translated by D.C. Lau

Mencius was the second most important Chinese philosopher (Confucius being the first). Mencius is his Latinized name for awkward Westerners; his real name was Meng K’e. I suppose that one day, thousands of years from now, people will write about that great American thinker, Crih Cro Fah. Fair is fair.

Meng K’e lived in the late 4th century BCE -- roughly the same time as Aristotle in the West. Perhaps the best way for me to characterize my appreciation of Meng K’e is to contrast him with Aristotle. These two guys are about as different as can be. Where Aristotle invented logical thinking, Meng K’e enunciated basic principles of proper behavior. Where Aristotle was nit-pickingly precise in his wording, Meng K’e was maddeningly vague. Where Aristotle was interested in everything (e.g., nature, ethics, politics, and art), Meng K’e had a single topic: correct behavior. Where Aristotle wrote voluminously about his many topics, Meng K’e’s thought comes down to us indirectly through the writings of his pupils (rather like Plato recorded the thinking of Socrates -- except nowhere near as thorough).

Meng K’e’s basic message was really rather simple -- or at least that’s how it seems to my Western mind. His most important dictum was that a son should always, always, ALWAYS honor his parents in every manner possible. His second dictum was that the Emperor must perceive himself not as the top dog who enjoys all the luxuries, but instead as the assiduous father of the people. The Emperor must constantly strive to better the lives of his people. The Emperor who does so enjoys the approbation of Heaven and therefore deserves the absolute obedience of his people. However, if an Emperor fails to discharge his responsibilities properly, then he loses the approval of Heaven and therefore deserves to die -- although Meng K’e was careful to provide vague answers as to who should do the killing.

There was also a puritanical quality to Meng K’e’s teaching: he disdains the pursuit of pleasure. He defends the propriety of the Emperor living a life of luxury on the grounds that the Emperor must not be distracted in the slightest way from his duties to the people. Gentlemen should certainly wear the correct attire and provide the correct services to their guests, for it would be insulting to a guest to fail to entertain him in the manner that his rank requires.

This notion of correctness pervades all of Meng K’e’s sayings. It is vitally important that a gentleman live a correct life, and Meng K’e knows every detail of how to do so, but he never reduces it to simple abstractions. Instead, everything is explained instantially. When a student asks a question, Meng K’e answers with a story, concluding the story with a judgement on the behavior exhibited in the story. I think this reveals an important and fundamental truth about Chinese thinking: it eschewed abstraction as much as possible. There are abstractions in Chinese thought, but my impression is that they developed later than Meng K’e’s time. For example, he uses Heaven as the final judge of all behavior, but he never describes, defines, or characterizes Heaven in any way. Westerners would interpret his idea of “Heaven” as identical to their notion of “God”. But Westerners have expended vast amounts of mental effort figuring out God’s likes and dislikes, his character and foibles. Meng K’e, by contrast, simply declares “Heaven disapproves” or “Heaven approves” and that’s the end of the matter. One begins to think that “Heaven” is Meng K’e’s word for “Meng K’e”.

This reluctance to generalize ideas, this evasion of abstraction is, I think, closely related to whatever obstructed the Chinese from developing logical thinking (Here I am using “logical thinking” in the sense of rigorous deduction.) Deduction is really a matter of applying general principles to the elements of specific cases and thereby drawing specific conclusions.

I must confess, I failed to complete this book. By the time I had gotten about two-thirds of the way through, the repetitiveness of the material was growing tiresome. It seemed that Meng K’e kept repeating the same basic message over and over. I suspect that this is the Chinese way: attack a problem with a hundred different instances, each illustrating some fine point of the basic message.

Here’s a sample of the wisdom of Meng K’e:

Meng K’e left Ch’i and on his way put up at Chou. There was a man who wished to persuade Meng K’e to stay on behalf of the King. He sat upright and began to speak, but Meng K’e made no reply and lay down, leaning against a low table.

The visitor was displeased. “Only after observing a day’s fast”, said he, “dare I speak. You, Master, simply lie down and make no effort to listen to me. I shall never dare present myself again.”

“Be seated. I shall speak to you plainly. In the time of Duke Mu of Lu, if he did not have one of his own men close to Tzu-ssu he could not have kept Tzu-ssu happy. On the other hand, Hsieh Liu and Shen Hsiang remained secure only by having one of their own friends close to the Duke. You, my son, are trying to arrange things on my behalf, yet you fall short of what was done on behalf of Tzu-ssu. Are you refusing to have anything to do with me, or am I refusing to have anything to do with you?”

Yeah -- doesn’t make any sense to me, either.