I have wanted to write this post for a while, but it has been a difficult one to write. It’s not just the challenge of summarising a great man’s ideas: it is also the challenge of putting those ideas into practice. That has been tricky! Still, I take comfort from the great man himself (so to speak) who, by all accounts was certainly no saint, who would fall into anger and moods before trying once more to live by his own ideals. Perhaps it is that unashamedly humanness that is so compelling. Til the end of his life he was still trying. Who is he? Meng Ke – Master Meng, also known by the latinized name of Mencius (371- 289 BCE), the early Chinese thinker and transmitter of Confucian thought.
He lived in a time of social and political turmoil – sounds a bit familiar! You might have thought, that is not the best time to come up with a new kind of ethic; after all, people have much more essential things on their minds than how to behave, surviving is hard enough. But perhaps that is what is so good about his ethics: when the big picture looks like there is nothing we can do individually to change things, Mencius encourages us to do what we can on a personal level and it will turn out to be quite effective. He carried on the traditions of Confucius being committed to manifesting goodness rather than doing actions that detract from it. His own personal chequered career directly led him to re-think life. Delighted to have landed his dream job of being adviser to the ruler of the state of Qi, China, he was devastated when his teachings were manipulated by the system to justify aggression with a neighbouring state – the exact opposite of his principles.
His despondency gave him the chance to review his ideas – and he saw that the things that limited him most were the very things he had believed to be true. He had thought that if you did the right thing, then you would be successful, inevitably. Yet it was that very thought that constrained him because it was built on an assumption that the world was ordered and stable. That’s a very nice notion; very comforting in fact. Only it wasn’t true, and Mencius was proof. In complete contrast, his own experiences led him to view life as capricious, unstable and fragmented. There were no guarantees.
But far from this view leading Mencius to despair, he saw the world now, as a place in which there is need for constant work: the sheer unstableness of life requires us to be active in shaping our world continually. It requires us to live our lives in the most expansive way. You can never count on anything in this world so you have to actively build and rebuild it by cultivating yourself and your relationships through small actions. There is one thing you can count on, and it is that you can do something! Isn’t that great!
And here is the one thing you can do according to Mencius, and he explains it with a gardening metaphor. We all have the seed of goodness in us, but it needs cultivating and nurturing, just like a little shoot in the ground. When we cultivate our goodness, it helps us make decisions in line with goodness. And as Mencius was so keen to point out, it is something that needs constant practice – always trying to manifest goodness rather than detracting from it. Don’t worry – everyday gives us opportunities to practice! Mencius’ ideas throw us back into the world in all its complexity. Keep trying again and again! And if one incident didn’t go so well, then just look forward to the next opportunity. The constant thing you take with you into the fragmented and unstable world is YOU – imperfect, learner-human-being that you are, practising to manifest goodness more and lessen the things that detract from it. One act of goodness today is like that single snowdrop being something beautiful in a world of concrete.
[I first came across Mencius in Professor Michael Puett’s book The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything. Also, there is a good essay in Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to The Philosophers, edited by Robert L Arrington]