on January 18, 2001
Very few people in the West have heard of Mencius. However, in East Asia he is known as "the second sage" of Confucianism -- second only to Confucius himself. The eponymous _Mencius_ is a collection of his sayings and dialogues with disciples, rulers, and rival philosophers. It is unfortunate that this work is not more widely read outside of Asia. It is more accessible than the often cryptic _Analects_ of Confucius. Furthermore, Mencius is arguably a deeper philosophical thinker than Confucius. Buy this book and you'll get a fine translation of a classic of world literature and philosophy.
Mencius is most famous for his claim that human nature is good. He illustrates this by asking us to imagine a person who suddenly sees a child about to fall into a well. Anyone, Mencius claims, would have a feeling of alarm and compassion at this sight. This feeling is a manifestation of our innate tendency toward benevolence. Mencius is aware that, despite having this innate tendency toward virtue, most people fail to act in a benevolent manner. But he claims that this is due to bad environmental factors, as well as a failure to cultivate one's "sprouts" of virtue. (Lau translates "sprout" as "germ," a minor infelicity.)
Lau's _Mencius_ is probably the best complete translation of this work in English. It also includes extensive supporting material: an interpretive introduction, a glossary, and appendices on events in the life of Mencius, early traditions about Mencius, the text of the _Mencius_, ancient history as understood by Mencius, and Mencius's method of argumentation.
James Legge also did a complete translation, _The Works of Mencius_, which is a little dated (it was completed in the late 19th century), but it is still a good translation, and includes the Chinese text, along with extensive notes. I did a partial translation of the _Mencius_ for _Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy_.
on January 7, 2004
For those who don't know, Mencius was a disciple of Confucius's philosophy - probably the most famous. He helped spread it by adding his own flavour to the theories. This book presents them. It is easier to read than the Analects, in my opinion, as it presents much longer and more coherent paragraphs many of which are like stories. As a result, less time is spent getting acquainted with the background.
One of the key features of Mencius that separates him from Confucius is the book of Mencius has a lot of philosophical argument and rhetoric that is quite sophisticated from a cursory reading (with Confucius, much of the sophistication is apparent only if you know the text EXTREMELY well). Mencius was a keen maker of illustrations in arguments. This is the book that contains the famous argument taht human nature is fundamentally good because a person seeing a child on the edge of a well about to fall in will initially be compelled to run and save the child.
Basically, there was a sort of split in the interpretation of Confucianism. Xunzi believed that humans are essentially evil (or at least selfish) and therefore it is necessary to have ren (benevolence), li (ritual/propriety) and fa (law) to enable them to develop themselves and overcome their base urges. Mencius went the other way, considering people essentially good (as can be seen in the well example). He would see evil as a result of corruption by society, and ren and li as tools to enable one to develop their true nature. From reading his work though, I think he was far from naive and he certainly did not have an idyllic view of humanity. Rather, Xunzi and Mencius seemed to be advocating the same kind of philosophy and there is not actually that much difference between them. But Mencius is the more optimistic and hence more pleasant to read, and it is perhaps because of the sense of optimism that he was adopted by the Chinese as the more authoritative Confuscian in ages to come.
The translation is great and makes the reading easier. There are useful appendices at the end which give the background in a logical way (eg a section on Mencius's view of history).
A great find!
Having read the Analects, I wanted to read further in Chinese philosophy. It was recommended that I pick up the Lau translation of Mencius, as it was widely considered the best.
Even as a reader approaching his thinking for the first time, I was able to get quite a bit from reading the seven books. They were thought-provoking and crisp. I was interested in the notions of morality and good as treated in his analogies. This point is the famous difference between Confucius and Mencius and alone makes this book valuable reading.
The Penguin edition may well be the best available translation and I am sure that the essays at the beginning and end are useful for more knowledgeable scholars. Unfortunately, as a reader largely unfamiliar with his life and work (beyond knowing his role as a student of Confucius) these essays assumed a level of knowledge beyond that which I actually possessed. It would have been helpful for me if the introduction had been more concerned with basic context setting.
The appendices bound with the book contain essays on dating events in the life of Mencius, early traditions about Mencius, textual notes, history as depicted in the text, and the use of analogy as argument.
on September 4, 2005
I have read a great deal of Chinese history. I have also read many of the philosophy classics; Confucius Analects, the Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, and the Chuang Tsu. Chinese philosophy does not set forth ideas as directly as Western philosophy. You can read three sentences and search for the meaning for fifteen minutes. The writing conveys ideas in what is to me an abstruse fashion. I briefly studied the Chinese language and it conveys a lot of ideas in a short space.
After the thinking I do get an idea. It is amazing what is conveyed in a few words. There is no attempt to set forth an ordered set of ideas. What I understand are thoughts that form a point of view. That is what I mean by inscrutable.
Mencius is not nearly as minimalist as the Analects. He tells short tales with a moral. To that extent he is easier to understand. The same ideas appear with different emphasis in tales. The writing does not present a clear direct system of ideas, such as Aristotle. My interpretation may be much different than yours.
I enjoyed Mencius. I felt it was worth while and gave me insight into Chinese thought. It must be remembered that he is second only to Confucius in Confucian thought.
What worked for me was to read slowly and take notes. I had to invest a great deal of time in reading what is a short book. I still feel I need to read some type of treatise to get a better understanding of the philosophy of Mencius. Reading Mencius first gives the basis to build a greater understanding of Chinese philosophy and the Chinese point of view.
on May 20, 2013
I meant to buy the D.C.Lau translation. I searched on amazon for the D.C.Lau translation and there it was. I clicked on the link to buy it for the kindle, paid for it, and opened it up. Surprise! what was listed as the D.C. Lau translation on my search results linked me to the James Legge translation and I paid for the wrong book. Not cool amazon.
on January 9, 2016
Men and women go through their lives asking themselves “What is the right thing to do?”, and trying to live good lives. And some of the very best answers to those questions of how to live a good life and do the right thing come from a Chinese philosopher who lived 2400 years ago. Many people in the West do not know Mencius and his work, but everyone everywhere should.
Mencius, Meng Ke, 孟子, lived about a century after Confucius, and his work is unquestionably part of the intellectual and philosophical legacy of Confucianism. Mencius’ declaration that “Holding on to the middle is closer to being right, but to do this without the proper measure is no different from holding to one extreme” (VII.A. 26, p. 151) sounds very Confucian, and recalls the inscription above the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi: μηδὲν ἄγαν, meden agan, nothing in excess. At the same time, however, Mencius offers something new and different from the work of Confucius. And it is in that difference that Mencius’ work – known simply as "The Mencius" – becomes wonderfully modern.
For all the profundity of Confucius’ "Analects," there sometimes seems to be something a bit self-interested about it all. Confucius calls upon his disciples to practice benevolence, to be sure; but to what end? Some readers of "The Analects" may feel that Confucius overemphasizes benevolence as a path toward being a gentleman rather than a “small man,” and gentlemanly status as the means by which one can secure an Imperial post equal to one’s talents. Is the whole point of benevolence that it helps one get a really good job? Such would be a gross oversimplification of "The Analects," in my opinion, but "The Mencius" does not leave itself open to such charges. Mencius, rather, engages in some fruitful speculations on the source of human benevolence itself.
In Mencius’ view, all people come into this world with what he calls “the germ of benevolence,” a predisposition to do good on behalf of others for others’ sake, with no self-interest involved. Mencius explains this concept in one of the most famous passages from "The Mencius":
”Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child. From this it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human….The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence” (II.A.6, p. 38).
That impulse toward compassion, Mencius argues, is natural to us; it is a predisposition. “Human nature is good just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good; there is no water that does not flow downwards” (VI.A.2, pp. 122). Yet if all people come into the world with that predisposition toward empathy for all living things, how is it that people are able to behave cruelly? In Mencius’ view, the human tendency toward compassion is something that must be exercised and nurtured, because otherwise it can be lost. If one develops those innate qualities of compassion and ethical awareness, then “When these are fully developed, he can tend the whole realm within the Four Seas; but if he fails to develop them, he will not be able even to serve his parents” (II.A.6, pp. 38-39).
The system of morality that Mencius sets forth is eminently practical and sensible. When one of his disciples suggests that an unjust tax cannot be abolished immediately, Mencius compares that to a man making a “reduction” from stealing his neighbor’s chickens daily to stealing them only once a month and adds, “When one realizes that something is morally wrong, one should stop it as soon as possible. Why wait for next year?” (III.B.8, p. 71).
In this time of wars that seem to go on without end, there is something only too modern in Mencius’ declaration that there are “no just wars. There are only cases of one war not being quite as bad as another” (VII.B.2, p. 157). And an observer of the contemporary political scene might shake his or her head in rueful agreement with Mencius’ observation that “A good and wise man helps others to understand by his own clear understanding. Nowadays, men try to help others understand by their own benighted ignorance” (VII.B.20, p. 161).
A helpful introduction by scholar D.C. Lau of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (who also translated Penguin Books editions of the "Tao Te Ching" and "The Analects") situates "The Mencius" in its social and historical context. Along with a glossary of personal and place names, Lau also includes four appendices: one on events in the life of Mencius, a second that examines early traditions about the philosopher, a third on the text of The Mencius, a fourth that focuses on Mencius’ understanding of ancient history, and a fifth on Mencius’ use of analogy in argument. It is like taking a seminar in Chinese history and philosophy, all in the course of a 246-page book.
I read "The Mencius" while my wife and I were on a trip to Shanghai. Not far from the towering skyscrapers of the Pudong and the neon-lit commercialism of the Nanjing Road shopping district, one can walk quietly in Old Shanghai, amidst the serenity of the 16th-century Yu Garden. It is easy to imagine people of earlier times walking among the rockeries and pavilions of Yu Garden, and then sitting down by a pond to read from "The Mencius." Walking in Old Shanghai, experiencing the friendly smiles and the quiet courtesy of the Shanghainese people, even amidst the modern busy-ness of one of the world’s largest cities, I could not help thinking that the compassionate and benevolent spirit of Mencius lives on in the land of his birth.
on August 30, 2015
Mencius was a great Confucian scholar who lived a century after his mentor, from 372 BC to 289 BC. Mencius built his philosophy on one aspect of Confucius’ thinking: rulers should be benevolent. He deemphasized what Confucius also maintained: subjects of rulers should be obedient.
Benevolence in a ruler is to be commended. Nevertheless, it is not enough. Mencius seems to have overestimated the power of benevolence. He wrote, “If its ruler will put in practice a benevolent government, no power will be able to prevent his becoming sovereign,” and “Benevolence subdues its opposite just as water subdues fire.”
Evil men can usually only be subdued with power. A benevolent ruler who lacks military skills and the ability to detect and thwart palace uprisings is likely to be replaced by a ruler who is less benevolent or not benevolent at all.
In the thirteenth century the Mongolians conquered much of the known world. Their conquests included China, whose rulers studied Mencius, and much of the Islamic world at a time when Islam was as militant as it is now. The Mongolians did not do this by being benevolent, but by being militarily proficient, and by being so horrible that nations they conquered were afraid to revolt.
Much of Mencius’ philosophy captures our sympathy, not so much because it is obviously true, but because we wish it was true. He argues that humans are innately good. He seems to attribute human wickedness to bad leadership. In this he anticipates Jean Jacques Rousseau, although there is little reason to believe that Rousseau was directly influenced.
Mencius' assertion of innate human benevolence is based on the tendency many adults have to prevent a child from falling into a well. That is not very convincing. What about bully behavior among teenage boys? The most accomplished bullies are often the most popular boys in school. Their hapless victims are shunned, simply because they lack the ability to fight back and win.
What about atrocities in war? Think of the cruelties committed in the name of religion. Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Nevertheless some Christians have enjoyed torturing those who did not share their doctrines. The Koran does not condone the cruelties committed by ISIS. Members of ISIS behave the way they do because they enjoy it.
Some humans are naturally kind. Others are naturally cruel. Some humans are kind or cruel, depending on the circumstances. Human nature is more complex than Mencius acknowledges.
Mencius said, “The people are the most important element in a nation; the spirits of the land and grain are the next; the sovereign is the lightest.”
Nevertheless, he stopped short of being an egalitarian. He believed that the ruler should have an income several hundred times that of a peasant, and that that those who work with their minds should have authority over those who work with their muscles.
The writing of Mencius was one of the Four Books. Together with the Five Classics these comprised the Confucian canon. For two thousand years the Imperial Exams tested Chinese young men on their knowledge of these. Those who passed the exams entered the Scholar Gentry. This was the civil service of the various Chinese dynasties. Members of the Scholar Gentry had more prestige and usually better incomes than members of other classes in China.
Members of the Scholar Gentry were expected to have more than one wife, and many children. Although the sons of members of the Scholar Gentry could usually receive a better education in the Four Books and the Five Classics, in every generation about thirty percent of those who passed the Imperial Exams were the sons of peasants. Thus, for two thousand years China had more social mobility than any other nation; upward mobility was based on intelligence; it was rewarded with prolificacy.
This can explain why Chinese Americans tend to perform well on mental aptitude tests, in the class room, and on the job.
I found the translation with the picture of old books on the cover to be more readable than that of James Legge. Although James Legge was the first to translate the Four Books and the Five Classics into English, I recommend another translation of any of these if you have access to one.
Unfortunately, the translation with the old books on the cover lacks information about the publisher and the translator. This may come later. My copy has the date “15 August 2015” on the last page. It is August 30, 2015 as I write.
Regardless of my rating, if you wish to understand Chinese thought in that era you must read this book. Mencius is considered only second to Confucius himself.
In this book, translated by David Hinton, is a compilation of teachings of Chinese sage Mencius, who the book claims trained with the grandson of Confucius in the fourth century B.C.E. Here we have fourteen chapters that highlight Mencius's central belief in inherent goodness of human nature.
Mencius is easier to read then most other Chinese sages because of his use analogies and his optimistic point of view. And the translator's introduction provides us with historical background to place the writings into the correct perspective.
on March 4, 2016
Mencius is very famous in China, and everyone knows who he is. Everyone interested in Chinese philosophy should read his works. I recommend taking notes in the sides of the pages to look back at later and also to see how your views change as you move along in the book and think more and more!
on February 27, 2013
Just a warning about the Kindle edition: the 2.99 version is Legge's translation, not Lau's. It should not be listed on the page for Lau's translation of Mencius. I already own the Lau paperback version, which is excellent. The five stars are for the Lau edition. The Legge translation is fine for having been done in the Victorian era, but I think you could find it for free elsewhere online.