The account of the Confucian vision of a benevolent government and social harmony…
Master Kong (aka Confucius; 551-479BC) was a teacher of the children of the elite of his day. The times of Confucius were turbulent, that time period being known to the Chinese as The Warring States period. And such it was, the area now known as China then being a region of fragmented regions whose process of existence was that of constant war and domination by those with the means of warfare, and hardship and oppression for the common folk.
Confucius realized that the problems were being instigated by those in power. Thus he spent his life in the noble effort of trying to change the thinking of those who were creating the hardships by appealing to their sense of humaneness. His years of private teaching were followed by decades of traveling the land in search of the ear of any leaders open to the concept of benevolence and kindness in lieu of war and domination.
Although Confucius did gather a following among his fellow philosophers, the numbers were but a few dozen and his influence to the intended end of the creation of a benevolent government and peaceful society never saw fruition during his lifetime. Sadly, Master Kong died thinking he had failed; and such was the general perception of the idealist, nomadic teacher in the years that followed….
However few might have been his followers, those that remained faithful to his ideology passed his general teachings along. Consequently, his vision of social harmony fostered by benevolent government never completely died out. Then, about 100 years after Confucius’ death, one was born who would take the torch of his dream so to speak, and not only continue the quest of Master Kong, but would furthermore qualify the concept of benevolence to a level of thinking heretofore unknown and unrealized.
Meng Ke (aka Mencius; 372-289BC) was an avid follower of the Confucian ideology, to the extent that he continued Master Kong’s mission in much the same fashion. Like Confucius before him, Mencius traveled the land in an effort to gain the ear of those in power, in hopes of softening the hearts of the leaders of the land towards those whose meager living was dependent upon peace and harmony.
Mencius’ main teachings were those of the benefit of a benevolent government for leader and commoner alike, and he referenced such by a unique appeal to the basic qualities of human nature. Indeed, although Master Kong had made references to the goodness of human nature (“Man is born with uprightness”; Analects of Confucius 6.17), Mencius based his entire case by appealing to the rulers of his day based upon the concept of the goodness of human nature. Consider these references from “The Book of Mencius”:
“All men have the mind which cannot bear to see the suffering of others” (2A.6)
“The great man is one who does not lose his originally good child’s heart” (4B.12)
Based upon this notion of the basic goodness of humanity, Mencius built a case which he powerfully presented to the leaders of his day, challenging them to rule in accord with their own natural goodness. In ways, his method was to shame the leadership into ruling in accord to goodness by being ashamed to do otherwise (Note: Oh what a message for our leaders today!!). Consider the following dialogues which are alleged to have taken place between Mencius and several Kings of his day (references from The Book of Mencius):
“Mencius went to see king Hui of Liang. The king said: ‘Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?’ Mencius replied: ‘Why must your majesty use that word “profit?” What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and uprightness, and these are my only topics” (1A.1)
“King Hsuan of Chi said: “I have a weakness. I love wealth.” Mencius replied, “If your majesty love wealth, let your people enjoy the same, and what difficulty then will there be for you to become true king of the empire?” (1B.5)
“Duke Wen of T’eng asked Mencius about the proper way of governing a kingdom. Mencius said: “The business of the the people should not be delayed. The way of the people is this: If they have a secure livelihood, they will have a secure mind. And if they have no secure livelihood, they will not have a secure mind. And if they have no secure mind, there is nothing they will not do in the way of self-abandonment, moral deflection, depravity, and wild license. When they fall into crime, to pursue and to punish them is to entrap them. How can such a thing as entrapping the people be done under the rule of a benevolent man?” (3A.3)
Clearly, Mencius held the rulers of the land accountable to establish a society of provisions and peace. In his mind the people were of primary importance, the land was of secondary importance, and the rulers were only third in terms of significance to society. In fact, it would seem that in his opinion, the rulers were basically a necessary means to a desirable end; that end being a society of peace and harmony. And he most assuredly maintained that such an end was possible only by means of a benevolent and kind government.
Inasmuch as Master Kong (551-479BC) and Mencius (372-289BC) were allowed a certain hearing among the leaders of the land, there is little evidence of any major changes amongst the ruling class of their era. What is abundantly clear to me is that the basic challenges which they issued to the leaders of that time dealt with problems and issues pertinent to any and all societies since.
The influence of the message of the need for a kind and benevolent government was mixed for the ensuing 400-500 years after the death of Mencius. In another post, I shall discuss the radical reactions of the two regimes which ruled a newly unified China during that general time period, and how that such shaped the philosophy of Confucianism from that time even to the present.
“When wealth is equally distributed, there will not be poverty; when there is harmony there will be no problem of too few people, and when there are security and peace (for the people), there will be no danger to the state” (Analects of Confucius 16.1)