Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Six

We’ve switched back to Confucianism via Mengzi, and the contrast with Daoism is starker than ever. In the middle of Book 2A, there is a discussion of qi and will and having an unperturbed heart. He seems to be saying that if qi is cultivated correctly, then it will harmonize with the Dao and with righteousness. “One must work at it, but do not assume success. One should not forget the heart, but neither should one ‘help’ it grow.” (2A2.16a) 

This emphasis on work and on doing things correctly is, of course, in direct opposition to Daoism, and, I would argue, at cross purposes to Mengzi’s ultimate values. (2A8.3) Even the numbering structure of this collection of books, with each book broken into parts, and verses broken down into decimal points and even subcategories of those decimal points, seems overwrought. 

There’s such a focus on hierarchy. (2B2.6-2.9) Of course many things necessarily happen in a particular order, and it’s helpful to describe those: “Your will is the commander of qi. Qi fills the body. When your will is fixed somewhere, the qi sets up camp there. Hence, it is said, ‘Maintain your will. Do not injure the qi’…When your will is unified, it moves the qi. When the qi is unified, it moves your will. Now, running and stumbling have to do with the qi, but nonetheless they perturb one’s heart.” (2A2.9b, 2.10) But earlier, Mengzi distinguishes between nobles and commoners in a teaching that does nothing so much as reveal its emptiness. While speaking with a king who most definitely does not have a constant heart, who has had all the advantages of education and engagement with “the Pattern of righteousness,” he says, “Only a noble is capable of having a constant heart while lacking a constant livelihood. As for the people, if they lack a constant livelihood, it follows that they will lack a constant heart.” (1A7.20) His point is that people in authority should provide the circumstances for others to live good and moral lives, but maybe it’s the existence of authority and otherness that are the deeper problems. 

Similar to The Analects, there are multiple stories that give high school lunchroom. (2A1) Mostly I just laugh and roll my eyes as I read them (2B12.5), but the truth is so far this ancient philosophical work is mostly making me feel sad.

I suppose it was true then as it is now that most people experience a need to produce things to justify their existence. It’s an isolating idea. It seems like Mengzi was so intent on being a teacher and a thinker and a minister but missed something more authentic about himself and those around him. There are many times when his teachings uphold Daoist principles, but can’t quite let go of the hierarchical structure. (1B1.8, 3.2, 4.10, 5.4, 10.4, 12.3) Maybe he was simply fighting for his life, and he survived better than the sage Wangzi Bigan who “kept pleading with Tyrant Zhou to govern virtuously. Finally, Tyrant Zhou remarked that sages supposedly have bigger hearts than others, and that he wanted to see if Bigan had a heart to match his words. So he ordered his guards to rip the heart out of Bigan’s chest.” !!!!!! (2A1.8)

I think we’re meant to read this book and think about how much better things would have been if only Mengzi had been listened to. But it’s really a chronicle of how one king after another refused to listen to his advice. So the real story here isn’t about how good his advice was- the real story might be about how he participated in holding up a system that worked for no one – neither the rulers nor the people.

Maybe, since “Heaven does not yet desire to pacify the world,” (2B13.5) we could do worse than teachers who instruct the wealthy to limit their consumption (1A3.3), share with the poor (1A7.10), but so much moralizing misses a deeper truth about our potential to live in harmony with each other and the planet. Mengzi thought that “the capacity for virtue is innate in humans, but it must be cultivated in order for us to become fully virtuous.” (2A6.7) I’m still leaning more toward the next step that Daoism prescribes: to then release the cultivation entirely. 

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