The philosopher Mencius, who lived in the third century BCE, is considered China’s “second Sage,” after Confucius. A disciple of that school, he further developed Confucian thought, committing some of its ideas to the page, and provided itinerant counsel to regional rulers who would hear him.

Mencius advocated for benevolent governance. He believed that just and wise leadership would naturally attract people to a society, which was preferable to enslaving them. He believed in the importance of social wellness and concern for the common person.

In his view, rulers were subordinate to the people, and deserved to be deposed if they failed to lead benevolently. Acting out of righteousness over personal gain made a person superior, and giving was better than taking.

Perhaps JFK recalled Mencius when preparing his famous, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” speech. Would that so many leaders today would reflect on such ideas.

Variations on a theme

Mencius lived slightly before Aristotle, the subject of our last post, but despite the distance of time and place, their ideas have much in common. Both believed in following a middle way, in cultivating the innate human capacity for goodness, and that education, reason, and virtuous living would lead to a state of flourishing – either eudaimonia or “flood-like ch’i.”

But there are differences. If Aristotle’s middle way is a fulcrum, Mencius’ is the balance of the scales. Aristotle saw virtue as a product of a person’s station and circumstance, and Mencius, as a result of one’s environment. Aristotle believed that reason came from logic, while Mencius noted the wisdom of the heart.

While Mencius emphasizes the importance of duty, courtesy, and modesty, Aristotle thinks it worse to be modest than arrogant. How frequently this one detail alone plays out so differently in society.

On human nature

Mencius believed that everyone is capable of becoming good. Just as water always runs downstream, “rightness and reason” are common to all hearts. Specifically, there are four constituent “seeds”:

  • Compassion, which leads to benevolence
  • Shame, which leads to dutifulness
  • Respect, which leads to observations of rites, and
  • Right and wrong, which lead to wisdom

While these seeds occur naturally, one must tend to them so they blossom. Like nurturing a seedling, “given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, and deprived of it, there is nothing that will not wither away.” Environment is key to growth, and benevolent leadership to creating the environment.

Sometimes things go sideways, but erroneous ways can be mended; indeed, learning comes from the “strayed heart.” Perhaps we must, as humans, fumble on the road to virtue. Mencius says that, “as a rule, a man can mend his way only after he has made mistakes,” that frustration gives way to innovation, and transparency of intention to understanding. We grow from challenges, “survive in adversity and perish in ease and comfort.”

Embrace those hard yards

That’s right: growth means getting out of your comfort zone. Lest you think it’s all on leadership to get people thriving, individual effort matters.

The first duty is self-care, which includes fundamental self-acceptance and guarding of one’s character. Your actions are on you, for “there is neither good nor bad fortune which man does not bring upon himself.” There is no place for blame or externalizing. There is only reflection, responsibility, and learning: “look into yourself whenever you fail to achieve your purpose.”

To master something requires concentration and effort. Phoning it in is simply not good enough, for “if one does not give one’s whole mind to it, one will never master it.” A pleasant stroll won’t make you an Olympian; memorizing doesn’t mean you’ve learned. Doing work earnestly and over time is what accumulates flood-like ch’i.

A want of leadership

Leading with benevolence is important because “the virtue of the (leader) is like wind; the virtue of the small man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend.” Leadership inevitably influences not only the well-being, but the behaviour of the common people.

When faced as we are today with leaders who seem more concerned with their own power, wealth and influence than the care of their people, one wonders why they have not been deposed. For Mencius says that, “benevolence brings honour; cruelty, disgrace.” Has society become too cynical for ideals? Have we abandoned the code that once made us care? Can benevolence be made attractive to the disgraceful?

Wealth is an anathema to wisdom, and Mencius makes clear that a rich person cannot be a benevolent leader. While they can mend their ways, the humility required would surely not be an easy pill to swallow. As Mencius says, “if the cruel man listened to reason, there would be no annihilated states or ruined families.”

Mencius spoke truth to power. But who speaks truth to the cruel man today?

To profit is folly

If wealth and benevolence are opposite, and only the benevolent are fit to rule, then the wealthy are not fit to rule. Those who are not benevolent, according to Mencius, spread wickedness and risk the end of the state.

Just think on that for a minute.

Those leaders who act in their own self-interest are socially destructive, dismantling the balance of power, and endangering the well-being of those they are supposed to serve.

Mencius asks, “what is the point of…‘profit’? All that matters is that there should be benevolence and rightness.” As the wind bends the grass, a leader’s goal of profit will inspire every member of society to do likewise. Profit becomes a social poison where everyone is vying for it, ready to undercut one another, rather than working to the common good.

There is something more important than personal profit. We should remember the great wealth that stability, peace, and fairness, nutrition, clean water, and so much other shared prosperity bring to our lives. We should not take these for granted in seeking “profit.”

What is benevolence?

With profit in perspective, what does benevolence mean? For, doing good is a vague notion, and one person’s good may be detrimental to another. Setting a boundary is benevolence toward self, but may cause a sense of injury to the other.

To be fair, Mencius might suggest that person reflect on the “injury” and how they themselves created it.

Benevolence between individuals may easy enough to identify, but it becomes more complex at the social level. At what point does help become patronizing, or burdensome on society? Mencius emphasizes personal duty and responsibility: perhaps if all parts of the machine are working well the question of how much to oil it becomes immaterial.

The Hippocratic oath may be instructive: First do no harm. If a person lives on subsistence wages, as many today do, and then is punished for stealing bread out of hunger, how is this benevolence? Mencius cautions leaders against setting people up for failure, and then punishing them for it. And yet, how many such examples do we see in our society today?

Benevolence requires that people have, and are satisfied with, “enough.” The world today is remarkably wealthy overall, and consumption of goods is unprecedented – yet so are depression, anxiety, and a sense of not keeping up. Studies show that after base needs are met, one’s income has little to no bearing on happiness. And so, wealth again is an anathema to good.

Perhaps the best way to uncover benevolence is to look into yourself, to sit in your own wisdom. For, “the organ of the heart can think. But it will find the answer only if it does think.”

Many hands make light work

In Mencius’ day, society was agrarian and frequently at war. Survival depended on sticking together, each pulling their weight, and observing correct duties in relationships, families, and within society. The setting was highly proscribed, but created stability and civility.

This may seem antithetical to the individualism venerated in western society, where people are expected to “make it” themselves in the world, and they in turn expect to have freedom in choices, tastes, and opinions.

But even highly individualized societies rely on collective actions. Dispel any notions of the Soviet; far from it. Pitching in together simply makes some things possible, or easier, or less costly. No one builds their own highway or hospital, after all.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being an individual. Just bear in mind, however, that your actions have an effect on others. Refuse to wear a mask in public to slow the spread of a deadly pandemic based on your personal liberties? You’re endangering the collective, and that ain’t benevolence.

There is always hope

Both leaders and individuals can stray from the virtuous path. Mencius tell us not to sweat the small stuff, but to take big mistakes to task. You should stand up to leaders who have erred; that is a duty. It is this that can return leadership to a middle path.

It is worth reflecting on how benevolence appears in our lives. Where are we the harbinger, and when are we the beneficiary? How do those events make us feel? Can we cultivate more goodness, more wisdom?

For while Mencius says that “the benevolent man person has no match,” he reminds us equally that the work is ongoing. And that means we always have room to develop our thriving flood-like ch’i.