Few philosophy curricula today cover the writings of eastern philosophers. Even though his teachings are over two millennia old, the work of Mencius covers many liberal themes. Mencius argued for a state which promoted both virtue and prosperity through a policy of non‐interference. He staunchly opposed wars aimed at expanding state power and argued in favor of deposing rulers who did not fulfill their obligations.
In the history of western philosophy, one can often find an anti‐eastern that has its beginnings in Aristotle’s writings. A proponent of geographical determinism, Aristotle believed Asians were not capable of any form of government besides tyranny due to their hot climate, which resulted in Asians having a supposedly servile and effeminate nature. Even during the Enlightenment, the 18th‐century writer Montesquieu stated that Asians lacked any desire for liberty. Today many westerners pat themselves on the back with a worldview that West is best and that other cultures have little to offer, especially in the quest to expand human freedom. But as I have shown before on this podcast, the West does not have a monopoly over the idea of freedom and limited government. To those who claim West is best, I point them to ancient China to Mencius’s teachings, a philosopher whose works are thousands of years old but impressively still relevant and fruitful to present readers.
Mencius was born with the name Meng Ke or Mengzi. Mencius is the Latinized version of his name coined by Jesuit missionaries during the 17th‐century. But for ease’s sake, I will be referring to him as Mencius.
He was born in 372BC in the state of Zou, what is today known as Zoucheng in east China. Mencius was not born into a quiet or peaceful time, quite the opposite. The ruling dynasty known as the Zhou dynasty had begun to crumble, leading to local lords and dukes carving out their own territories, fracturing the dynasty’s hold over China. Many rulers fought amongst one another in an attempt to brutally expand their power by conquering neighboring territories. Caught between the powerful warlords lay the peasants who suffered under heavy taxation to fund expanding militaries and at times were the victims of invading armies torment.
Today historians refer to this era as the warring states period, which lasted roughly from 403BC to 221BC. Nearly 200 years of conflict. Though this was a miserable time, it produced many intellectuals and scholars who traveled the lands counseling rulers on how to escape the conflict and chaos that plagued China.
Though Mencius was born a noble’s son, his father died when he was young, and his impoverished mother raised her son alone. At first, Mencius and his mother lived at a cemetery. After living there for some time, Mencius’ mother noticed that he had begun to imitate the paid mourners who accompanied funeral processions. She decided to move closer to a marketplace. Yet again, while here, Mencius took on a merchant’s mannerisms shouting about his wares to passing people. Everywhere she brought young Mencius he took on the mannerisms of the people he lived among. Taking advantage of this, Mencius’s mother cleverly moved next to a school where instead of pretending to wail for the dead or sell trinkets at a marketplace, Mencius began to imitate the scholars in the surrounding area and eventually became a scholar in training.
Many later writers deemed Mencius’ mother to be the cause of Mencius’ great intellect, and she was held up as a model of motherhood. As always, behind every great man is a great woman, even if that woman is your mother.
While studying Mencius became a follower of the famous Confucius who had died over a hundred years before Mencius was born. Mencius was extremely impressed by Confucius’s knowledge that he stated, “For as long as humanity has existed, no one has yet equaled Master Confucius.” Since Mencius borrows heavily from Confucius, it is worth noting Confucius and his writings found within a book now known as the Analects. Confucius was inspired by the ancient sage kings of the past. He did not see his own thought as original or innovative and instead saw himself as transmitting the teachings of wiser sages, as he once stated, “I transmit rather than innovate. I trust in and love the ancient ways.” Confucius traveled the lands talking to rulers trying to convince them of ruling akin to the sage kings. Many of Confucius’ contemporaries abdicated for the use of military might and strict punishments to help preserve law and order in their territories. Might and punishment were the pillars on which they based their ideas. Confucius disagreed. He believed violence could be necessary but only as a final resort when no other options are viable.
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, because as he wrote, “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.” But if a ruler acted virtuously and served as an example to his people, his subjects will be moral without any need for laws, punishments, or official orders. Originally virtue was a quality reserved for rulers with connotations of power and excellence. But Confucius made virtue an egalitarian term by arguing anyone could become virtuous by acting with the proper respect for others.
After studying diligently as a scholar supported by his dedicated mother, Mencius, yet again inspired by Confucius, began to travel throughout China, offering his wisdom to many rulers across the country. The conversations and debates he had with competing scholars and rulers are recorded in a book simply known as Mencius. Scholars have argued that this book was not written by Mencius but instead by his disciples, which he attracted. Whether by his hand or another, Mencius’s wisdom was preserved for later generations to learn from.
While Confucius influenced Mencius enormously, Mencius did not merely copy his work or simply rephrase his wisdom. Instead, he expanded the scope of Confucius’ writings greatly, especially in the political sphere. There are many aspects of Mencius’s thought classical liberals today might find dated or too traditional marring his possible liberal credentials. But what philosopher in history is without their odd beliefs and faults? Even if not all of Mencius’s work is amenable to liberal principles, there are many kernels of wisdom about the ideal state’s nature and the importance of material prosperity coupled with freedom. Let us take a look at Mencius’s political thought in four key areas, virtue, prosperity, war, and the legitimacy of the state.
Similar to Confucius, Mencius believed that the government existed to cultivate a virtuous citizenry. At first, this sounds like a recipe for an overbearing authoritarian regime of paternalism. But Mencius did not believe virtue could be forced upon people. They must learn for themselves by reflecting on their actions.
We can see Mencius’s distaste for forcing virtue in the story he tells about 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 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 shriveled up and died. The moral of the story is that you cannot force something to grow. Mencius often used agricultural metaphors when discussing human nature. Mencius believed, unlike some of his more pessimistic contemporaries, that human nature was inherently good and that all people have an equal capacity for moral development. Even when discussing the wise sage kings, Mencius takes care to remind us that they were the same as any other person, they were not demi‐gods, and the virtue they cultivated was open to all people who set their mind to the task.
But people are not solely responsible for cultivating their virtue; they must live in the correct sort of environment, an idea Mencius borrowed from his astute mother. If raised within the right environment, there should be no impediments to people becoming moral beings. But in Mencius’ day, China was ravaged by poverty and war, which stunted people’s moral growth as they had to spend their lives in constant anxiety searching for their next meal or evading bandits or foreign armies. For Mencius, a person can only become virtuous when three conditions are met. Firstly a person must have at the bare minimum of access to food, water, and shelter.
It would be extremely hard to ever develop one’s sense of morality, starving to death in the cold. Secondly, people must be socialized through learning manners and etiquette through a variety of rituals that convey respect to the appropriate people such as one’s family. Only after these two conditions are met does Mencius bring into consideration an individual’s effort and the ability for self‐reflection. As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
So if people do not have access to a certain degree of material prosperity and security, they will most likely fail to grow into fully moral beings. But then the question becomes, how do we secure prosperity and security? Is it through the benevolent state which supplies every person with the means to live well? While Mencius believed the state should help those in dire need, generally, he believed the best way to produce prosperity by following the principle of non‐interference laid down by Confucius.
During Mencius’ life, he saw many rulers that heavily taxed their subjects to the point of destitution in an attempt to both enrich themselves and maintain their armies. Mencius condemns this kind of behavior and argues that taxes should be kept as low as possible while still providing essential services. In one of his dialogues, a king asks if it is acceptable to reduce the heavy tax burden he has slowly raised over time, gradually easing the suffering of the peasants. Mencius tells the king to imagine there is a person who steals one of his neighbor’s chickens every day. Would it be ok if he only stole a chicken once a month instead and then wait until a year or so has passed to stop stealing chickens entirely? Mencius answers that this is not the way of the gentleman and argues for stringent moral standards by stating, “If one knows that it is not righteous, then one should quickly stop.” Stealing is wrong. Whether it is a million or a thousand dollars, both mar the character of the thief.
Reducing taxes eases the suffering of peasants, but this is not the only policy prescription Mencius recommends. Through his dialogues on numerous occasions, Mencius discusses how to best promote material prosperity. Surprisingly, Mencius articulates many of the same points Adam Smith would later articulate in his seminal The Wealth of Nations two thousand years later on price‐fixing, the division of labor, and free trade.
Mencius also argues that government officials should not meddle with the market by fixing prices. By fixing the price of goods, lower quality wares will fetch the same price as superior products. Mencius uses the example of shoes explaining that if a finely made pair of shoes and a poorly made pair fetch the same price, why would a cobbler ever bother putting effort into shoes beyond the bare minimum. While the intention of people who wished to fix prices was well‐intentioned, the results lower the quality of goods for all. Therefore Mencius believed the market ought to be allowed to function without interference,
Mencius understood that any prosperous society has a multitude of professions to fulfill people’s varied wants and needs. Intellectuals dubbed as the Agriculturalists 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 labor.
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.” In simpler words, the division of labor allows for specialization, which in turn produces more goods and less work overall for society at large. Agriculturalists would make society poorer by ridding themselves of other professions.
Additionally, Mencius believed in the benefits of free‐trade. When describing good government to a king, he explained that the sage kings 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.
Mencius believed for sure that the state had a role to play in feeding, clothing, and sheltering the destitute. But he also saw a great deal of potential in the power of markets, the division of labor, and the benefits of free trade. Despite coming two millennia before the field of economics had been firmly established in the West, Mencius explained many principles later liberals would expound, such as Adam Smith and Frederic Bastiat.
For many leaders, the seemingly best way to bolster their power was to wage wars of conquest against weaker states. Mencius found this not only ineffective but morally repugnant as a practice. To make a prosperous and lasting state through warfare was, for Mencius, like “climbing a tree in search of a fish.” In other words, complete madness. How can destruction bring prosperity? War costs time, resources, and, most egregiously, human lives. Mencius rightly believed that people would flock to states that cultivated prosperity and peace. Few people flock to war‐torn countries in search of a better life. In no unclear terms did Mencius express his hatred for war, saying that “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.” All war resulted in was death for the purpose of expanding some king or lord’s ego by letting them say they own more land or more subjects. Mencius was no pacifist and believed people ought to defend themselves against invaders but not actively seek out conflict, especially not conflict, for the sake of supposed profit. 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.” Mencius had no love for imperialism or conquest. Conflict at its best preserves that which already exists. At its worst, it devours, consumes, and destroys all as it had done for so many years during Mencius’ life.
How does a state become legitimate is a question that has been asked for many years but rarely answers with much satisfaction. Often those in power did not come to power by consent or persuasion but instead through violent means of conquest.
Mencius did not believe that leaders in power gained legitimacy merely by being in positions of power. Might does not make right.
If a leader is to be seen as legitimate, he must attain what Confucius and Mencius called the Mandate of Heaven is. Mencius lived under the Zhou dynasty; when the Zhou came to power, they justified their rule by arguing that Heaven, a 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 merely the strong or cunning. Without virtue, a ruler is little better than a bandit or thief writ large.
But this whole idea of the Mandate of Heaven seems a bit wishy‐washy and almost sounds a bit like a diet version of the divine right of kings. How are we supposed to determine what is and is not the Mandate of Heaven? Some saw natural phenomena as proof leaders were fit or unfit to rule. A good harvest might be heaven blessing a newly crowned king, but a drought might be a curse upon his rule. Who is to decide what is a natural phenomenon, and what is the will of Heaven? Obviously, this is hardly the most reliable or consistent way to judge who is fit to rule.
Interestingly, Mencius believed instead of observing natural phenomena. We must observe the people who live under a leader and use their welfare as a barometer to measure the Mandate of Heaven. The welfare of the people becomes synonymous with the will of Heaven. Mencius states that “Heaven sees as the people see; Heaven hears as the people hear.” If the people are content, then the will of Heaven is appeased. Mencius was no advocate of democracy, not by a long shot. But he did believe that people’s satisfaction with a ruler should be the test of legitimacy. Though not formal consent it is a gesture in a vaguely democratic direction, quite the achievement in ancient China where the idea of democracy was alien.
Importantly the Mandate of Heaven cannot be passed down. Mencius saw no issue with hereditary succession, but new leaders still had to earn their right to rule by appeasing their subjects through benevolence. A lofty name and title are not enough to make a just king.
This all sounds well and good, but what happens when a bad ruler is installed, one who wages pointless warless, oppresses the people, and enriches himself at the expense of others as so often happened in this tumultuous? Mencius believed that if a leader cannot provide the service they are obligated to provide, they must be removed and replaced.
While talking to a king, Mencius asked him, if one of your ministers had been entrusted to transport his wife and children to a distant land, but when they returned your wife is cold, hungry, and sick because he did not take care of her, what would he do? The king replied he would remove his minister from office, effectively firing him for incompetence. Mencius asks another similar question. What if your chief warden couldn’t keep order among the nobles. Yet again, the king replies, basically fire the bozo. He isn’t doing his job. Mencius then asks if a territory is not ruled properly by a leader, how should one handle this? The king quickly changes the topic, the implication being that, like the rest, he should be effectively fired for negligence.
After talking a little longer, the same king 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.” Mencius explains that a ruler forfeits their title when they fail to meet their obligations. They lose their status as a ruler and become a private person accountable to the same as an average. 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.
Mencius’s theory of deposing unjust leaders relied upon Confucius; theory of the “Rectification of Names.” This is the idea that words ought to correspond to reality in order to ensure social harmony. Shared meaning results in a shared understanding. Confucius said that 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 a king, “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 or power. Theft is theft. Murder is murder, regardless of the method or personal status.
Mencius held those in power to strict standards, even stricter standards than the average person. Like Confucius, Mencius believed leaders ought to be of the highest ethical character because they were meant to act as an example for their subjects. If leaders did not practice ethical conduct, they could irreversibly corrupt an entire society. Therefore Mencius believed there had to be some method of removing bad rulers, almost like amputating a gangrenous limb from the rest of the body to stop the infection from spreading.
Despite his best efforts, Mencius’s career did not produce humane governments; few, if any, leaders implemented his advice. Mencius retired from his travels and began to take on disciples and impart his beliefs to others.
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?”
But when Mencius died, his philosophy did follow suit. His thought became one of the most cited texts within the tradition of Chinese philosophy. Confucianism’s fate waxed and waned throughout Chinese history, with a series of revivalist movements always keeping Confucianism relevant against competing traditions. By the 14th‐century, four classic Confucian books became the orthodox reading list for any intellectual of repute, Mencius’ writings taking a prominent place amongst the four. A group known as the Neo‐Confucians eventually promoted Mencius from being a follower of Confucius to being a second sage. But the words of Mencius were not relegated solely to China. His influence extended beyond China into Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
So why have you most likely not heard of Mencius? Well, firstly, as always in philosophy, there is a western bias. Few philosophy curriculums include authors outside of the western world, which is a tragedy when people such as Mencius exist. Another more overtly political reason Mencius has been obscured is due to communism. By the turn of the 20th‐century Chinese Intellectuals called for the rapid modernization of China and a shrugging off of China’s feudal past. Mencius was deemed to be part of this feudal past, and his reputation suffered. This trend of erasing China’s past was energetically pursued further by Mao Zedong, who believed Confucianism to be an outdated ideology of the past when compared to then‐contemporary communism. Though Mencius was not wiped from the face of the earth with a movement of New Confucianism springing up in Taiwan and Hong Kong the study of Mencius continued. Since the death of Mao Confucianism has begun to make a comeback and along with it the writings of Mencius have seen a similar revival.
Mencius has a fair few beliefs about subservience to tradition and family that might make libertarians flinch. But within his writings, there is so much for libertarians to appreciate. Mencius appreciated that coercion was not a viable way to make a morally upright population. Moral example and material prosperity bring about the moral development of the public at large, not rulers implementing draconian punishments. Coming two millennia before Adam Smith and the establishment of economics as a subject of study, he already explained the follies of the state interfering with the market and fixing prices, the benefits to the division of labor, and the importance of free trade. My personal favorite aspect of Mencius’ writings is his discussion of removing rulers and applying to them the same rules as any other profession or trade. Mencius effectively said a ruler is like any other job, don’t perform, you get fired, no exceptions. In a way, he desacralized the profession of ruling and made it accountable to common sense. Today John Locke is famous for articulating the right of revolution, but Mencius talked about this same concept years before Locke’s ancestors were even born.
In short, Mencius is worth your time. His writings are extremely pleasant to read, and they broaden our horizons to look beyond the accepted philosophical canon of the West. There is much contemporary libertarians can take from Mencius and Confucianism as a whole; if you want to read more about this, I highly recommend take a look at Roderick Long’s work on Libertarianism and Confucianism.