Towson University

23rd Annual Spring Philosophy Colloquium: Confucius and Confucianism

The Relation Between Metaphysics and Ethics in Mencius and Plato

presented by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson

April 14, 1999





Table of Contents


1.  Introduction

2.  Difference one:  human essence

3.  Difference two:  ethics

4.  Difference three:  ultimate goal of the sage (gentleman,


5.  Conclusion



Thesis (three fold)

          Many focus upon the similarities between Mencius and Plato.  The purpose of this paper is to highlight the subtle differences between the two thinkers.  Three main differences discussed are:  (1)  the difference in essential human nature; (2)  the difference in ethics; (3)  the difference of the ultimate goal of the sage (gentleman or philosopher).  Perhaps by seeing that our differences are not that different may enable an understanding that will encourage individuals to consider their place in the world, with a truly global perspective.



1.  Introduction


          Many focus upon the similarities between Mencius and Plato.  The purpose of this paper is to highlight the subtle differences between the two thinkers.  Three main differences discussed are:  (1)  the difference in essential human nature; (2)  the difference in ethics; (3)  the difference of the ultimate goal of the sage (gentleman or philosopher).  The purpose of understanding human nature is to discover the Way (Tao) in which to properly conduct one’s life.  The best way is a life of contemplation (the life of the philosopher or sage).  The purpose of looking at the differences between Mencius and Plato is to also illustrate the so-called difference between East and West and to demonstrate that these two spheres are not so far apart.  In fact it takes consideration of the entire world to understand man’s political nature, not merely one’s country or hemisphere.  The full moon cannot be missing any parts.  Perhaps by seeing that our differences are not that different may enable an understanding that will encourage individuals to consider their place in the world, with a truly global perspective.



2.  Difference one:  human essence


          The first difference to be discussed is the difference between Mencius’ and Plato’s understanding of human nature.  Plato’s view of the essential human nature is unchanging since human nature is in fact an ideal form (ideos/edios) that is separate from the physical body.  Mencius has a view of an original human nature that is capable of change.  Mencius also roots this nature (ch’i) in the human heart (hsin), and hence, such a nature is a part of the physical human existence in that it dwells within the human body.  “Benevolence (jen) is the heart of man and rightness is his road.  Sad it is indeed when a man gives up the right road instead of following it and allows his heart to stray without enough sense to go after it.  [...] The sole concern of learning is to go after this starved heart.”[1]  Mencius explains that the original nature of human essence is that of benevolence. “‘Benevolence’ means ‘man’.  When these two are conjoined the result is ‘the Way’ (Tao).”[2]


          Benevolence allows man to act righteously, and find the true path.  But many seem to forget their original nature. “Learn widely and go into what you have learned in detail so that in the end you can return to the essential.”[3]  By returning to our essential original nature we can be at ease with ourselves knowing the source of benevolence is deep within ourselves, within our hearts.  There are four incipient tendencies of the heart, of which benevolence or compassion is only one.  The other three incipient tendencies of the heart are shame, courtesy and modesty, and right and wrong.  “The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame, of dutifulness; the heart of courtesy and modesty, of observance of the rites; the heart of right and wrong, of wisdom. Man has these four germs just as he has four limbs.”[4]  The most important tendency is that of benevolence and it is the strongest motive to moral action. 


“Why not go back to fundamentals?”[5]  In order to understand the true human essence one must examine the original nature or what is basic.  Mencius contends that the original human nature or essence is benevolent.  “What is common to all hearts?  Reason and rightness.  The sage is simply the man first to discover this common element of my heart.”[6]  This internal nature may not be apparent and it must be recollected.  Such an essence cannot be discovered a posteriori.  Mencius is skeptical about sensation alone and acknowledges that benevolence is an intrinsic characteristic of human essence.  “The organs of hearing and sight are unable to think and can be misled by external things.  When one thing acts upon another all it does is to attract it.  The organ of the heart (ch’i) can think.  But it will find the answer only if it does think;  otherwise it will not find the answer.”[7]  Mencius describes the nature of the refined ch’i as a rational element, which is immaterial, and is able to think.  It is unlike the body.  It is possible to misunderstand the human essence, especially if one attains to the physical merely. 


Mencius has a special understanding of the heart (ch’i).  It is not merely physical since he uses what is called the flood like ch’i (hao jan chih ch’i) which is described as being both the blood and the heart.  It is this ch’i that fills the body (hsueh ch’i).  The flood like ch’i is used by Mencius in place of the physical ch’i.  The flood like ch’i is more like breath than blood, since is supposed to fill the body.  Mencius explains this by saying that courage depends on ch’i.[8]  When confronted with danger, one’s heart races, and one begins to breath more heavily, filling the body.  Mencius acknowledges that it is not easy to explain the flood like ch’i.  “This is a ch’i which is, in the highest degree, vast and unyielding.  Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between Heaven (T’ien) and Earth.  It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way.”[9]  The flood like ch’i is Heaven which is planted in the moral heart.  It is only by understanding the flood like ch’i that enables one to act righteously.  Benevolence is not part of the physical existence of our human nature merely, but dwells within the mind, soul, or heart.  By learning to be like  the original nature man will act correctly.  Mencius makes such a quest more attainable than that view of human nature presented by Plato;  since according to Mencius the root of benevolence, and recollecting our true nature, flows within.



3.  Difference two:  ethics


          Benevolence is the strongest motive to moral action.  To know the good it to do the good:  this is a point where Mencius and Plato agree for the most part.  But their differing views regarding human essence will result in differing moral positions. Why do the good?  Doing the good is a matter of self interest according to Plato. Plato claims that the Ideal Form of the Good is unchanging.  He also claims that virtue has an unchanging essence.  Hence, if properly understood, everyone would know the Good identically, and apply it universally.  The difficulty is that the essence of the Good, and of virtue, are both separate from man.


          By rooting right and wrong in benevolence and rooting benevolence in the flood like ch’i, Mencius has solved the problem of the chorismos between matter and form that is present in Plato’s view.  Mencius achieves this while also retaining an original nature which is the ideal man hopes to imitate.  “A great man need not keep his word nor does he necessarily see his action through to the end.  He aims only at which is right.”[10]  By returning to essentials, or getting back to basics, man is able to find his true benevolent nature.  This exalted nature dwells within every man. 


          “All men share the same desire to be exalted.  But as a matter of fact, every man has in him that which is exalted.  The fact simply never dawned on him.”[11]  Men seek the good, but few realize that the good they seek dwells within.  Many think that good actions are those that produce good consequences, ends, or are pleasurable, but Mencius explains that right action has nothing to do with bodily pleasure or good consequences.  Moral action is right action.  Right action is action which is benevolent.  When man is benevolent, the result is the Way. 


          “A gentleman steeps himself in the Way because he wishes to find it in himself.  When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it;  when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it, when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns.  That is why a gentleman wishes to find the Way in himself.”[12]  The most noted story presented by Mencius that illustrates that all humans possess an original nature is that of a child about to fall into a well.[13]  Mencius claims that saving the child is not done because of some dislike of hearing the cries of the child, nor because he fears what others will think if he fails to act.  He rescues the child because he has a heart of compassion.  It is within each man, and can be drawn upon when needed, since this compassionate nature is part of the human essence.  “Whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human.”[14]  The example of the compassionate man that acts upon his original benevolent nature is an example of how one should act benevolently.  Mencius thought that right action could be taught to others, but only those that act to their fullest potential can be seen as examples of benevolence itself.[15]  The cause of being or acting benevolently is within us.[16] 


          There are those that seem to not possess this original nature.  Mencius says that this is like the case of trees and axes.[17]  If we were to take axes and lop off a bit of the trees in our yards, each and every day, it would be no wonder that the trees would not flourish.  It is the same with man.  If a man ignores his original nature, and does not nourish it, little by little, each and every day, eventually he “will no longer be able to preserve what was originally in him and when that happens, the man is not far removed from an animal.”[18]  This leads to the mistaken view that such individuals do not have an original benevolent nature, or that being benevolent is not part of the essence of man.


          Acting benevolently is not only about being benevolent, it is also about one’s relation to self and to others.  “The way benevolence pertains to the relation between father and son, duty to the relation between prince and subject, the rites to the relation between guest and host, wisdom to the good and wise man, the sage to the Way of Heaven, is the Decree, but therein also lies human nature.  That is why the gentleman does not describe it as Decree.”[19]  Mencius does not think that benevolence is an universal, or a Decree.  Acting benevolently may mean different things in different situations.  One cannot treat his father like a stranger.  But every son may not treat his father in the same manner, although each son is to treat his father with benevolence.  The position that Mencius takes regarding moral matters is sometimes called living the mean between the extremes.  The extremes are ethical egoism and universal love.  Being extreme may “cripple the Way.”[20]  Mencius cautions that the middle path must be properly measured.[21]  How can one measure such a mean?  Mencius replies that one “should measure his own heart.”[22] 


          Mencius sees his position as the middle path between egoism and what he calls “love without discrimination.”[23]  Ethical egoism is the view that one ought to act in one’s own self-interest.  Mencius thinks that ethical egoism places too much weight upon pleasures, values, and consequences.  Rightness is not what brings pleasure, not what is valued, nor what produces favorable consequences.  The right way is the way which is benevolent.  Benevolence may be valued, but its being valued does not make it benevolent, it is benevolent in and of itself.  Mencius does not want to advocate that pleasurable activities are benevolent, due to their pleasure merely, since this may led to indulgence.  It is also the case that doing the right thing may be difficult, and not necessarily be that action which produces the most pleasure.  Mencius says: “think of the consequences before you speak of the short comings of others.”[24]  Hence he is not saying that the consequences of action do not matter, he is advocating the view that the consequences cannot be the measure merely.  The consequences or the end result may not be known prior to completion of the action.  An action that was deemed to produce favorable consequences may be over-rated.  Also the means may not be benevolent, even if the end result may be.  The main difficulty with teleological ethics is that such ethical theories claim that right action is action that produces pleasurable results.  The good cannot be what is merely desired.  The good is not a result of, or determined by, consequences. 


          “Benevolence is like archery:  an archer makes sure his stance is correct before letting fly the arrow, and if he fails to hit the mark, he does not hold it against his victor.  He simply seeks the cause within himself.”[25]  Mencius uses this metaphor several times to explain the nature of the middle path.  It may take practice and aim, but eventually one will hit the target.  If one fails to meet the target, the cause is within himself.  He must seek to understand the benevolence that dwells within.  “A gentleman is full of eagerness when he has drawn his bow, but before he lets fly the arrow, he stands in the middle of the path, and those who are able to do so follow him.”[26]  Hence the sage must set the example. Because it is not always clear to all what acting benevolently is, it is up to the sage to teach by example.  Benevolence is taught to others by means of benevolence itself.[27]


          But why is not the middle path a type of “love without discrimination”?  Love without discrimination is also called universal love.  This is the position that one ought to treat others the way in which one wants to be treated at all times.  Love without discrimination can be seen as the middle path between ethical egoism (to love self) and ethical altruism (to love others).  But universal love (to love self and others) is only an apparent mean.  Mencius claims that when properly measured, the proper ethical mean will be between that ethical egoism and universal love, and this mean is called graduated love.  Graduated love is that view that one may love some more than others.  Due to the fact that it is not a Decree, the view of Mencius cannot be seen as a type of universalism, and Mencius is too against a total altruism.  Mencius says:  “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.”[28]  He also says that “you can only try your best to do the good.”[29]  Although a son should never skimp expenditure upon his parent’s funeral expenses, it may not be possible to provide the finest woods, due to economic circumstances, but a gentleman tries to show his filial piety the best he can.[30]  Notice that Mencius says “try”.  This is not a categorical imperative that we ought to always treat others the way we wish to be treated.  Mencius is not making this an universal Decree, but is merely using it as an example.  If one is not clear on what benevolence itself is, then by all means acting in accordance with the “Golden Rule  is better than acting egoistically.  The problem with following the Golden Rule is that it pretends to be a Decree that is inflexible;  furthermore, the Golden Rule is based upon desire.  It is in one’s interest to treat others as they would be treated.  Benevolence cannot be based on such desires or wishes.  The most difficult problem with the Golden Rule is that it ignores the fact that benevolence is about relation in its universal application.  “There are no young children who do not know loving their parents, and none of them when they grow up will not know respecting their elder brothers.  Loving one’s parents is benevolence;  respecting one’s elders is rightness.  What is left to be done is simply the extension of these to the entire Empire.” [31]  Correct action flows from benevolence.  By understanding love, man will learn respect for others.  One cannot love all individuals alike.  Hence one cannot love one’s father in the same way he loves his brother.  One cannot love his brother in the same way in which he loves his neighbor.  He cannot love his neighbor in the same way he loves a stranger.  Loving one’s parents is good.  Respecting one’s parents is the right thing to do. “Benevolence is the heart of man, and rightness is his road.”[32]  Now the task is apply these principles to the entire state.





          “A gentleman is sparing with things but shows benevolence towards them; he shows benevolence towards the people but is not attached to them.  He is attached to his parents, but is merely benevolent towards the people, he is benevolent towards the people, but is merely sparing with things.”[33]  We are frugal with our love, and we do not just love anything or anyone.[34]  In fact, love is only to be applied to relations we have with others and not to things.  A ruler is in a special position in that he must love his people, but not in the manner in which he loves his parents.  He will be forever attached to his parents and they deserve a certain amount of respect and love beyond all others.  The ruler must love his people, but he is not bound to them.  This means that the ruler may not act the same towards everyone in the Empire. A wise ruler knows that some things require more attention or more love than others.  “A wise man knows everything, but he considers urgent only that which demands attention.  A benevolent man loves everyone but he devotes himself to the close association with good and wise men.”[35]  We should be frugal with our love, but most of all, of this, the ruler must be aware.  If the ruler was to treat everyone in the same way, either by loving all, or by being self interested,  neither way would result in the true path.


          According to both Mencius and Plato, states are best run by those who understand the essence of the Good.  Both Mencius and Plato think that the essence of human nature is good, or that to know the good is to do the good.  They did not agree, however, about the location of this human essence.  Mencius thinks that human essence is immanent within each human, while Plato thinks that humans merely imitate the ideal essence of humanness, which is separate from all humanity.  Plato’s idea of the Good also exists separate from the essence of humanness, unlike Mencius’ view of intrinsic human essence which dwells in each man.  Mencius opts for a graduated view of ethics, since he thinks that to take the mean is the right path between the extremes.  Doing the good, or taking the right path, is not done because it is in one’s self interest.  In Plato’s view, doing the good was a matter of self interest, and applied universally.  Mencius’ conception of a changing human nature affects his conception of the good.  These differences, too result in differing views of state.


          Plato thinks that those who best understand the essential form of the Good, the essential form of courage, justice, temperance, and all other virtues, should be our rulers.  Such individuals are at times called philosopher-kings.  Plato believes that these individuals are the only individuals that can be trusted with the public good.  But might not the role of being ruler be a type of corruption?  The ruler needs an objective, benevolent advisor to help him discern the middle path between individual and collective interests.  Being at the most respected position of society may make the ruler, in thinking he should be treated most benevolently, make decisions that cripple the Way.


          The true role of the sage, gentleman, or philosopher is not to be the philosopher-king, as Plato suggests.  According to Mencius, the true role of the sage is to help the king rule benevolently.[36]  “A benevolent man would not even take from one man to give to another, let alone seek territory at the cost of human lives.  In serving his lord, a gentleman has only one aim and that is to put him on the right path and set his mind on benevolence.”[37]  The king should act in what Mencius calls the Kingly Way,  but this by no means means that all wise men should be kings.[38]  “A gentleman delights in three things, and being ruler over the Empire is not amongst them.”[39]





          The paper examined three basic differences: (1)  the difference in essential human nature; (2)  the difference in ethics; (3)  the difference of the ultimate goal of the sage (gentleman or philosopher).  Plato argued for an unchanging human essence that was separate from man, while Mencius argued for an original, changing human nature that dwelled within each individual.  Plato argued that to know the good was to do the good.  Goodness for Plato was an universal.  Plato held that everyone would find it in their self interest to do the good.  Plato held that the best rulers are philosophers, since they best understand benevolence.  Mencius also held that to know the good is to do the good.  For Mencius, goodness was not an universal, since it was not right to apply benevolence to everyone equally.  Mencius thought that kings should be benevolent and wise, but that philosophers should not be kings.


          This paper examined the subtle differences between the views of Mencius and Plato, as an illustration of the difference between East and West.  There may be many cultural differences, but in fact, we all share the same human essence.  This is evident by examination of the philosophical traditions of East and West.  Philosophers in both East and West have similar concerns about human existence.  Mencius says[40]:  “There is no greater joy for me to find, on self-examination, that I am true to myself.”  This is similar to the decree over the Delphic Oracle “Know Thyself”.  It also reminds me of that famous line of Socrates that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”[41]  The only way to be true to thyself is to know one’s self.  The only way to know one’s self is to examine one’s heart.  When one finds his benevolent nature, the result is the Way.


           Typically, Eastern philosophy and Western philosophy are seen as oppositional, but this is not actually the case.  There are differences, but philosophy, as a discipline, appears to have particular elements which transcend cultures.  A case in point is the comparison of Mencius and Plato.  Although, prima facie, Shantung and Athens are worlds apart, this is not actually the case.  The nature of the sage is the same for both Mencius and Plato, in that the purpose of philosophizing is to better understand human nature so that a theory of ethics and state can be developed which best suits human nature.  In philosophy it seems the moon is full.

[1]  Mencius, translated by D.C. Lau, (New York:  Penguin Books, 1970), page 167.  Book  VI, A, 2.

[2]  Mencius, page 197.  Book VII, B, 16. (This  citation contained a typo in my original paper)

[3]  Mencius, page 130.  Book IV, B, 15.

[4]  Mencius, pages 82-83.  Book II, A, 6.

[5]  Mencius, page 50.  Book I, A, 7.

[6]  Mencius, page 164.  Book VI, A, 7.

[7]  Mencius, page 168.  Book VI, A, 15.

[8]   Mencius, page 25.

[9]   Mencius, page 77.  Book II, A, 2.

[10]   Mencius, page 130.  Book IV, B, 11.

[11]   Mencius, page 169.  Book VI, A, 17.

[12]  Mencius, page 130.  Book IV, B, 14.

[13]  Mencius, page 82.  Book II, A, 6.

[14]  Mencius, page 82.  Book II, A, 6.

[15]  Mencius, page 170.  Book VI, B, 20.  Also see page 83, Book II, A, 7.

[16]  Mencius, page 83.  Book II, A, 7.

[17]  Mencius, page 165.  Book VI, A, 8.

[18]   Mencius, page 165.  Book VI, A, 8.

[19]   Mencius, page 199.  Book VII, B, 24.  Also see page 90 and page 187.

[20]   Mencius, page 188.  Book VII, A, 26.

[21]   Mencius, page 188.  Book VII, A, 26.

[22]   Mencius, page 57.  Book I, A, 6.

[23]   Mencius, page 188.  Book VII, A, 26.

[24]   Mencius, page 129.  Book IV, B, 9.

[25]   Mencius, page 83.  Book II, A, 7. 

[26]   Mencius, page 192.  Book VII, A, 41. “When the prince is benevolent, everyone else is benevolent [...].”  Mencius, page 129.  Book IV, B, 5.

[27]   Mencius, page 170.  Book VI, A, 20.

[28]   Mencius, page 182.  Book VII, A, 4.

[29]   Mencius, page 71.  Book I, B, 14.

[30]   Mencius, page 90.  Book II, B, 7.

[31]   Mencius, page 184.  Book VII, A, 15.

[32]   Mencius, page 167.  Book VI, A, 11.

[33]   Mencius, page 192.  Book VII, A, 45.

[34]   Mencius is making a play upon the word “ai” in Chinese which means both “to love” and “to be sparing, to be frugal”.  Mencius, page 192.

[35]   Mencius, page 192.  Book VII, A, 46.

[36]   Mencius, page 53.  Book I, A, 5.

[37]   Mencius, page 178.  Book VI, B, 8.

[38]   Mencius, page 51.  Book I, A, 3.

[39]   Mencius, page 185.  Book VII, A, 20.  “His parents are alive and his brothers are well.  This is the first delight.  Above, he is not ashamed to face Heaven; below he is not afraid to face man.  This is the second delight.  He has the good fortune of having the most talented pupils in the Empire.  This is the third delight.”

[40]   Mencius, page 182.  Book VII, A, 4.

[41]   Apology, 38, A.