1. Mencius on the debt ceiling crisis
(originally posted at wordpress on August 1, 2011: link)
Mencius had an audience with King Hui of Liang.
The king said, “Sir, you did not consider a thousand li too far to come. You must have some ideas about how to benefit my state.”
Mencius replied, ”Why must Your Majesty use the word ‘benefit’? All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right.
“If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I benefit my state?’
your officials will say, ‘How can I benefit my family,’ and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I benefit myself.’
“Once superiors and inferiors are competing for benefit, the state will be in danger.
“When the head of a state of ten thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably a noble with a fief of a thousand chariots, When the head of a fief of a thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably head of a subfief of a hundred chariots. Those with a thousand out of ten thousand, or a hundred out of a thousand, had quite a bit. But when benefit is put before what is right, they are not satisfied without wanting it all.
“By contrast there has never been a benevolent person who neglected his parents or a righteous person who put his lord last.
“Your Majesty perhaps will now also say, ‘All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right.’ Why mention ‘benefit?’ “
From: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 22-23. (online here: http://www.chinapage.com/mencius2n.html)
2. Mencius, Jerry Coyne, and Chögyam Trungpa on Basic Goodness
(originally posted at wordpress on August 1, 2011: link)
Mencius said, ”Everyone has a heart that is sensitive to the sufferings of others. The great kings of the past had this sort of sensitive heart and thus adopted compassionate policies. Bringing order to the realm is as easy as moving an object in your palm when you have a sensitive heart and put into practice compassionate policies. Let me give an example of what I mean when I say everyone has a heart that is sensitive to the sufferings of others. Anyone today who suddenly saw a baby about to fall into a well would feel alarmed and concerned. It would not be because he wanted to improve his relations with the child’s parents, nor because he wanted a good reputation among his friends and neighbors, nor because he disliked hearing the child cry. From this it follows that anyone who lacks feelings of commiseration, shame, and courtesy or a sense of right and wrong is not a human being. From the feeling of commiseration benevolence grows; from the feeling of shame righteousness grows; from the feeling of courtesy ritual grows; from a sense of right and wrong wisdom grows. People have these four germs, just as they have four limbs For someone with these four potentials to claim incompetence is to cripple himself; to say his ruler is incapable of them is to cripple his ruler. Those who know how to develop the four potentials within themselves will take off like a fire or burst forth like a spring. Those who can fully develop them can protect the entire land while those unable to develop them cannot even take care of their parents.
[From: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1993), pp. 22-23. (online here:http://www.chinapage.com/mencius2n.html)]
Jerry Coyne said (more recently): “One cold Chicago day last February, I watched a Federal Express delivery man carry an armful of boxes to his truck. In the middle of the icy street, he slipped, scattering the boxes and exposing himself to traffic. Without thinking, I ran into the street, stopped cars, hoisted the man up and helped him recover his load. Pondering this afterward, I realized that my tiny act of altruism had been completely instinctive; there was no time for calculation.
“We see the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments in many ways: in the automatic repugnance we feel when someone such as Bernie Madoff bilks the gullible and trusting, in our disapproval of the person who steals food from the office refrigerator, in our admiration for someone who risks his life to save a drowning child. And although some morality comes from reason and persuasion — we must learn, for example, to share our toys — much of it seems intuitive and inborn.”
Chögyam Trungpa said: “Buddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness, intelligence and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of the enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience-the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.
“Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. It seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade western religious ideas. It actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients, theoreticians and therapists alike there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake, which causes later suffering-a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.”
As is so often the case with Atheists these days, Jerry Coyne makes the glaringly ignorant ethnocentric mistake of believing that he is arguing against all religions, when in fact he is arguing against Christianity. Mencius, a Confucianist scholar who lived well over two millennia ago, and Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who died in 1987, both affirm that “basic goodness”, to use Trungpa’s term, is inherent in human nature. So we don’t “need God” to be good according to the deeply religious views of Mencius and Trungpa.
[For even more on Chögyam Trungpa, and others, on Basic Goodness, see this old post: Wonderful World, or, the Pagan Value of Basic Goodness.]
3. So who is this Mencius fellow?
(originally posted at wordpress on August 2, 2011: link)
Anyone familiar with the great Chinese philosopher Mencius could not help but think of him if they happened to read Jerry Coyne’s July 31 USA Today piece As atheists know, you can be good without God. That’s because Coyne opens his essay with a personal anecdote illustrating “the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments,” which was the defining theme of Mencius’ philosophy (and which Mencius famously illustrated in a way highly reminiscent of Coyne’s anecdote).
For those not familiar with Mencius, and/or those who know a little and wish to learn more (a category in which I place myself) a very handy resource is the article on Mencius in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the entry is by Kwong-Loi Shun, Chair Professor of Philosophy at Chinese University of Hong Kong, and he is also author of Mencius and Early Chinese Thought). And for anyone not familiar with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is to wikipedia as Buffalo mozzarella is to Cheese Whiz.
Here is how Professor Shun begins his article:
Mencius (fourth century B.C.E.) sought to defend the teachings of Confucius (sixth to fifth century B.C.E.) against other influential movements of thought, especially those associated with Mozi (fifth century B.C.E.) and Yang Zhu (fifth to fourth century B.C.E.). He is probably best known for the view that “human nature is good”, a view of human nature on the basis of which he defended the Confucian ideal and developed an account of the self-cultivation process. His view was subsequently challenged by Xunzi (third century B.C.E.), another major Confucian thinker, who defended the alternative view that “human nature is evil”.
Confucian thinkers of the Han (206 B.C – 220 C.E.) were influenced by the teachings of both, but by the late Tang (618–907), influential intellectuals such as Han Yu (768–824) came to regard Mencius as the true transmitter of Confucius’ teachings. This view was shared by Confucian thinkers of the early Song (960–1279), and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) included the Mengzi (Mencius) as one of the Four Books, which became canonical texts of the Confucian tradition. Mencius came to be regarded as the greatest Confucian thinker after Confucius himself, and his teachings have been very influential on the development of Confucian thought in the Song, Ming (1368–1644), Qing (1644–1912), and up to modern times.