Class #14

Introduction to Mencius

   1.  Mencius, Introduction, pp. 1-16
   2.  Mencius, Readings 1

Lecture PowerPoint Deck

The Mencius records the activities of a great Confucian of the fourth century B.C. It was probably composed by disciples soon after Mencius' death (which occurred after 312 B.C.). As a young man, Mencius trained with an unknown teacher who had himself studied under Confucius' grandson, Zisi.  Zisi's teacher had been Zengzi (Master Zeng), one of Confucius' best disciples (recall Analects IV.15). Between the time of Confucius and Mencius, followers of Confucius had multiplied throughout the feudal states of late Zhou China. Confucian teachers had drawn out many of the implications of Confucius' own teachings, and different "schools" of Confucian doctrine had arisen, as Book XIX of the Analects suggests. Common to all these schools was an absolute commitment to ritual study, and, once the Mohists began to attack such activities as wasteful and philosophically arbitrary, Confucians were obliged to respond by elaborating doctrines which could rationalize and defend their ritual commitments. In society at large, Confucians functioned as teachers and priestly ritualists: their command of Zhou Dynasty tradition made them good choices as tutors; their ritual expertise made them indispensable at weddings, funerals, and ceremonies of feudal courts. That is how they made their living.

The fourth century B.C. was a period in which feudal lords, competing for scarce talent in government and military areas, frequently recruited talent by issuing blanket offers to reward with stipends any "wise man" who would journey to their courts to offer wisdom. Those deemed most useful would receive appointments in government and large salaries. More "philosophical" types would typically be granted stipends and called on for occasional advice. The real target of these policies was a growing class of men known as "strategists," on whose Machiavellian advice warlords came to depend. But because most of the rulers of this period were, in fact, usurpers and adventurers rather than the old aristocrats of the Zhou, they found it prudent to bolster their claims to political legitimacy by patronizing as wide a variety of sagely philosophers as possible. In the opening chapter of the Mencius, for example, King Hui of Liang (a usurper who had led his state into military disaster) is all too eager to personally greet Mencius--no ruler who could lure the most renowned Confucian of the time to his court could be deemed illegitimate (of course, the king carefully ignored all of Mencius's advice). The movement of philosophers back and forth in this way brought representatives of various schools into frequent contact, and facilitated the atmosphere of debate which grew increasingly heated (look at 3A.4-5 and 3B.9 for examples of this sort of contact).

Confucians in the fourth century B.C. made a decent living off of such gratuitous patronage, and they were often to be found at feudal courts, serving figurehead functions. But until Mencius, none had violated the doctrine of "timeliness" and attempted to do what Confucius had done: seriously seek political responsibility in an attempt to implement Confucian policy in government. All understood the message of the Analects: the times were not ripe. Mencius became famous because he made the attempt--and failed spectacularly.

Your assignments in the Mencius are presented in five online readings, one for each of the lectures we'll devote to Mencius's thought. These reading sets are annotated, and those comments should help guide you through the topics under which the readings are organized. For example, in Reading 1, there are six general topic headings, each with illustrative passages from the Mencius and notes (use the Bookmark tab to navigate among those sections).

The Mencius is a large text - much longer than the Analects. Your readings will comprise only about forty percent of the text. Your initial reading is the Introduction from a complete translation, and you can browse that longer text if you would like to see what other materials the complete book includes.

The books of the Mencius  are all divided into "upper" and "lower" halves, denoted now by a numbering system that assigns A or B to each half of each book: Book 1A, Book 1B, and so forth, altogether seven books.