Social Engagement
E Bruce Brooks
Wesleyan University, 25 Oct 2001

Social Engagement vs Inward Turning in the Mencius

E Bruce Brooks


The established practice is to read the Mencius as though its entire contents (7 double chapters, 37,000 characters) reflected the thought of the historical Mvng Kv (c0387-c0303). If systematically carried out, this would require us to accept the conclusion that Mencius displayed highly variable behavior toward the rulers of his time, held very inconsistent views of the ancient worthies he cites, and was not at all clear about either his philosophical principles or his olitical recommendations. We can avoid this conclusion by focusing only on certain famous passages in the text, and neglecting the rest. Or we can confront the inconsistencies, and try to see what sense they make.

Our work on the Mencius follows the latter path. It suggests that (1) Only part of chapter 1 is transcripts of actual ruler interviews; the rest of MC 1 is later wishful thinking. (2) The remainder of the text, comprising chapters 2-7, was written by not one but two Mencian successor schools, and (3) These schools continued to exist side by side for 50 years after Mencius's death, being brought to an end only by the Chu conquests of 0249, which subjugated Lu and affected everything in its vicinity.

What is gained by reading the text in this way? First, its inconsistencies of doctrine and attitude are partly explained as conflicts between original material and later, "updating" material. Second, when read in historical order, the text as a whole documents the fortunes of Mencian thought, and also the changes in its content, from its beginnings through two generations after the death of the founder, a total of seventy years. This picture, and especially its final stages, represents a new page of early Chinese intellectual history. Nobody thinks that Mencius's views were in fact implemented by any major ruler of his time. That failure has always been visible in the record. But the effort of two generations of the Mencian school to continue to advocate those principles in later years, their increasing retreat from the original content of those principles, and their final sense of failure, have not previously been visible to those who have read the Mencius text in the conventional way.

The talk illustrated this historical development by tracking two themes through the later material. The first was from the southern or governmentally inclined school, whose surviving text is MC 1-3. It followed the advocacy history of the Mencian economic program, and showed what place the "well-field" model held in that theory. The second was from the northern or philosophically inclined school, whose internal record is contained in MC 4-7. It showed a gradual loss of faith in the principle of human nature, and a retreat to the idea of inward self-cultivation, as something one can achieve whether or not outward conditions are favorable.

On their own account, then, the Mencian political and philosophical agendas both ended in discouragement and defeat. It was shown, in conclusion, that the texts themselves recognized this defeat. This tragic outcome can serve as a reminder of the difficulty of recommending liberal measures to an increasingly autocratic government. The continuing vitality of the Mencian recommendations in the difficult world in which we at present live can also point a moral: that failure in one's own time need not be final. It may have its uses to those, like ourselves, who come after.

Postscript: I wish to thank Wesleyan students Jacob Goldsmith ("Mencius") and Marc Berger ("The Northern Mencians"), along with Taeko ("The Southern Mencians"), for ably vocalizing the Mencius quotations in this presentation, which added much to their vividness for the lecture audience. Those who wish to experiment with the dating of the Mencius which the lecture illustrated may use the Mencius Worksheet from our on-line publication Classical Chinese Texts, or consider the argument for that dating as it is set forth in the Mencius entry

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