Confucius and Mencius

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was the father of modern Chinese civilization. The most reliable source of his doctrines is the Analects. However, there are also many existing works by his followers.

Confucianism and Taoism - Confucius turned humanism into the strongest driving force in Chinese philosophy. The other major school of Chinese philosophy is Taoism. Taoism and Confucianism are often referred to as opposites. Taoism focuses on the individual life, non-conformity, tranquility, and a transcendental spirit, while Confucianism focuses on social order, conformity, activity, and worldliness. This is to much an extent true. However, the two philosophies work well together, each serving as critiques of the other. It may be better to think of them as two sides of the same coin. It is impossible to understand Chinese philosophy and culture without learning about both Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism is similar to Buddhism except that by following nature, man's nature is fulfilled, not eliminated. In Taoism, a wise leader rules through non-interference with nature. In Confucianism, a wise leader rules through reason, good counsel, and respect for the examples set by one's elders and ancestors. In many ways, Taoism and Confucianism set the themes for the continuing struggle between a philosophy of human nature that focuses on spirituality and nature vs. social order and reason.


Mencius (371-289 B.C.) was a pupil of a pupil of Tzu-Ssu, Confucius' grandson. Mencius' doctrine is called Idealistic Confucianism because "while Confucius no more than implied that human nature is good, Mencius declared definitely that it is originally good." (Wing-Tsit Chan, pp. 49-50.) Mencius' philosophy of human nature is summed up in the following argument from The Book of Mencius.

Since man is originally good, it follows that

1. he possesses the innate knowledge of the good and the "innate ability" to do good; (7A:15)

2. if one "develops his mind to the utmost" he can "serve Heaven" and "fulfill his destiny;" (7A:1)

3. evil is not inborn but due to man's own failures and his inability to avoid evil external influences; (6A:8)

4. serious efforts must be made to recover our original nature; (ibid) and

5. the end of learning is none other than to "seek for the lost mind." (6A:11)

Excerpts from Mencius:

6A:8 Mencius said, "The trees of the Niu Mountain were once beautiful. But can the mountain be regarded any longer as beautiful since, being in the borders of a big state, the trees have been hewed down with axes and hatchets? Still with the rest given them by the days and nights and the nourishment provided them by the rains and the dew, they were not without buds and sprouts springing forth. But then the cattle and the sheep pastured upon them once and again. That is why the mountain looks so bald. When people see that it is so bald, they think that there was never any timber on the mountain. Is this the true nature of the mountain? Is there not [also] a heart of humanity and righteousness originally existing in man? The way in which he loses his originally good mind is like the way in which the trees are hewed down with axes and hatchets. As trees are cut down day after day, can a mountain retain its beauty? To be sure, the days and nights do the healing, and there is the nourishing air of the calm morning which keeps himnormal in his likes and dislikes. But the effect is slight, and is disturbed and destroyed by what he does during the day. When there is repeated disturbance, the restorative influence of the night will not be sufficient to preserve it, man becomes not much different from the beast. People see that he acts like an animal, and think that he never had the original endowment (for goodness). But is that his true character? Therefore with proper nourishment and care, everything grows, whereas without proper nourishment and care, everything decays. Confucius said, "Hold it fast and you preserve it. Let it go and you lose it. It comes in and goes out at no definite time and without anyone's knowing its direction." He was talking about the human mind.

4B:12. Mencius said, “The great man is one who does not lose his [originally good] child’s heart.

7B:31. Mencius said, “All men have some things which they cannot bear. Extend that feeling to what they can bear, and humanity will be the result. All men have some things which they will not do. Extend that feeling to the things that they do, and righteousness will be the result. If a man can give full development to his feeling of not wanting to injure others, his humanity will be more than what he can ever put into practice. If he can give full development to his feeling of not wanting to break in to steal, his righteousness will be more than what he can ever put into practice. If a man can give full development to his real dislike of being addressed, ‘Hey, you,’ he will act according to righteousness wherever he may be....

6A:11. Mencius said, “Humanity is man’s mind and righteousness is man’s path. Pity the man who abandons the path and does not follow it, and who has lost his heart and does not know how to recover it. When people’s dogs and fowls are lost, they go to look for them, and yet, when they have lost their hearts, they do not go to look for them. The way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind.

The Confucian Doctrine of the Mean: (excerpts from The Doctrine of the Mean, by Tzu Ssu)

1. Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused it is called equilibrium (chung, centrality, mean). When these feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and degree, it is called harmony. Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world, and harmony is its universal path. When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, Heaven and earth will attain their proper order and all things will flourish.

14. ... Confucius said, "In archery we have something resembling the Way (Tao) of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns around and seeks for the cause of failure within himself."

One further saying from Chinese philosophy:

When a person prevents his emotions from overtaking his rationality, it is called intelligence or reason.

When a person prevents his rationality from overtaking his emotions, it is called compassion.

When a person can do both, it is called wisdom.


A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton Univ. Press (Princeton, NJ: 1973).