A Chinese Man with a Latin Name and Many Dangerous Ideas
His Chinese title was Mang-tze: Mang the Master. Just as European scholars changed his philosophical predecessor K’ung-fu-tze into “Confucius,” Latin-trained historians of the West called him “Mencius.”
He spent most of his adult life (378-289 B.C.) counseling princes and kings, teaching them to rule like philosophers instead of barbarians. In his final years, he composed — or provided the inspiration for the composition of — one of the most widely read and beloved books of classical Chinese philosophy, generally called The Book of Mencius. Thousands of years later, it still merits our full attention, for The Book of Mencius is chiefly concerned not with esoteric examinations of metaphysics but the quotidian concerns of making for oneself a good life, and a good society. Mencius believed that men are by nature good, and that societal problems aren’t caused by intrinsic faults in human character but in the general wickedness of governments run by ignorant and uneducated men with no grasp of (or interest in) philosophy.
Mencius preached benevolence. Be kind to all, royals and peasants alike, and the Kingdom will flourish. Succumb to greed and favoritism, and the Kingdom will suffer and, eventually, perish.
Today, the usual psychopaths in power are attempting, as they always do, to lead their subjects into a(nother) senseless, immoral murder spree. This time the big threat to American safety isn’t Vietnam, or Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s Iran. But the drumbeat for war follows the same rhythm. We’re fairly certain that Trump, Bolton, Pompeo and their partners in the killing and suffering industries haven’t read Mencius (or any other philosophical text, unless you count Atlas Shrugged as something more than an elaborate apology for the harmfulness of capitalism.) We’re fairly certain the ideas contained therein would seem to them old and naive. We’re also fairly certain that the Kings of ancient China aren’t much different than their modern corollaries. Which is why, perhaps, we ought to make The Book of Mencius required reading for anyone who aspires to wield power.
Alas, these are very busy, very important people. And so are you, reader. Let us briefly summarize some of Mencius’s main conclusions:
+ A righteous ruler does not make war against other countries. His only enemy is poverty, from which ignorance, disorder and criminal behavior is born.
+ Punishing subject citizens for crimes committed because of a dearth of legal opportunities is a pernicious trap — first for the people, then their ruler, then the State itself.
+ Governments are not meant to enrich select individuals or families; government is responsible for the welfare of the common people. Thus, government should tax the land, rather than what men build (or grow) on it.
+ Governments should abolish all tariffs.
+ Governments should support universal (and compulsory) education; “good laws are not equal to winning the people by good instruction,” he wrote.
+ He also wrote, “Never has there been a society based on profit, without ruin being the result.”
+ War is a crime. “There are men who say: ‘I am skillful at marshaling troops, I am skillful at conducting a battle.’ They are great criminals. There has never been a good war.”
+ The king who feeds his dogs and swine while famine consumes his subjects deserves contempt.
+ When a king argued he could not prevent famine, Mencius counseled him to resign, and to remember, “The people are the most important element in a nation, the sovereign the lightest.” The people, he believed, have the universal right to depose their rulers. A ruler who earns the enmity of his people has lost the “mandate from Heaven,” and may be justly removed.
As we’re told by countless refrigerator magnets and school posters, those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it. Alas, isn’t all history, from Sumeria to Syria, Mencius to America, an endless repetition of familiar mistakes? We’re not convinced that a passing knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy would change anything in our elected “leaders.” But we have an inkling that our current crop of uneducated fools masquerading as kings are precisely the students Mang the Master hoped to reach.