Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Ability and cultivation in Mencius 2A/6


This is part of an argument I’ve been developing for an embarrassingly long time. I gave it most recently at the APA in Boston last week. I’m focusing here on a point in my talk that Steve Angle took issue with in his comments.

Section 2A/6 of the Mencius famously tells us that anyone, or at any rate any person, would feel alarm and compassion at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well, and that this reaction amounts to a heart of compassion that we can “expand and fill out,” thereby becoming benevolent. One way to read this is as a call for self-cultivation: it’s saying, more or less, that each person can become benevolent by cultivating his or her heart of compassion so that gradually, over time, it develops into full benevolence. You may recognise this sort of reading, since it’s ubiquitous in the English-language Mencius scholarship. It’s also wrong.

The passage begins by telling us that we all have hearts that do not tolerate people suffering, that the former kings ruled using these hearts to practise government that does not tolerate people suffering, and that if we do so it will be easy to govern the whole world. And the passage concludes, in part, by saying that given our hearts of compassion–and our hearts of shame, deference, and judgment, which the passage also mentions–it is a form of abuse to say of anyone that he or she is unable.

Now, this is all about ability, and what it is saying is that we already have the ability because we already have the four hearts. The ability that’s at issue here is the ability to be virtuous, or, to be precise, the ability to rule virtuously over the whole world. But if we already have that ability, then what remains to be cultivated? Don’t we just have to exercise the ability?

That really is the key issue. Mencius 2A/6 is framed as an argument about the ability to be virtuous in government. It claims that we already have that ability. In fact it does not mention anything we need for virtue that it does not claim we already have. It therefore isn’t calling for any gradual process of moral cultivation. (The almost-parallel passage in Mencius 6A/6 actually goes further, saying that we already have the virtues within us.)

Admittedly, cultivationist readings have an easy time with the passage’s claims that the four hearts are the starting-points (duan) of the virtues and that we must expand them and fill them out: these are easily construed as expressions of a theory of moral self-cultivation. But let’s instead take seriously the way the passage’s arguments are framed, and try to make sense of the idea that the ability to be benevolent (say) is a starting-point of benevolence, and that exercising that ability (without developing it) is a way of expanding it and filling it out.

Here’s one way it could work. The passage describes the compassion we would feel at the sight of an infant about to fall into a well as the heart of compassion. But next it says that all of us have such a heart—when obviously we are not all feeling compassion at any given time. It’s as if we have compassion within us in some unfelt form at all times, and then it emerges on particular occasions, and that’s when we actually feel compassion. We are then benevolent to the extent to which our compassion emerges when appropriate.

Of course the problem with most of us is that we do not let this compassion emerge often enough. That’s why the compassion within us is just a starting point, and why we have to expand it and fill it out. But in doing so, we need not be changing the compassion within us, rather we are letting it out more. This is how we exercise our ability to be good, and why exercising this ability might reasonably be described as expanding and filling out our heart of compassion.

A great deal has been made of a purported plant analogy in this passage, for supposedly the word “duan” means sprout here. There’s really no reason to think this is true: “duan” doesn’t mean that anywhere else, there’s no other plant imagery in the passage, and the passage does not present the sorts of views that the Mencius elsewhere seems to associate with plant imagery.

But the analogies that the passage unquestionably contains are instructive. If we expand and fill out our hearts, we are told, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring beginning to flow. In both cases we seem to have something that remains homogeneous as it expands: it itself is not improved or cultivated, what changes is where it goes. And where it goes is determined not by its own character, but by the local distribution of fuel or the shape of the local landscape. The passage, I think, is saying something similar about our four hearts. And I think that means the passage isn’t saying that we need to cultivate those hearts, we’ve just got to give them somewhere to go, and when we do that, they’ll just go there. This is what it means to exercise the ability to be good that our hearts give us.


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