A Ku Indeed!

Schwartz: Confucius and Mencius on Freedom

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Existentialism, Mencius by Chris on January 13, 2009

I’ve been making by way through Benjamin Schwartz’ The World of Thought in Ancient China (1985). I’m currently moving through the chapter on Mencius and Xunzi, and found an interesting little section that deals (albeit quickly) with the issue of choice-theoretic models of selfhood, which was the subject of my post below this one on Fingarette and Confucius. Schwartz agrees with Sam (see comments in post below this one) that Mencius differs from Confucius on the centrality of choice. See below the fold.

After making his case for why choice plays a role in Mencius’ thought, Schwartz speculates on the question of why Confucius and Mencius might have have different views on this. He writes:

We find here one clue to why “freedom” — the freedom to choose between good and evil, which is certainly an implicit attribute of the conscious mind in Mencius — never seems to be put forth, in most Chinese thought, as a supreme value. The sages live in a world of harmony with the universe on every level of their being. Their conscious hearts are always at one with their spontaneous hearts. Their sense are under the complete control of their hearts and the fully nourished vital energies of ch’i are fully in balance within the body and in harmony with the cosmic ch’i. Such sages are beyond the need for the indeterminacies of freedom. The ultimate value, after all, is the good itself, not the freedom to seek the good. And yet, Mencius, whose concern is with the majority of struggling mankind and not with the ideal sages, obviously places enormous stress on the conscious yu-wei level of the heart mind, which is the center of the moral drama. (274) 

Continuing in this vein, Schwartz later points out that for Mencius “one cannot merely talk of an inertial tendency to the good but of unceasing existential moral decisions.” (277). 

I find Schwartz’s speculation as to why the distinction between Mencius and other Chinese thinkers (Confucius included) differ on this notion interesting. Mencius, he seems to argue, appears to identify (and understand) the goal and content of self-cultivation through the lens of the continual need to overcome forces (internal and external) that are destructive to everyday moral being. So self-cultivation is conceived in terms of the difficulties inherent in everyday (appropriate) living. As a result, Mencius centers more on the need for yu-wei moral decision making and choice. For Confucius (and others), self-cultivation is understood in the context of sage-hood, a way of living that successfully transcends the kinds of difficulties Mencius is worried about. 

This raises a lot of interesting questions, and lots of intriguing questions. One simple way of thinking about it (surely not the only or best one): the difference in their positions on choice stem from the fact that Confucius is an optimist, Mencius is not.

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2 Responses

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  1. Sam said, on January 13, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for the Schwartz reference. I knew there would be something in Mencius but didn’t have the time to dig into it myself.
    But I’m not sure I would say that Mencius is not an optimist. Maybe he is less optimistic than Confucius, but he is still positive on human perfectibility. For all of the possibilities for making bad choices, I think he remains generally optimistic about bringing people around to good choices. That is why he gets up in the face of all those bad rulers. They are educable. Think about barley….

  2. Xiao Ma said, on August 4, 2010 at 2:42 am

    First of all, I’m very glad to be able to get on your blog again… It’s been a long time since my last visit, indeed. [It’s a shame that I still have no access to facebook, even now in my good-looking office during internship.]
    Second, well, I agree with Sam that Mencius is, at least to some extent, also an optimist. Actually, he always seems too positive to me. I mean, his ideas. Perhaps, Confucius is more objective than him.
    Third, what are the characters for Yu Wei again? Sorry, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what you once told me.
    Last, did you ever get my e-mail asking about Chan and Tao? I haven’t got any reply…

    Have a nice day!


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