, and it is not for the sake of winning praise for neighbors and friends, nor is it because they dislike the child's noisy cry. (2A6)
It is important to point out here that Mencius says nothing about acting on this automatic affective-cognitive response to suffering that he ascribes to the bystanders at the well tragedy. It is merely the feeling that counts. Going further and appealing to reason, Mencius argues:
Judging by this, without a heart-mind that sympathizes one is not human; without a heart-mind aware of shame, one is not human; without a heart-mind that defers to others, one is not human; and without a heart-mind that approves and condemns, one is not human. (2A6)
Thus, Mencius makes an assertion about human beings – all have a heart-mind that feels for others – and qualifies his assertion with appeals to common experience and logical argument. This does little to distinguish him from other early Chinese thinkers, who also noticed that human beings were capable of altruism as well as selfishness. What remains is for him to explain why other thinkers are incorrect when they ascribe positive evil to human nature – that human beings are such that they actively seek to do wrong.
Mencius goes further and identifies the four basic qualities of the heart-mind (sympathy, shame, deference, judgment) not only as distinguishing characteristics of human beings – what makes the human being qua human being really human – but also as the "sprouts" (duan) of the four cardinal virtues:
A heart-mind that sympathizes is the sprout of co-humanity [ren]; a heart-mind that is aware of shame is the sprout of rightness [yi]; a heart-mind that defers to others is the sprout of ritual propriety [li]; a heart-mind that approves and condemns is the sprout of wisdom [zhi]…. If anyone having the four sprouts within himself knows how to develop them to the full, it is like fire catching alight, or a spring as it first bursts through. If able to develop them, he is able to protect the entire world; if unable, he is unable to serve even his parents. (2A6)
Now the complexity of Mencius' seemingly simplistic position becomes clearer. What makes us human is our feelings of commiseration for others' suffering; what makes us virtuous – or, in Confucian parlance, junzi – is our development of this inner potential. To paraphrase Irene Bloom on this point, there is no sharp conflict between "nature" and "nurture" in Mencius; biology and culture are co-dependent upon one another in the development of the virtues. If our sprouts are left untended, we can be no more than merely human – feeling sorrow at the suffering of another, but unable or unwilling to do anything about it. If we tend our sprouts assiduously — through education in the classical texts, formation by ritual propriety, fulfillment of social norms, etc. – we can not only avert the suffering of a few children in some wells, but also bring about peace and justice in the entire world. This is the basis of Mencius' appeal to King Hui of Liang (r. 370-319 BCE):
[The king] asked abruptly, "How shall the world be settled?"
"It will be settled by unification," I [Mencius] answered.
"Who will be able to unify it?"
"Someone without a taste for killing will be able to unify it…. Has Your Majesty noticed rice shoots? If there is drought during the seventh and eighth months, the shoots wither, but if dense clouds gather in the sky and a torrent of rain falls, the shoots suddenly revive. When that happens, who could stop it? … Should there be one without a taste for killing, the people will crane their necks looking out for him. If that does happen, the people will go over to him as water tends downwards, in a torrent – who could stop it? (1A6)
Mencius devotes some energy to arguing that "rightness" (yi) is internal, rather than external, to human beings. He does so using examples taken from that quintessentially Confucian arena of human relations, filial piety (xiao). Comparing the rightness that manifests itself in filial piety to such visceral activities as eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse, Mencius points out that, just as one's attraction or repulsion regarding these activities is determined by one's internal orientation (hunger, thirst, lust), one's filial behavior is determined by one's inner attitudes, as the following imaginary dialogue with one of his opponents shows:
[Ask the opponent] "Which do you respect, your uncle or your younger brother?" He will say, "My uncle." "When your younger brother is impersonating an ancestor at a sacrifice, then which do you respect?" He will say, "My younger brother." You ask him, "What has happened to your respect for your uncle?" He will say, "It is because of the position my younger brother occupies." (6A5)
In other words, the rightness that one manifests in filial piety is not dependent on fixed, external categories, such as the status of one's younger brother qua younger brother or one's uncle qua one's uncle. If it were, one always would show respect to one's uncle and never to one's younger brother or anyone else junior to oneself. But as it happens, shifts in external circumstances can effect changes in status; one's younger brother can temporarily assume the status of a very senior ancestor in the proper ritual context, thus earning the respect ordinarily given to seniors and never shown to juniors. For Mencius, this demonstrates that the internal orientation of the agent (e.g., rightness) determines the moral value of given behaviors (e.g., filial piety).
Having made a teleological argument from the inborn potential of human beings to the presumption of virtues that can be developed, Mencius then offers his sketch of moral psychology – the structures within the human person that make such potential identifiable and such development possible.
The primary function of Mencius' moral psychology is to explain how moral failure is possible and how it can be avoided. As Antonio S. Cua has noted, for Mencius, moral failure is the failure to develop one's xin (heart-mind). In order to account for the moral mechanics of the xin, Mencius offers a quasi-physiological theory involving qi (vital energy) – "a hard thing to speak about" (2A2), part vapor, part fluid, found in the atmosphere and in the human body, that regulates affective-cognitive processes as well as one's general well-being. It is especially abundant outdoors at night and in the early morning, which is why taking fresh air at these times can act as a physical and spiritual tonic (6A8). When Mencius is asked about his personal strengths, he says:
I know how to speak, and I am good at nourishing my flood-like qi. (2A2)
It is interesting to note the apparent link between powers of suasion – essential for any itinerant Warring States shi, whether official or teacher – and "flood-like qi." The goal of Mencian self-cultivation is to bring one's qi, xin, and yan (words) together in a seamless blend of rightness (yi) and ritual propriety (li). Mencius goes on to describe what he means by "flood-like qi":
It is the sort of qi that is utmost in vastness, utmost in firmness. If, by uprightness, you nourish it and do not interfere with it, it fills the space between Heaven and Earth. It is the sort of qi that matches the right [yi] with the Way [Dao]; without these, it starves. It is generated by the accumulation of right [yi] – one cannot attain it by sporadic righteousness. If anything one does fails to meet the standards of one's heart-mind, it starves. (2A2)
It is here that Mencius is at his most mystical, and recent scholarship has suggested that he and his disciples may have practiced a form of meditative discipline akin to yoga. Certainly, similar-sounding spiritual exercises are described in other early Chinese texts, such as the Neiye ("Inner Training") chapter of the Guanzi (Kuan-tzu, c. 4th-2nd centuries BCE). It also is at this point that Mencius seems to depart most radically from what is known about the historical Confucius' teachings. While faint glimpses of what may be ascetic and meditative disciplines sometimes appear in the Analects, nowhere in the text are there detailed discussions of nurturing one's qi such as can be found in Mencius 2A2.
In spite of the mystical tone of this passage, however, all that the text really says is that qi can be nurtured through regular acts of "rightness" (yi). It goes on to say that qi flows from one's xin (2A2), that one's xin must undergo great discipline in order to produce "flood-like qi" (6B15), and that a well-developed xin will manifest itself in radiance that shines from one's qi into one's face and general appearance (7A21). In short, here is where Mencius' case for human nature seems to leave philosophy and reasoned argumentation behind and step into the world of ineffability and religious experience. There is no reason, of course, why Mencius shouldn't take this step; as Alan K. L. Chan has pointed out, ethics and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, either in the Mencius or elsewhere.
To sum up, both biology and culture are important for Mencian self-cultivation, and so is Tian. "By fully developing one's heart-mind, one knows one's nature, and by knowing one's nature, one knows Heaven." (7A1) One cannot help but begin with "a heart-mind that feels for others," but the journey toward full humanity is hardly complete without having taken any steps beyond one's birth. Guided by the examples of ancient sages and the ritual forms and texts they have left behind, one starts to develop one's heart-mind further by nurturing its qi through habitually doing what is right, cultivating its "sprouts" into virtues, and bringing oneself up and out from the merely human to that which Tian intends for one, which is to become a sage. Nature is crucial, but so is nurture. Mencius' model of moral psychology is both a "discovery" model (human nature is good) and a "development" model (human nature can be made even better):
A person's surroundings transform his qi just as the food he eats changes his body. (7A36)