Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Mencius: The Just Ruler

I found this little parable in “The Cry for Justice,” Upton Sinclair’s 1915 anthology of social protest literature. Mencius was a 4th Century BCE Chinese moral philosopher, a follower of Confucius and contemporary of Plato. Because of his concern with human nature—are people inherently good or evil?—a study of Mencius would be a good fit with the first lesson of the Class of Nonviolence, where we discuss this very topic.

Murder by Statute

From "The Sayings of Mencius"
King Hui of Liang said, "I wish quietly to receive your instructions." Mencius replied, "Is there any difference between killing a man with a stick, and with a sword?" "There is not," was the answer. Mencius continued, "Is there any difference between doing it with a sword and with government measures?" "There is not," was the answer again.

Mencius then said, "In your stalls there are fat beasts; in your stables there are fat horses. But your people have the look of hunger, and in the fields are those who have died of famine. This is leading on beasts to devour men. Beasts devour one another, and men hate them for doing so. When he who is called the parent of the people conducts his government so as to be chargeable with leading on beasts to devour men, where is that parental relation to the people?"
Like Plato in “The Republic,” Mencius advocated the right of the people to overthrow an unjust ruler. What makes us human, he wrote, are our feelings of commiseration for others' suffering. What makes us virtuous is our development of this inner potential. If our “sprouts” are left untended, we can be no more than merely human — feeling sorrow at the suffering of another, but unable or unwilling to do anything about it. If we tend our sprouts assiduously, we can not only avert suffering but also bring about peace and justice in the entire world. This is the basis of another of Mencius' appeal to King Hui of Liang:
[The king] asked abruptly, "How shall the world be settled?"
"It will be settled by unification," I answered.
"Who will be able to unify it?"
"Someone without a taste for killing will be able to unify it…. Has Your Majesty noticed rice shoots? If there is drought during the seventh and eighth months, the shoots wither, but if dense clouds gather in the sky and a torrent of rain falls, the shoots suddenly revive. When that happens, who could stop it? … Should there be one without a taste for killing, the people will crane their necks looking out for him. If that does happen, the people will go over to him as water tends downwards, in a torrent - who could stop it? (1Analects6)

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