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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #27 (July 4, 2006), page 15.
Quaint and dangerous thoughts
Translated by D.C. Lau
Penguin Classics, 2004
Paperback, 246 pages, $15.00
By Douglas Spangle
Surely the world is able to deal with the loss of a political consultant for the sake of gaining a great philosopher. Thus, we have Mencius.
Meng Kíe, whose name has been popularly Latinized to Mencius, studied under a disciple of Master Kung (Confucius)ís grandson and flourished in the fourth century B.C.E. Subordinate only to Master Kung, he is often known as the Second Sage of Confucian thought. After finishing his studies, Mencius went forth to advise the rulers of the time, following the teachings of Kung and at the same time developing his own.
Unrest was the signature of the time. Known as the Time of the Warring States, this was an uncomfortable period between powerful dynasties, and many petty monarchies contended amidst a background of shifting alliances and loyalties. Mencius preached the Confucian idea of jen (meaning, more or less, Benevolence) to the rulers of these states. Not surprisingly, his advice was not often followed. His doctrines were thought to be, as we might now say, quaint. After many years and much futility, he retired and related his reminiscences to his disciples. These became the basis of the book now known as the Mencius, which has since been deemed one of the four cornerstone works of Confucianism.
As noted, Mencius based his philosophy on benevolence: a ruler must seek the welfare of his people rather than warfare, personal wealth, and power. Seeking to be a true king by means of making endless war, as he once told a monarch, would be like looking for fish by climbing a tree. Moreover, Mencius believed that a people ruled by a vicious or corrupt king would be justified in overthrowing him, and thus Menciusís doctrines might be seen as not just quaint, but dangerous ó particularly by vicious and corrupt rulers.
His ideas are expressed by vignettes. They are not as catchy and quotable as the aphorisms of Master Kung, but they do display some complexity and elaboration, so much so that the English critic and linguist I.A. Richards in the 1930s themed an extensive study, Mencius on the Mind, on the precepts of the Sage. The very least that can be said is that Mencius taught a very early form of Humanism, and the sequencing of his many short-short stories creates the effect of a consistent body of thought.
D.C. Lauís recent revision of this 1970 translation takes a middle path between rhetorical excess and over-colloquialism, which is quite fitting for Mencius, whose thought, rather than being metaphysical or moralistic, is eminently commonsensical. Mencius remains to this day hard-headed, quaint, and dangerous. We who live in dangerous times, as Mencius did, might find such quaint ideas useful.