Mencius (Latinized form of Chinese MENG-TZE, i.e. MENG THE SAGE), philosopher, b. 371 or 372 B.C. He was a disciple of the grandson of Confucius, and ranks next to the great master as an expounder of Confucian wisdom. His work, known as the “Book of Mencius”, or simply, “Mencius”, is one of the four Shuh, or books, given the place of honor in Chinese literature after the King, or classics. Of Mencius’ life only a meagre account has been handed down, and this is so like the story of Confucius in its main outlines, that one is tempted to question its strictly historical character. He is said to have lived to the advanced age of eighty-four years, being thus a contemporary of the great Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. His father died when he was very young. The care of his training was thrown upon his mother, and so well did she fulfil her task that she has been honored ever since, among the Chinese of all classes, as the pattern of the true mother. After a thorough instruction in the doctrine of Confucius, Mencius was honored with the position of minister of state to one of the feudal princes, Hsuan. But after some years, seeing that the prince was not disposed to follow his counsels, he resigned his charge, and for years went about from state to state, expounding the principles of Confucius. At last he was kindly received by Prince Hui, and was instrumental in promoting the welfare of his people through his wise measures of reform. After the death of the prince he retired to private life, and spent his last years instructing his disciples, and preparing with them the book that bears his name.
The “Book of Mencius” consists of seven parts or books, and treats of the proper regulation of human conduct from the point of view of society and the state. Religion as a motive of right conduct seems to have concerned him much less than it did Confucius. He is interested in human conduct only in so far as it leads to the highest common weal. One of his recorded sayings runs: “The people are of the highest importance; the gods come second; the sovereign is of lesser weight.” His work abounds in sententious utterances. If we may trust the records, he knew how to speak plainly and strongly. To Prince Hui, whom he found living in careless luxury, while his people were perishing for lack of economic ref orms he said:—”In your kitchen there is fat meat, and in your stables there are sleek horses, while famine sits upon the faces of your people, and men die of hunger in the fields. This is to be a beast and prey on your fellow men.” Mencius was a staunch champion of the Confucian principle that human nature tends to what is morally good, and only runs to evil by reason of the perverse influences of external environment. His treatise is one of the most noteworthy attempts to teach morality independently of religion. The “Book of Mencius” is generally accepted as genuine, though the evidence of its Mencian authorship is of a kind that would not be judged sufficient if it fell within the scope of modern historic criticism. In a Chinese history dating from 100 B.C., a short account of Mencius is given, in which he is declared to be the author of the work in seven books that bears his name. There are extant portions of literary works composed as early as 186-178 B.C., containing quotations from the “Book of Mencius”. There remains still, somewhat more than a century to bridge over, but the reputation for accuracy of the Chinese annals is taken as a warrant that the work goes back to the days of Mencius and issued from his pen.
A partial acquaintance with the teachings of Mencius was obtained by European scholars through the writings of the Jesuit missionaries to China in the eighteenth century. The “Book of Mencius” was translated into Latin by Stanislaus Julien in the early part of the last century. English readers have ready access to the sayings of Mencius in the admirable edition and version of the “Chinese Classics”, by J. Legge.
CHARLES F. AIKEN