Leading wisely: how benevolent governance can help society flourish

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.

6 thoughts on “Leading wisely: how benevolent governance can help society flourish

  1. Mencius’ ‘death by analogy’ approach is highly dependent on the relevance of the analogy. Just because water runs downhill (which it does – I checked) , that tells us nothing about human nature. If the analogy can easily be replaced with an opposite meaning e.g. when water freezes it doesn’t run down hill so people are mean, then it’s just an an analogy – nothing more. In bad organizations people always say ‘the fish rots from the head’ as if fishy putrefaction is the only model for organizational dysfunction. What if the fish rotted from the tail – would that change anything? What if the moose rots from the hoof?

    In other news, it’s interesting that Mencius is so interventionist in his advice to the kings. Lao Tzu, who was just a few decades earlier, I believe, was very keen on the the idea that the leader governs not by doing, but by following the Way (which is ineffable), letting the wheels run along old ruts etc. Government by being, not doing.

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    • Richard, you raise an interesting point about the relevance of the analogy. Does water in its gaseous state reflect people who are full of hot air? Perhaps! Analogies are a teaching tool helpful for some, even if they are imperfect. I assume Mencius was was enough to talk to his audience in a way that made sense to them. But you are correct that analogies may be construed in the manner of one’s choosing as well.

      Interesting indeed about Lao Tzu and Mencius. I recall someone saying that we are human beings, not human doings, and then imagined telling my boss that I’m busy being! To intervene, or not intervene, remains a salient question for the state.

      For all Mencius refers to The Way, I didn’t mention it in the blog post, for simply not feeling qualified to go there. I feel a rabbit hole is near…

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  2. Kudos for completing another thoughtful summary. I love your reflections on Mencius’ ideas and contemporary government and leadership. I was struck by this note: Aristotle and Mencius’ ideas: “While Mencius emphasizes the importance of duty, courtesy, and modesty, Aristotle thinks it worse to be modest than arrogant.”
    I take issue with you on two points. First, that rulers are ‘subordinate’ to the people. In my reading of the text, Mencius recognizes and acknowledges the power rulers (his patrons) wield in the social order and over subordinates (their subjects). He offers reasons (in their own interests) for The Way’s right action and he warns of the ill-effects of doing otherwise: diminished power and prosperity, the desertion of subordinates. To be a tyrant, to not act benevolently, justifies replacement.
    Second: “If wealth and benevolence are opposite, and only the benevolent are fit to rule, then the wealthy are not fit to rule.” But wealth and rule are inclusive go hand in hand: a ruler can be wealthy and benevolent, or wealthy and not benevolent. Mencius advocates for dissemination of resources to a degree that enables the ruler’s subjects to prosper and incites loyalty and goodwill. The concentration of wealth at the top is a given, a source of a ruler’s power. Wealth isn’t disqualifying for those who rule, though bad behavior should and probably will be, according to Mencius.

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    • Thank you for your feedback, Diane! I found Mencius a little more slippery than I expected in crafting the post, and I’m not entirely satisfied with the result. Perhaps his wisdom is deceptive in its simplicity. Still, I feel there is much that contemporary society may learn from considering his ideas, and it’s worth grappling with. Your post makes me realize that I have read the work through modern eyes, and perhaps have not given enough thought to its original context (which admittedly I know little about).

      Mencius walks a tricky line, in attempting to talk the powerful into benevolence over oppression. You raise an interesting point that he would have to speak to their self interest. I certainly read it in a “power to the people” kind of way! Of course, someone must lead the people, otherwise it would surely be chaos. At that time, it would surely mean starvation if not an easy target for war. Someone in that position of power will be better resourced than the average person.

      Likewise, my conception of wealth is probably through modern eyes, and I’m glad you raise this. I think I took it for granted that “wealth” as the opposite of benevolence is perhaps more like hoarding – egregious wealth, where a leader is concerned with profit over the people. I wish we could know what Mencius meant by “wealth.” Is this a matter of translation, just as eudaimonia has no equivalent English word? Mencius does say that people need enough resource to be able to realize flood-like ch’i. So, I don’t think he advocates for privation or a communal ideal necessarily, but more of a ‘no person left behind’ objective.

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  3. Pingback: Reason and pleasure: The Epicurean way of good living | Teresa Stolarskyj

  4. Pingback: To be themselves: Tensions of gender and its effect on justice in the ancient Greek canon | Teresa Stolarskyj

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