Monday, September 14, 2015

Mencius: Who is More Important?

In the last chapter of the book Duke Wen of T'Eng, Volume One, Mencius interacts with a follower of Mozi:  Yi Chih. This shows the differences between Confucianism and Mozi's school that should be of interest to people today.


Before I get into this, I'll have to offer some background explanation.

The great flowering of Chinese philosophy occurred during the Warring States period. This time was roughly between 475 BC to 221 BC. It involved a collection of little states fighting between themselves until their ultimate consolidation into the short-lived Qin dynasty----which became the template for China itself.

During this time various schools of thought competed with each other to assert dominance into the culture of what ultimately became "China": Confucianism (Ru), Legalism (Fa), the followers of Mozi, and, what eventually became known as Daoism. These schools fought it out not only intellectually but also militarily. Temporarily, Legalism won out because it built the superior war machine and it was able to consolidate all the little states into the Chin dynasty, which became the geographic and administrative basis of China. It also tried---with limited success---to stamp out all the other schools (except Daoism) by executing their leading thinkers and burning their texts. But, as predicted by the Confucianists, the Legalist society of Qin proved very brittle because of its harshness and quickly fell to peasant revolts. Ultimately, Confucianism won out and become the central cultural theory for China. Mozi's doctrines just about disappeared, Legalism was discredited, and, Daoism became a respected subculture followed by a fringe of Chinese society.

Mencius is a partisan of Confucianism. Which I assume that readers will be learning about as I work through his text. But I doubt if many readers have ever heard of the thinker championed by Yi Chih:  Mozi.


Mozi started off in humble circumstances but worked his way into a position of prominence as both a philosopher and as an engineer. He not only went from state to state---like Confucius---attempting to influence leaders, he also had a group of followers who were willing to help leaders build fortifications to protect their lands. They'd do this in order to discourage war, since there is no sense invading another land if their cities have been made invulnerable to assault.

His teachings emphasized humility, simplicity, concern for all his fellow citizens, and, the creation of a society that worked for everyone. In modern terms, he is usually described as a utilitarian. This is the philosophy that says that the "right thing to do" is generally whatever creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people.


The chapter begins with Yi Chih who asking to talk with Mencius. The Confucian puts him off, pleading sickness. But he does say that he'd like to talk and that he'll do the visiting when he's better. But this doesn't seem to be genuine interest, but rather a case of "don't call us, we'll call you", because Yi Chih again tries to connect---presumably because he hasn't been contacted. Mencius says he'll see him, but then suggests that he will only do so after he "straightens out" Yi Chih. So he uses an intermediary to communicate on the subject of filial piety.

I have heard Adept Yi is a follower of Mo Tzu [sic]. In funerals, Mo Tzu's school follows the Way of simplicity. And Adept Yi apparently thinks such simplicity can transform all beneath Heaven. So how can he himself denounce it instead of treasure it? He gave his parents lavish burials, but the principle of simplicity condemns that as a tawdry way of serving them. (David Hinton trans.)
Then, Yi answered Mencius' catspaw.
According to the Confucian Way, the ancients ruled as if watching over newborn children. What can such words mean if not that our love should be the same for everyone, even if it always begins with loving our parents?
Mencius responded.
Does Adept Yi really believe we can love a neighbor's newborn child the way we love our own brother's child? The only time that's true is when the newborn is crawling around a well and about to fall in, for the child doesn't know any better. Heaven gives birth to all things:  they have a single source. But Adept Yi insists that they have two, what's why he believes such things.
Imagine people long ago who didn't bury their parents. When their parents die, they toss them into gullies. Then one day they pass by and see them there:  bodies eaten away by foxes and sucked dry by flies. They break into a sweat and can't bear to look. That sweat on their faces isn't a show for their neighbors:  it's a reflection of their deepest feelings. So when they go home and return with baskets and shovels to bury their parents, it's because burying parents truly the right thing, the Way for all worthy children and Humane people.  
Yi responded with a contrite: "I have now been taught".


Mencius clearly feels threatened or annoyed by Yi Chih, which is why he refuses to meet directly with him. But if we look at the text with an objective eye it is very hard to see the chapter as a serious response to Mozi and his followers.

He starts off by suggesting that Yi Chih is a hypocrite because he buried his own parents using elaborate rituals rather than simply as Mozi suggests is appropriate. Whether or not Yi is a hypocrite is irrelevant, because hypocrisy isn't really grounds for refuting something. Yi Chi just ignores this point and instead suggests that when Confucians talk about ideal rulers, they often use analogies to the way parents treat children. My school of Daoism includes the Classic of Filial Piety as one of its core teachings, so I have read a translation. And, if my memory serves me, the relationship between ruler and ruled is indeed an important part of filial piety. Yi is suggesting that if a ruler can see all his subjects as being his children, then the entire citizenry should as well.

But Mencius takes issue of this. He does admit that all people do feel some sort of basic feeling towards others in special cases. That is, we all feel a softness for babies. That is why almost all people feel compelled to protect young children from harm (such as a baby near an open well.) Modern evolutionary biology would suggest that this is "hard wired" into our brains due to natural selection. Since humanity evolved in small bands of related individuals, protecting all the babies we see would probably help replicate DNA that even if not directly our own offspring, would share many characteristics with our own because it is the offspring of a close relative. (This is the selfish gene hypothesis.) So in this case it might very well be that Mencius is absolutely right---this is an example of an innate ethical belief.

Mencius refuses to go beyond this limited sense of connection however, and argues once one gets beyond the specific feelings people have towards young children, it is "human nature" to place relatives ahead of others. This is what Western philosophy would call "ethical intuitionism", or, the idea that some moral insights can be understood intuitively without any recourse to either logic or evidence. Please note, however, that Mencius is not limiting the scope of ethical intuition, instead he is saying that the intuitions are different from what Yi is suggesting. He believes that people's intuitions tell them to at the same time universally protect babies and also discriminate against others in order to help out their own relatives.

While it might be that the selfish gene hypothesis might suggest that this is the case in some limited cases, Mencius would not have posited it this way because he lived long before the science of genetics.  Moreover, he pushes this theory past the point where the replication of DNA is involved. He suggests that Chinese burial customs are intuitively obvious to all human beings, which is totally unsupported by the facts.  He says that the vast majority of people would be horrified to see their parents' bodies reduced to a skeleton in a ditch, so they would immediately rush out to rebury them, and, that this response is a result of something innate in the human psyche---if not the universe itself.

I would disagree with this position and posit that the feelings that Mencius is referring to are culturally conditioned. It is simply the case that there are cultures that see things very differently and which consider it right and proper to work a loved one's body back into the ecosystem as soon as possible.  For example, consider the examples of Tibetan "sky burial".  Here's a YouTube video that clearly shows people who do not share Mencius' moral intuitions. (Warning, this isn't for the faint of heart):


Moving beyond the specific case of lavish funerals to the general case of putting the children of others on par with your own, one of the strongest practical arguments against Confucianism over the ages has been that it has fostered nepotism and corruption as generation after generation of officials "pulled strings" to help their relatives into offices that they were unfit to hold.

I have seen at my workplace what happens when nepotism is allowed to happen. I remember a coworker's wife worked in human resources and pulled strings to get their son hired into the cleaning crew. He has some sort of "issue", and he managed to make the life of the women who worked with him a living Hell. They all transferred to other buildings or quit, and the building became a dumping ground for staff members that foremen didn't want working for them. The result was that the building became little more than a pig-sty. The fellow in question eventually got transferred to a small building where he wouldn't have to interact with any other cleaners. Even that didn't work as he ended up in a fist fight with his foreman. That was the last straw and he was fired.

Imagine what harm he could have done if he was more than just a janitor and was in a position of some authority. Yet this has happened as a "matter of course" throughout Chinese history because of the influence of the Confucian virtue of "filial piety".

In contrast to this "innate human nature", other societies have fought against this tendency.  Legalism is one way of doing this. Rules are created and penalties are assigned against those that break them. Where I work there are supposed to be specific mechanisms at work to avoid hiring unfit employees. These are often followed, but a lot of management is quite sloppy about following these guidelines and bad things happen.

Other societies go a little bit farther and try to create an ideal of civic responsibility. The ancient Spartans are probably the best example of this. Young people were put through very, very, very harsh training that not only made them great soldiers but also people who genuinely put the good of the community ahead of their only personal interests.

This extended to the point where mothers put the good of their army ahead of the well-being of their children. This started right from birth where Spartans accentuated natural selection by formally inspecting all their children and killing any that seemed to harbor any type of physical imperfection. The movie "300" is very good as showing this ethos.

The selection didn't end here. From an early age boys were put through a very intensive and all-encompassing system of education known as the "Agoge". The goal of this process was to ensure that the boys grew up into super soldiers who primary loyalty was to the state instead of their family. Again, "300" does a good job of explaining this process:

This attitude was expected to over-ride the natural human emotions that people feel towards children and spouses. Consider the example of the Spartan woman who famously told her son going off to battle "Come home with your shield or on it"---which is to say, "Don't throw away your heavy shield and run. Fight even if it means you end up being killed and carried home on your shield as a corpse".

My last clip from "300" dramatizes this attitude in a conversation between King Leonidas and his wife.

The thing to remember about Sparta is that it was an actual human society and lived and prospered following these rules. It's existence totally puts the lie to the argument that it is "only human nature" to put the needs of your family ahead of everyone else.


When I started this essay I originally put the word "philosophy" in "scare quotes" to show that I don't really think of Chinese "philosophy" as being the same thing as Western. There are several reasons for doing this, but in this particular case, I was motivated by the fact Mencius is using such incredibly lame reasoning in this chapter. He is pretty much taking as "intuitively obvious" anything that he believes to be true. That is no refutation of Mozi. And no reasonable person would listen to his arguments and simply agree that he has "been schooled".

Eventually I decided against this, as even if his arguments are often weak, he still has some useful insights that bear thinking about. What I found interesting was the reference to Mozi, someone that I think should have a bigger profile. (Perhaps at some future date I will write some posts devoted to him.) Moreover, in discussions about Confucianism I have often come across the example of the child by the well. I was surprised to realize that it comes from one of the weakest chapters in the Confucian corpus.

These are neither stirring insights nor deep wisdom. But if someone is interested in Daoism they should gain some background knowledge about other schools of thought that were extant at the same time that books like the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi were written. I hope that this post will serve that important if plodding service.

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