Mencius believed that the state ought to promote the virtuous flourishing of its people.

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Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Editor for Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Most of his work focuses on examining thinkers who predate classical liberalism but still articulate broadly liberal attitudes and principles. He is the host of Portraits of Liberty, a podcast about uncovering and exploring underrated figures throughout history who have argued for a freer world. His writing covers a broad range of topics, including proto‐​feminist writers, Classical Greece and Rome’s influence on the American Founding, ancient Chinese Philosophy, tyrannicide, and the first argument for basic income.

Mengzi or, as westerners know him, Mencius, was a Chinese Confucian philosopher who lived in the fourth century BC. Modern philosophy curricula often downplays eastern philosophy and focuses instead on western traditions. This may be due to an anti‐​eastern bias that stretches all the way back to Aristotle, who believed Asians were not capable of any form of government besides tyranny. Later thinkers such as Montesquieu stated that Asian lacked a desire for liberty. But these chauvinist claims are easily debunked by examining the contents of Mencius’ work. The philosophy of Mencius borrows heavily from his predecessor Confucius although he expands the scope of Confucian thought and applies it to new issues. What emerges from Mencius is a philosophy that has many principles in common with classical liberalism despite the colossal gaps between them culturally and chronologically.

His Inspiration, Confucius

Mencius was a devout follower of the philosopher Confucius; he wrote, “Ever since man came into this world, there has never been one greater than Confucius.” Confucius was born in roughly 551BC in the district of Zou. He dedicated his life to reviving the just and ethical rule of the mythical Sage Kings of the past. He did not think of himself as an innovator or original thinker, stating, “I transmit rather than innovate. I trust in and love the ancient ways.” After becoming disillusioned with holding political office, Confucius travelled throughout China to various kingdoms attempting to convince their leaders to adopt humane reforms. Confucius believed that leaders could cultivate a virtuous public and prosperous economy through a policy of non‐​interference and moral example.

For Confucius, the people can only become genuinely virtuous when “the heavy burden of oppression has been lifted from their shoulders.” Rulers should not lead by coercion or force but by moral example, for “if you try to guide the common people with coercive regulations and keep them in line with punishments, the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame.” It is no use forcing people to be good. They must instead learn by example from their leaders, “When the ruler is correct his will is put into effect without the need for official orders. When the ruler’s person is not correct, he will not be obeyed, no matter how many orders he issues.”

The Life of Mencius

Mencius was born in 372BC in the Kingdom of Zhou. The king of Zhou no longer held much territory and had been reduced to a figurehead. At the time, China was not unified, split into dozens of warring kingdoms, the leaders of which each sought to dominate the others. This period, known later as the Warring States Period, lasted from 475–221 BCE. Despite the misery that came with constant warfare, this period was also marked by a great boom in intellectual activity. Scholars from different schools of thought roamed from state to state offering their advice to rulers on all sorts of matters.

When Mencius was young his father died, which caused great financial strain for him and his mother. Despite the economic hardship, Mencius’ mother dedicated herself to giving her son an excellent education. Due to her dedication to her son, she was much later included in the influential book Biographies of Exemplary Women by author Liu Xiang. Thanks to his mother’s efforts, Mencius became a scholar and follower of the Confucian tradition, travelling throughout China emulating Confucius by giving advice to rulers. His conversations with various rulers were compiled into a book now simply known as Mencius, which was most likely written by his followers after his death.

Spontaneous Order and Virtue

Similarly to Confucius, Mencius believed that the government existed to cultivate a virtuous citizenry. This at first sounds like a recipe for an overbearing authoritarian regime of paternalism, and yet Mencius’ beliefs do not remotely resemble those of a totalitarian.

Mencius did not agree with heavy‐​handed, top‐​down approaches. He explained this through the story of a farmer. One day a farmer was inspecting his crops. Seeing that his crops were not ready for harvesting, the nervous farmer begins to pull on the sprouts in order to help them grow faster. When he returned home and told his family what he had done, his son checked on the rice plants and saw that they had all shrivelled up. The moral of the story is that you cannot force something to grow. Instead, you must provide the correct environment. Likewise, people flourish morally not due to commands or threats of punishment. Furthermore, Mencius also believed that moral virtue was not relegated to any particular class or caste of people; it is accessible to all when given the right environment.

For Mencius, a person can only become virtuous when three prerequisites have been met. Firstly a person must have their basic needs met. Few people can become wise and virtuous sages without food, water, and shelter. Secondly, people must be socialized by learning manners and etiquette in order to respect others. Lastly, individual effort and self‐​reflection are required; as the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Pursuing Prosperity

If people’s physical needs are not met, it is unlikely they will ever be able to flourish and grow as a person. The scrabble for subsistence leaves little space for proper etiquette or introspection. Mencius believes the best way to produce prosperity is by following the principle of non‐​interference laid down by Confucius.

At the time, many rulers were heavily taxing their subjects to the point of destitution in an attempt to enrich themselves. Mencius condemns this kind of behaviour and argues that taxes should be kept to a minimum. In one of his dialogues, a king asks if it is acceptable to reduce the heavy tax burden he has slowly raised over time. Mencius replies “Suppose there is a person who every day appropriates one of his neighbour’s chickens. Someone tells him, ‘This is not the Way of a gentleman.” He then asks “May I reduce it to appropriating one chicken every month and wait until next year to stop?” Mencius concludes with a striking maxim: “If one knows that it is not righteous, then one should quickly stop.”

Mencius and Economics

Without some degree of material prosperity, it would be difficult for any but a small minority to become virtuous. Because of this, on numerous occasions Mencius discusses how to best promote material prosperity. Mencius articulates many of the same points Adam Smith would later in his seminal The Wealth of Nations two thousand years later on price fixing, the division of labour, and free trade.

Mencius also argues that government officials should not meddle with the market by fixing prices as it will lower the quality of goods. He argues against price fixing by asking, “If a fine shoe and a shoddy shoe are the same prices, will anyone make the former?”

He also understood the importance of the division of labour in a free society. Agriculturalists such as Xu Xing believed that there should be no distinction between those who work with their hands and those who work with their minds. Therefore everyone should take part in agricultural work. Mencius believed this was a fundamentally flawed view of the world because it did not take into account the benefits of the division of labour. Mencius argues that “to trade grain for implements is not to inflict hardship on the potter and the blacksmith. The potter and the blacksmith, for their part, also trade their wares for grain.” He then continues to explain that “if everyone must make everything he uses, the Empire will be led along the path of incessant toil.” The division of labour allows for specialization, which in turn produces more goods and less work overall for society at large.

Additionally, Mencius believed in free‐​trade. When describing good government to King Hsüan of Qi, he explained that King Wen of Chi kept taxes low and, while goods were inspected at the border, there were no tariffs or levies on those goods in order to promote trade.

The Anti‐​War Attitudes of Mencius

Many leaders attempted to bolster their power by waging wars against weaker neighbouring states. Mencius found this not only ineffective but morally repulsive. To make a prosperous and lasting state through warfare was, for Mencius, like “climbing a tree in search of a fish.” War costs time, resources, and lives. Mencius believed that people would flock to states that cultivated prosperity and peace. He aggressively condemned war, explaining, “In wars to gain land, the dead fill the plains; in wars to gain cities, the dead fill the cities. This is known as showing the land the way to devour human flesh.” For those that wage wars for their own profit at the expense of others, Mencius believed that “death is too light a punishment for such men.”

Gaining Political Legitimacy

Mencius did not believe that leaders in power gained legitimacy merely by being in positions of power. If a leader wants legitimacy, he must attain what is called the Mandate of Heaven. Mencius lived under the Zhou dynasty; when the Zhou came to power, they justified their rule by arguing that Heaven, an even higher power, had given them the right to rule due to their virtue. Mencius appropriates this idea and argues that only the virtuous should rule, not the merely strong or cunning.

But how are we supposed to determine what is and is not the will of Heaven? Many saw natural phenomena as proof leaders were fit or unfit to rule. A good harvest justifies a leader’s position, but a flood might show Heaven’s displeasure. This is hardly the most reliable or consistent way to judge who is fit to rule. Mencius believed instead that we must use the people as a barometer to measure the Mandate of Heaven. As he put it, “Heaven sees as the people see; Heaven hears as the people hear.” If the people are content, then the will of Heaven is appeased. While not an advocate of democracy by any means, Mencius at least had a respect for the sentiments of the people, if he did not go so far as to require their formal consent.

Importantly the Mandate of Heaven cannot be passed down. Mencius saw no issue with hereditary succession, but new leaders would have to earn their right to rule by appeasing their subjects through benevolence; a dynastic name alone was insufficient. One man named Wan Zhang asked Mencius, “Is it true that Yao gave the empire to Shun?” Mencius answered, “No. The emperor cannot give the empire to others.” Instead, “Heaven gives it to him and so the people give it to him. That is why I said, ‘The emperor cannot give the empire to others.’” For Mencius, the Mandate of Heaven, and therefore the right to rule, is synonymous with the contentment of the people.

Removing Bad Leaders

But what happens if a ruler fails to fulfil their obligations to their people? Mencius believed that if a leader cannot provide the service they are obligated to provide, they must be removed and replaced. Mencius’s views on this topic can be examined in his conversations with King Xuan of Qi.

While talking to Xuan, Mencius asked him, “If among your majesty’s ministers there were one who entrusted his wife and children to his friends and travelled to the distant state of Chu, and when he returned his friend had let his wife and children become cold and hungry, how should he handle this?” The king replied that he would abandon this minister. Mencius persisted and asks, “If the chief Warden is not able to keep order among the nobles, how should one handle this?” The king replied similarly to the last question, “Discharge him.” Mencius finally asks, “If the region within the four borders is not ruled, then how should one handle this?” The king quickly changed the topic and did not answer the question, the implication being that the ruler should be discharged akin to the minister and warden.

After talking a little longer, Xuan asked if it is acceptable for subjects to assassinate their ruler. Mencius replied, “One who mutilates righteousness should be called a ‘crippler.’ A crippler and mutilator is called a mere ‘fellow.’ I have indeed heard of the execution of this one fellow Zhou, but I have not heard of it as the assassination of one’s ruler.” It is worth noting that in his Second Treatise on Government, John Locke has a similar justification for resistance to tyrants. Locke writes that when a person in power “quits this Representation, this Public Will, and acts by his own private Will, he degrades himself, and is but a single private Person without Power, and without Will, that has any Right to Obedience.” Both Locke and Mencius believed that when a public official uses their position to further their own aims, they forfeit their right to their position of power.

Calling a Spade a Spade, the Rectification of Names

Mencius theory of deposing unjust leaders utilizes what Confucius referred to as the “Rectification of Names.” This is the idea that words ought to correspond to reality in order to ensure social harmony. Confucius explains that “if language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” When asked to describe good government, Confucius describes it as a society which “consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.”

Mencius takes the Confucian idea of rectifying names and applies it to political legitimacy. An excellent example of this is when Mencius asked King Hui of Liang, “Is there any difference between killing a person with a club and killing him with a blade.” After the king replied no, Mencius asked “Is there a difference between using a blade and government?” Therefore, any crime a leader commits is not excused by their political status. Theft is theft, murder is murder, regardless of the method or personal status.

Mencius held those in power to strict standards. Like Confucius, Mencius believed leaders ought to be of the highest ethical character given that their example would filter down to the rest of the population. If leaders did not practice ethical conduct, they could corrupt an entire society. If leaders did not keep clean moral characters or failed to fulfil their duties, it was morally permissible for them to be removed from office and replaced, by force if necessary.

Despite his best efforts, Mencius’ career did not produce humane governments; few, if any, leaders implemented his advice. It is possible he became depressed at his inability to effect change, as the last passage of his work attests, “From Confucius to the present time is a little more than one hundred years. It is not long from the era of a sage, and we are close to the home of a sage. Yet where is he? Where is he?” While Mencius was unsuccessful during his lifetime in implementing the philosophy of Confucianism, a rival school of philosophy was highly successful: Legalism.


Confucianism and Legalism are complete opposites. Unlike Confucians, Legalist philosophers start not with the question of how ought the world to be, but how it really is. Legalists believed that human nature was naturally bad, that people were prone to selfishness and needed to be convinced to be good by using rewards and harsh punishments. They also did not believe a ruler should rule by virtue but should instead rule by force. Unlike Confucians, Legalists put little stock in moralizing arguments and focused more on realism. Their philosophy is comparable to the thought of Machiavelli’s Prince and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

Legalists’ overarching goal was to create a state with great wealth and a powerful army. Legalists planned to achieve their goal by creating an all‐​powerful and centralized state which kept the people weak. The Legalist Book of Shang explained, “When the people are weak, the state is strong; hence the state that possesses the Way devotes itself to weakening the people.” Laws should be strict and punishments must be harsh. Legalists advocated for a highly organized bureaucracy to enforce their will. They also argued that the leader of any state should be forever wary of his subordinates, who, according to their view of human nature, would forever be plotting to overthrow their ruler.

The people were to practice either agriculture or soldiery. Merchants and scholars were not respectable figures according to the Legalists. Merchants were to be squeezed out of any profits they made or be forced to till the land like everyone else. Legalists especially loathed scholars such as Mencius and Confucius for two reasons. Firstly, they relied upon the tradition of the sage kings of the past, who the Legalists believed had no bearing on the contemporary situation, and, secondly, wherever they went the Confucians made the people question authority.

Legalist philosopher Han Fei convinced Qin Shi Huang to implement his reforms. Huang went on to unify the warring states and became the first emperor of China, establishing the Qin dynasty. On paper, this looked like the triumph of Legalism.

However, the Qin dynasty was anything but a success. Han Fei, who had originally introduced the emperor to Legalist ideas and reforms, was forced to commit suicide due to political intrigue. In a twist of cruel fate, the man who advocated for expansive government power and harsh punishments was killed for his own teachings. After fifteen short years, the dynasty collapsed due to harsh punishments, pointless expansionism, and an overbearing government. A popular revolt took place and this dynasty that was supposed to rule for generations swiftly came to an end. The brutal realism of the Legalist succeeded in unifying China, but the Legalist impulse to micromanage and interfere with every aspect of life led to its ultimate downfall.

The Lessons of Confucianism

Confucians such as Mencius recognized that the state was not all‐​powerful. And even if somehow the government were competent to micromanage every aspect of life, it would be immoral to do so. Confucians valued freedom and lived by the maxim, “Do not impose upon others what you yourself do not desire.” This is very similar to the Golden Rule of Christianity, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Unlike his Legalist contemporaries, the writings of Mencius flatly contradict the stereotypes of eastern philosophy that has persisted in western philosophy. Mencius believed that the state ought to promote the virtuous flourishing of its people. This was to be carried out by a consistent policy of non‐​intervention in both people’s economic and private affairs. For people to be virtuous, a degree of prosperity was required. Mencius, preceding Adam Smith by two millennia, argued in favour of free trade and the division of labour. His economic views were surprisingly humane for any philosopher, ancient or modern.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who sought to solidify power by conquering neighbouring territories, Mencius condemned wars of conquest and disdained pointless bloodshed. Rulers were to attract subjects by providing an environment in which they would thrive both morally and economically without oppression or heavy‐​handed regulations. However, Mencius’s most original contribution was his analysis of political legitimacy and the necessity of removing illegitimate rulers.

Despite being from very different times and cultures, Mencius’ teachings at times can be comparable to giants in the classical liberal tradition such as John Locke and Adam Smith. For his commitment to economic prosperity and personal freedom, Mencius ought to be honoured as a predecessor to classical liberal ideas.