Mencius, Confucianism and Asian Philosophy

Table of Contents

This paper summarizes the main points of the Mencius, as translated by David Hinton. The paper begins with a brief introduction of the Asian philosopher Confucius, whose teachings formed the basis of the Mencius, followed by a brief introduction of Mencius the philosopher. The essay then separates the main points of this philosophical work Humanity and Duty.


Confucius remains a shadowy figure of which little survives that can be directly attributed to him. The Mencius therefore stands as a testament not only to the teachings of Confucius but to the character of the man himself. Confucius or Master Kong as he is sometimes referred to was born in the fifth century BCE.

Confucianism, the theory of intellectual and social history attributed to his name, traces its origins the Analects, a group of proverbs and biographical elements of indeterminate origin. Asian History scholars differ largely upon the source and quality of the surviving Analects, however this document essentially constitutes the only source about the life of Confucius and his philosophy.

Confucius understood society in terms of familial hierarchy; social roles remained rigidly defined in his philosophy with “little sense of the inner self” deemed applicable to the teachings on the whole (Hinton ix).

Confucianism tended to view society as “a structure of human relationships” and his philosophy marked the culmination of a 1000 year transition from “a spiritualist to a humanist culture” following the dissolution of the Chou culture (Hinton x, xv). Confucius and later Mencius set about redesigning society more along the lines of rational empiricism, providing a secular basis for society to operate from (Hinton xv).


Mencius is the Westernized name for Mang tzu, born in 370 BCE in the Shantung province. Shortly after his birth Mencius’ father passed away, leaving him exclusively under the care of his mother (Legge n.p.). Mencius’ mother’s influence shaped him greatly and may have contributed to the distinctive heart centered philosophy that he brought to the teachings of Confucius (Hinton ix).

Mencius became the second sage belonging to the tradition that Confucius began, and he went on to counsel the monarchy located in the state of Ch’i (Legge n.p.) Later in life Mencius traveled to numerous other states in China to offer his advice on governing according to the principles set down by his master (Legge n.p.)

Mencius enjoyed considerable prestige and was richly compensated for his counsel, however after the passage of 15 years he began to understand that though he was a respected man, the advice he offered to the princes consistently fell upon deaf ears (Legge n.p.) Mencius lived during an exceedingly warlike age ruled largely by a tribal culture that concentrated power in the hands of a “celestial” lineage, the Shang Emperors (Hinton xi).

These kings and princes predominantly sought power, pleasure and conquest and cared very little about the theories of ethical government (Legge n.p.) Mencius as a result went into seclusion and focused his attention on philosophy and putting together the compilation we now know as the Mencius (Legge n.p.) The philosopher lived a long life and died at the age of 84, reputedly after having finished editing the complete works of Confucius (Legge n.p).

Humanity and Duty

In the Analects Confucius the Master said, “If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with the rites of propriety? If a man be without the virtues proper to humanity, what has he to do with music?” (Confucius n.p.). Mencius inherited the theory and philosophy of Confucius, and set about to expand upon this idea of humanity and its place in the social order.

Hinton’s introduction credits Mencius as the purveyor of the “profound inner dimensions of human being” that enriched the teachings of Confucius (Mencius ix). Mencius asserted that the place of Heaven actually resided in the human, and his philosophy began to equate humanity with the divine and in effect to endow humans with elements of the divine through the recognition of the “profound inner dimension” (Hinton xix). Mencius then extended this divine power to hold sway over matters of state (Hinton xx).

As opposed to the long held belief that “privileged kinships” should hold the seat of power, Mencius pointed to the power inherent in all humans by virtue of their divine origin. The philosopher “proposed [that] humans belonged to the primal cosmology.

Hence, citizens [were] all of equal value in and of themselves simply because they [were] all endowed with that vast reach of Heaven” (Hinton xx). The net effect of this shift in thought meant that duty took on a spiritual hue; regular citizens were as beholden to affect spiritual and political duty by virtue of their divine humanity.

Mencius believed that any man with a mind could not bear to witness the suffering of another man. The ensuing sense of commiseration, Mencius understood, gave rise to a host of other feelings: “shame and dislike, the feeling of modesty and complaisance, and the feeling of approving and disapproving” (Legge n.p.)

These feelings in Mencius’ philosophy were part of the vital nature of the human being, and the master argued that the feeling of commiseration itself represented the righteous principle of benevolence. The emotions of shame and dislike composed the principle of righteousness. What Mencius called modesty and complaisance made up the principle of propriety, while the desire to approve and disapprove of others represented the principle of knowledge. In Menciuss’ words:

“and so also of what properly belongs to man; shall it be said that the mind of any man was without benevolence and righteousness? The way in which a man loses his proper goodness of mind is like the way in which the trees are denuded by axes and bills. Hewn down day after day, can it – the mind – retain its beauty? But there is a development of its life day and night, and in the calm air of the morning, just between night and day, the mind feels in a degree those desires and aversions which are proper to humanity, but the feeling is not strong, and it is fettered and destroyed by what takes place during the day” (Hinton 276).

This so called “fettering” happens over and over, and in Mencius’ philosophy “the restorative influence of the night is not sufficient to preserve the proper goodness of the mind; and when this proves insufficient for that purpose, the nature becomes not much different from that of the irrational animals, and when people now see it, they think that it never had those powers which I assert. But does this condition represent the feelings proper to humanity?” (Hinton 276).

The metaphor lends itself to the idea of nourishment – essentially the philosopher argues that without proper thoughts to nourish this sense of divine humanity, the mind the will remain similar to that of a beast. Nothing lives without nourishment, and likewise, “if it receive its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not grow.

If it lose its proper nourishment, there is nothing which will not decay away” (Hinton 276). This idea echoes the same thought from Confucius, who said “Hold it fast, and it remains with you. Let it go, and you lose it. Its outgoing and incoming cannot be defined as to time or place.” It is the mind of which this is said!’ (Confucius n.p.)

Not surprisingly, Mencius also applies the sense of humanity and duty to the same familial sense of social roles rigidly adhered to by Confucius. “The substance of humaneness consists of serving one’s parents, [and] the substance of righteousness consists of obeying one’s elder brother” (Hinton 161).

Harkening back to the empirical view of the family as the microcosm of sacred, ritualized society that Confucius trumpeted, Mencius believed that wisdom was the natural reward for understanding the divine inner dimension as a manifesting through propriety: taking care of the family, and fulfilling one’s preordained duty in accordance with one’s own humanity.

Mencius also extended the ideas of humanity and duty to the political realm, which made him more of a threat to the rulers at the time. Mencius believed he had a sacred mission to guide the political elites of his time, and sincerely “hoped that his ideas would be adopted and so lead to a more humane society” (Hinton xx). However his ideas were “too radical” for his time, and though Mencius argued that the great man understands that humanity and duty underpin justice, and that the common people “are the noblest.

Next come the gods of soil and grain. The sovereign matters least. That’s why a person must win over the people to become the Son of Heaven” these ideas threatened to shake the foundation of power jealously guarded by the monarchy during Mencius’ time (Hinton 261). Mencius as previously mentioned enjoyed social status and renown, and many rulers signed on as his benefactors, however few if any implemented his ideas not showed “much inclination to put them into practice” (Hinton xx).

However, in later years Mencius’ status grew apace with his power, and for generations after he was considered almost as important as his master Confucius. The Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) recognized the Mencius as one of the classic texts of Confucianism and elevated its status almost level with the Analects (Legge n.p.)

Likewise the Northern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) compiled both the Mencius and the Analects, as well as The Greater Learning and The Center of Harmony into The Four Books. Beginning with the Song Dynasty (960-1279) straight through to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), The Four Books lived in an exalted sphere, considered crucial reading for all aspiring philosophers (Legge n.p.).

Considering the time he lived in, Mencius’ egalitarian thought certainly must have rattled some cages. Mencius remains one of the earliest philosophers to understand and promote the idea of the inner dimension of human power and spirituality.

Works Cited

Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Trans. James Legge. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1893. Print.

Mencius. Mencius. Trans. David Hinton. New York: Counterpoint, 1998. Print.

Legge, James. The Chinese Classics, Volume II: The Works of Mencius. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1895. Print.

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