The Mencius (Book of Mencius) is one of the classic texts of Confucianism, an important system of thought in China. In these excerpts, probably recorded by his followers in the third century BC, Chinese philosopher Mencius declares that human beings are by nature good and have an innate sense of compassion, shame, courtesy, and the difference between right and wrong. Mencius also lays out principles for humane government. He says that the power to govern is bestowed on rulers by heaven, and that if rulers have misused their station they lose this power and the people have the right to revolt. Many parts of the Mencius text consist of dialogues between Mencius and his students or other philosophers.
From the Mencius
Gaozi said: "The nature of man may be likened to the willow tree, whereas righteousness may be likened to wooden cups and wicker baskets. To turn man's nature into humanity and righteousness is like turning a willow tree into cups and baskets."
Mencius replied: "Sir, can you follow the nature of the willow tree, and make the cups and baskets? Or must you violate its nature to make the cups and baskets? If you must violate the nature of the willow tree to turn it into cups and baskets, then don't you mean you must also violate the nature of man to turn it into humanity and righteousness? Your words, alas, would incite everyone in the world to regard humanity and righteousness as a curse!"
Gaozi said: "The nature of man may be likened to a swift current of water: you lead it eastward and it will flow to the east; you lead it westward and it will flow to the west. Human nature is neither disposed to good nor to evil, just as water is neither disposed to east nor west."
Mencius replied: "It is true that water is neither disposed to east nor west, but is it neither disposed to flowing upward nor downward? The tendency of human nature to do good is like that of water to flow downward. There is no man who does not tend to do good; there is no water that does not flow downward. Now you may strike water and make it splash over your forehead, or you may even force it up the hills. But is this in the nature of water? It is of course due to the force of circumstances. Similarly, man may be brought to do evil, and that is because the same is done to his nature."
Gaozi said: "Nature is what is born in us."
Mencius asked: "'Nature is what is born in us'—is it not the same as saying white is white?"
"Yes," said Gaozi.
Mencius asked: "Then the whiteness of a white feather is the same as the whiteness of white snow, and the whiteness of white snow the same as the whiteness of white jade?"
"Yes," Gaozi replied.
Mencius asked: "Well, then, the nature of a dog is the same as the nature of a cow, and the nature of a cow the same as the nature of a man, is it not?"
Gaozi said: "The appetite for food and sex is part of our nature. Humanity comes from within and not from without, whereas righteousness comes from without and not from within."
Mencius asked: "What do you mean when you say that humanity comes from within while righteousness comes from without?"
Gaozi replied: "When I see anyone who is old I regard him as old. This regard for age is not a part of me. Just as when I see anyone who is white I regard him as white, because I can observe the whiteness externally. For this reason I say righteousness comes from without."
Mencius said: "Granted there is no difference between regarding the white horse as white and the white man as white. But is there no difference between one's regard for age in an old horse and one's regard for age in an old man, I wonder? Moreover, is it old age itself or our respectful regard for old age that constitutes a point of righteousness?"
Gaozi persisted: "My own brother I love; the brother of a man of Qin I do not love. Here the sanction for the feeling rests in me, and therefore I call it [i.e., humanity] internal. An old man of Chu I regard as old, just as an old man among my own people I regard as old. Here the sanction for the feeling lies in old age, and therefore I call it [i.e., righteousness] external."
Mencius answered him: "We love the Qin people's roast as much as we love our own roast. Here we have a similar situation with respect to things. Would you say, then, that this love of roast is also something external?"
The disciple Kongdu Zi said: "Gaozi says that human nature is neither good nor bad. Some say that human nature can be turned to be good or bad. Thus when [sage-kings] Wen and Wu were in power the people loved virtue; when [wicked kings] Yu and Li were in power the people indulged in violence. Some say that some natures are good and some are bad. Thus even while [the sage] Yao was sovereign there was the bad man Xiang, even a bad father like Gusou had a good son like [the sage-king] Shun, and even with [the wicked] Zhou for nephew and king there were the men of virtue Qi, the Viscount of Wei, and the Prince Pigan. Now, you say that human nature is good. Are the others then all wrong?"
Mencius replied: "When left to follow its natural feelings human nature will do good. This is why I say it is good. If it becomes evil, it is not the fault of man's original capability. The sense of mercy is found in all men; the sense of shame is found in all men; the sense of respect is found in all men; the sense of right and wrong is found in all men. The sense of mercy constitutes humanity; the sense of shame constitutes righteousness; the sense of respect constitutes decorum (li); the sense of right and wrong constitutes wisdom. Humanity, righteousness, decorum, and wisdom are not something instilled into us from without; they are inherent in our nature. Only we give them no thought. Therefore it is said: 'Seek and you will find them, neglect and you will lose them.' Some have these virtues to a much greater degree than others—twice, five times, and incalculably more—and that is because those others have not developed to the fullest extent their original capability. It is said in the Book of Odes:
Heaven so produced the teeming multitudes that
For everything there is its principle.
The people will keep to the constant principles,
And all will love a beautiful character.
Confucius said, regarding this poem: 'The writer of this poem understands indeed the nature of the Way! For wherever there are things and affairs there must be their principles. As the people keep to the constant principles, they will come to love a beautiful character.'"
Mencius said: "All men have a sense of commiseration. The ancient kings had this commiserating heart and hence a commiserating government. When a commiserating government is conducted from a commiserating heart, one can rule the whole empire as if one were turning it on one's palm. Why I say all men have a sense of commiseration is this: Here is a man who suddenly notices a child about to fall into a well. Invariably he will feel a sense of alarm and compassion. And this is not for the purpose of gaining the favor of the child's parents, or seeking the approbation of his neighbors and friends, or for fear of blame should he fail to rescue it. Thus we see that no man is without a sense of compassion, or a sense of shame, or a sense of courtesy, or a sense of right and wrong. The sense of compassion is the beginning of humanity; the sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness; the sense of courtesy is the beginning of decorum; the sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Every man has within himself these four beginnings, just as he has four limbs. Since everyone has these four beginnings within him, the man who considers himself incapable of exercising them is destroying himself. If he considers his sovereign incapable of exercising them, he is likewise destroying his sovereign. Let every man but attend to expanding and developing these four beginnings that are in our very being, and they will issue forth like a conflagration being kindled and a spring being opened up. If they can be fully developed, these virtues are capable of safeguarding all within the four seas; if allowed to remain undeveloped, they will not suffice even for serving one's parents."
Mencius said: "Man's innate ability is the ability possessed by him that is not acquired through learning. Man's innate knowledge is the knowledge possessed by him that is not the result of reflective thinking. Every child knows enough to love his parents, and when he is grown up he knows enough to respect his elder brothers. The love for one's parents is really humanity and the respect for one's elders is really righteousness—all that is necessary is to have these natural feelings applied to all men."
Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. The king said: "You have not considered a thousand li too far to come, and must therefore have something of profit to offer my kingdom?"
Mencius replied: "Why must you speak of profit? What I have to offer is humanity and righteousness, nothing more. If a king says, 'What will profit my kingdom?' the high officials will say, 'What will profit our families?' and the lower officials and commoners will say, 'What will profit ourselves?' Superiors and inferiors will try to seize profit one from another, and the state will be endangered.… Let your Majesty speak only of humanity and righteousness. Why must you speak of profit?"
Mencius said: "It was by virtue of humanity that the Three Dynasties won the empire, and by virtue of the want of humanity that they lost it. States rise and fall for the same reason. Devoid of humanity, the emperor would be unable to safeguard the four seas, a feudal lord would be unable to safeguard the altars of land and grain [i.e., his state], a minister would be unable to safeguard the ancestral temple [i.e., his clan-family], and the individual would be unable to safeguard his four limbs. Now people hate destruction and yet indulge in want of humanity—this is as if one hates to get drunk and yet forces oneself to drink wine."
Mencius said: "An overlord is he who employs force under a cloak of humanity. To be an overlord one has to be in possession of a large state. A king, on the other hand, is he who gives expression to his humanity through virtuous conduct. To be a true king, one does not have to have a large state. Tang [founder of the Shang dynasty] had only a territory of seventy li and King Wen [founder of the Zhou] only a hundred. When men are subdued by force, it is not that they submit from their hearts but only that their strength is unavailing. When men are won by virtue, then their hearts are gladdened and their submission is sincere, as the seventy disciples were won by the Master, Confucius. This is what is meant in the Book of Odes when it says:
From east and west,
From north and south,
Came none who thought of disobedience."
Mencius said: "States have been won by men without humanity, but the world, never."
Mencius said: "It was because Jie and Zhou lost the people that they lost the empire, and it was because they lost the hearts of the people that they lost the people. Here is the way to win the empire: win the people and you win the empire. Here is the way to win the people: win their hearts and you win the people. Here is the way to win their hearts: give them and share with them what they like, and do not do to them what they do not like. The people turn to a humane ruler as water flows downward or beasts take to wilderness."…
Importance of the People and the Right of Revolution
[Mencius' disciple] Wan Zhang asked: "Is it true that Yao gave the empire to Shun?"
Mencius replied: "No. The emperor cannot give the empire to another."
Wan Zhang asked: "Who then gave it to him, when Shun had the empire?"
Mencius said: "Heaven gave it to him."
Wan Zhang asked: "You say Heaven gave it to him—did Heaven do it with an explicit charge?"
Mencius said: "No. Heaven does not speak. It simply signified its will through his conduct and handling of affairs."
Wan Zhang asked: "How was this done?"
Mencius said: …"Of old, Yao recommended Shun to Heaven and Heaven accepted him. He presented him to the people and the people accepted him. This is why I said that Heaven does not speak but simply signified its will through Shun's conduct and handling of affairs."
Wan Zhang said: "May I venture to ask, how was this acceptance by Heaven and the people indicated?"
Mencius said: "He was appointed to preside over the sacrifices, and all the spirits were pleased with them: that indicated his acceptance by Heaven. He was placed in charge of public affairs, and they were well administered and the people were at peace: that indicated his acceptance by the people. Heaven thus gave him the empire; the people thus gave him the empire. That is why I said, the emperor cannot give the empire to another.… This is what is meant in the Great Declaration [in the Book of History] where it is said: 'Heaven sees as my people see, Heaven hears as my people hear.'"
Mencius said: "Men are in the habit of speaking of the world, the state. As a matter of fact, the foundation of the world lies in the state, the foundation of the state lies in the family, and the foundation of the family lies in the individual."
Mencius said: "[In the constitution of a state] the people rank the highest, the spirits of land and grain come next, and the ruler counts the least."
Mencius said: "There are three things that a feudal lord should treasure—land, people, and the administration of the government. If he should treasure pearls and jades instead, calamity is sure to befall him."
Mencius said: "It is not so important to censure the men appointed to office; it is not so important to criticize the measures adopted in government. The truly great is he who is capable of rectifying what is wrong with the ruler's heart."
Mencius said to King Xuan of Qi: "When the ruler regards his ministers as his hands and feet, the ministers regard their ruler as their heart and bowels. When the ruler regards his ministers as his dogs and horses, the ministers regard their ruler as a stranger. When the ruler regards his ministers as dust and grass, the ministers regard their ruler as a brigand or foe."
King Xuan of Qi asked: "Is it not true that Tang banished Jie and that King Wu smote Zhou?"
Mencius replied: "It is so stated in the records."
The king asked: "May a subject, then, slay his sovereign?"
Mencius replied: "He who outrages humanity is a scoundrel; he who outrages righteousness is a scourge. A scourge or a scoundrel is a despised creature [and no longer a king]. I have heard that a despised creature called Zhou was put to death, but I have not heard anything about the murdering of a sovereign."
The men of Qi made war on Yan and took it. The other feudal lords began plotting to liberate Yan. King Xuan [of Qi] asked: "The feudal lords of many states are plotting war against me; how shall I deal with them?"
Mencius replied: "I have heard of one who, with a territory of only seventy li, extended his rule to the whole empire. That was Tang. But never have I heard of the lord of a thousand li having to stand in fear of others. It is said in the Book of History: 'Tang launched his punitive expedition, first against Ge. The whole empire had faith in him. When he carried his campaign to the east, the tribes in the west grumbled. When he carried his campaign to the south, the tribes in the north grumbled, saying: "Why should we be last?"' People looked for his coming as they would look for the rain-clouds in time of great drought. Those going to the market were not stopped; those tilling the land were not interrupted. He put their rulers to death and he consoled the people. His visit was like the falling of rain in season, and the people were overjoyed. Thus it is said in the Book of History: 'We have been waiting for our lord. When he comes, we shall have a new life.'"
Mencius' Defense of Filial Piety
…Now that sage-kings are no longer with us, the feudal lords yield to their lusts and idle scholars indulge in senseless disputation. The words of Yang Zhu and Mo-Zi fill the land, and the talk of the land is either Yang Zhu or Mo-Zi. Yang is for individualism, which does not recognize the sovereign; Mo is for universal love, which does not recognize parents. To be without sovereign or parent is to be a beast.
Mencius said: "Of services which is the greatest? The service of parents is the greatest. Of charges which is the greatest? The charge of oneself is the greatest. Not failing to keep oneself and thus being able to serve one's parents—this I have heard of. Failing to keep oneself and yet being able to serve one's parents—this I have not heard of."
Mencius said: "There are three things which are unfilial, and the greatest of them is to have no posterity."
Mencius said: "The substance of humanity is to serve one's parents; the basis of righteousness is to obey one's elder brothers."