I’m interested in hearing what, if anything, people think the crazy stories about the sage king Shun and his awful family are doing in the Mencius. I’m thinking especially about sections 5A/2 and 5A/3, which tell us how Shun responded to his family’s attempts to murder him, but 5A/1, 4A/26, and 7A/35 are also on-topic, and maybe 4A/28 and 5A/4 (and others?) as well.
One reason I bring this up is that I know that Manyul, Steve, and I have very different ideas about this, and maybe others do too. So it should be fun to talk about.
Steve takes these passages to be attempts to show that apparent ethical dilemmas can be resolved. Shun, torn between his duties as emperor and his love for his family, finds a way to satisfy both. Take 7A/35. Mencius is asked what Shun would have done if his father were about to be held for murder. Mencius says he would happily have gone into hiding with his father, abandoning his position as emperor. As Steve reads these passages, the point is that Shun acted correctly both as a son and as an emperor.
Manyul disagrees. Central to his reading of the Mencius is the idea that even an exemplary person will, in certain situations, be overcome by certain emotions and do something wrong. This reading is anti-perfectionist: there is no way to temper these emotions, the best you can do is stay out of the situations where they’ll trigger wrong actions (“the gentleman stays away from the kitchen”). Accordingly, Manyul takes the passages about Shun and his family to be saying that Shun’s love for his family was so strong that it lead him to do things that, as emperor, he should not have done.
Steve and Manyul agree that whoever put these stories in the Mencius did so because the stories suited the philosophical points the author(s) wanted to make. For Steve, the stories present compelling moral dilemmas. For Manyul, they provide examples of how even an exemplary person can do bad things when overcome by emotion. For both, we can even imagine that the author(s) of these passages invented the stories to serve their philosophical arguments.
I’m more cynical, I guess. I think the authors of at least 5A/2 and 5A/3 would much rather not have dealt with these stories. Shun comes off really badly in them, as far as I’m concerned. The Shun of 5A/2 is particularly odd (he is pleased to see his brother immediately after his brother has helped his parents try to murder him).
I see these passages as reflecting something like the defensiveness we get elsewhere about Mencius’s willingness to accept gifts from brutal rulers (5B/4, for example), the moral alibi he provided for the subjugation of Yan (2B/8, for example), and even the funeral he arranged for his mother (2B/7, for example). These passages make it clear that Mencius’s personal virtue was subject to substantial and perhaps widespread criticism, and that the author(s) of the Mencius felt they had to respond to that criticism somehow.
Take 2B/8 as an example. In Qi, Shen Tong asks Mencius whether Yan should be invaded, and he says it should. The text insists that Shen wasn’t acting in an official capacity, but of course it only does that because it’s obvious that Mencius’s answer will be passed on. Indeed, Qi invades Yan and the invasion is a brutal mess. Questioned about this, Mencius insists that he only said that Yan should be invaded, he didn’t say anything about who should do the invading. (Imagine—of course I mean remember—someone in early 2003 saying that Iraq should be invaded, and then after the fact complaining that George Bush hadn’t been the one to do it.)
2B/8 isn’t in the Mencius because of any philosophical point it makes. Even the passages where the Mencius uses the invasion of Yan to present the Mencian fantasy of a true king (whose armies are welcomed with rice and wine wherever they invade) aren’t there just to present that view (1B/11). Mencius’s involvement in the invasion of Yan left him with an image problem, and these passages are attempts to address that problem. Mencius still comes off as a coward and a liar, but I guess that’s better than leaving the criticisms unanswered.
My suggestion is that the stories about Shun’s awful family, or at least 5A/2–3, are there for the same sort of reason. There was a mythology surrounding Shun, and that mythology was not under the control of pious moralists such as the authors of the Mencius. As a consequence, elements creeped into the mythology that would make pious moralists extremely nervous—elements such as Shun’s predilection for putting up with murderers in his family.
I suggest that these passages are, in part, attempts to come to terms with that mythology. Agreeing with Steve, I think that the passages do try to show Shun responding virtuously to the quandaries his awful family put him in. Agreeing with Manyul, I don’t think they actually do portray him as responding virtuously. But disagreeing with both, I don’t think their primary purpose was to make a philosophical point. Rather, I think they were written to address an image problem.
I admit I don’t have any very concrete reasons for thinking that my take on this is right, except that it fits a pattern of defensiveness and I don’t think Shun comes off very well in these stories. Which is part of why I’m wondering what others think.