Mencius (4th century BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G047-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

Article Summary

Mencius (Mengzi) was a Chinese Confucian philosopher, best known for his claim that human nature is good. He is probably the single most influential philosopher in the Chinese tradition, in that an interpretation of his thought became the basis of the civil service examinations in China in the fourteenth century and remained so for almost 600 years. The primary source for his thought is the collection of his sayings, debates and discussions known as the Mengzi.

Mencius (known in Chinese as Mengzi (Master Meng) or by his full name, Meng Ke) was born early in the fourth century bc in the state of Zou, now part of Shandong Province. Towards the end of that century he travelled from state to state, seeking a ruler who would put his philosophy into practice, and briefly served as a minister in the state of Qi. The collection of his sayings, debates and discussions is known simply as the Mengzi. It was compiled either by Mencius himself or by his disciples soon after his death.

Mencius saw his main intellectual task as defending the doctrines of Confucius against those of the egoist Yang Zhu and the universalistic consequentialist Mozi. In order to do this, he developed a novel and detailed theory of human nature which went beyond anything Confucius had said.

Mencius’ claim that human nature is good has been given different interpretations (see Xing). He clearly thought that humans innately have active but incipient tendencies toward virtue, which he describes, using an agricultural metaphor, as sprouts. Each sprout corresponds to one of his four cardinal virtues, and each virtue has an emotion or attitude that is characteristic of it: benevolence is characterized by compassion, righteousness by shame and disdain, wisdom by approval and disapproval, and ritual propriety by either respect or deference. In a famous example, Mencius says that our sprout of benevolence manifests itself in a spontaneous feeling of ‘alarm and compassion’ when we ‘suddenly’ see a child about to fall into a well (Mengzi 2A6). This same virtue shows itself in one’s compassion for a suffering animal, one’s service to and love of one’s parents and the disinterested concern of virtuous rulers for their subjects.

Righteousness is similarly complicated, manifesting itself in such things as a beggar refusing to accept a handout given with contempt, a wife and concubine being ashamed of their husband’s humiliation of himself to obtain luxuries, a chariot driver being ashamed to cheat in a ritual hunt, a person refusing to accept contemptuous forms of address, disdaining to serve base rulers, and obeying and respecting one’s elder brother. One passage (Mengzi 5A9) suggests that a wise person is a good judge of the character of others, recognizes what is base and avoids it, is a prudent and perceptive judge of policy and a good administrator. Another passage (4A27) describes wisdom as understanding and being committed to benevolence and righteousness. Mencius does not clearly distinguish the virtue of ritual propriety, although it seems to be related to righteousness.

Neo-Confucian philosophers (see Neo-Confucian philosophy) regarded the four sprouts as fully developed virtues whose operation was impeded (in the uncultivated individual) by selfish desires. However, it is more likely that Mencius thought the sprouts were only incipient virtues, which must be cultivated so that they develop into full virtues (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy). That is, we must ‘extend’ the reactions of the sprouts from the situations in which we already have them to relevantly similar situations in which we should, but do not yet, have them. Mencius seems to advocate several methods for achieving extension, including ‘concentration’, which probably includes the reflective and joyful exercise of the sprouts. He also taught his students through the study of poetry and ‘case studies’ of the actions of sages.

Mencius presents what is recognizable as a virtue ethic, but one that is importantly different in terms of its conception of flourishing, its cardinal virtues and its theory of ethical cultivation from classic Western examples such as those of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas (see Virtue ethics). Like other virtue ethicists, Mencius regards ethics as objective, but eschews decision procedures based upon either rules or the weighing of utility and stresses the context-sensitivity of virtuous responses. As a Confucian, Mencius holds that virtuous individuals will have compassion for all humans, but he also thinks we have special obligations to, and should have greater concern for, those tied to us by particular bonds, including kinship. Mencius is also typically Confucian in his emphasis upon learning from tradition, and in his belief that the virtues first manifest themselves in the family.

In terms of style, Mencius prefers to focus on the specific and the concrete. For example, Mencius explores virtues and their semblances, not through a Socratic search for definitions but through contrasting concrete examples (for examples, Mengzi 2A2; 7B37). Furthermore, what he says is geared to the understanding and needs of his interlocutors on particular occasions. So, for instance, he may be oversimplifying his view of self-cultivation for his audience in Mengzi 6B2. However, careful study of the Mengzi suggests that underlying his concrete comments on specific occasions is a deep and systematic ethical view.

Citing this article:
Van Norden, Bryan W.. Mencius (4th century BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G047-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles