What's Wrong With Those Pesky "Village Worthies"?

I’ve started work on a paper that asks how issues like continence and conscientiousness look when viewed through the lens of early Confucianism. These seems like a good idea in part because of the great range of ways in which such issues are treated in recent virtue ethics/virtue theory literature: some take it for granted that conscientiousness is a virtue, and perhaps even a central one (e.g., Adams, Wallace), while others insist that it is not a virtue at all, while disagreeing about what value it may have (e.g., Slote, Roberts). How do Confucians carve up the terrain? What attitudes, states, dispositions, and so on do they recognize that might do similar work to conscientiousness and related ideas?

These are big questions that I don’t propose to seriously address in this post, though maybe I’ll go there in subsequent efforts. (I’m new to this whole blog-posting thing. One step at a time.) For today, I want to focus on the infamous “village worthies (xiang yuan 鄉愿)” who are described briefly in Analects 17:13 as “thieves of virtue” and discussed at somewhat more length in Mengzi 7B37. My questions are: what’s wrong with them, and do the two texts view them in precisely the same way?

In the Analects, I believe there is a thematic concern with hypocrisy that one can find throughout the text. And a passage adjacent to 17:13 draws an analogy between “assuming a severe expression while being weak inside” and breaking into a home and committing burglary. This suggests to me that the village worthies are thieves of virtue in the sense that their “worthy” exterior is stolen or at least unmerited. They appear good but are really not. They are hypocrites.

Contrast this with Mengzi’s discussion. He says that they have no aspiration to improve themselves; they say, “Born in this era, we should be for this era. To be good is enough 善斯可矣.” Mencius remarks that:

If you try to condemn them, there is nothing you can point to…. They are in agreement with current customs; they are in harmony with the sordid era in which they live. They seem to dwell in devotion and faithfulness (zhong xin); their actions seem to be blameless and pure. The multitude delight in them; they regard themselves as right (自以為是). But you cannot enter into the Way of Yao and Shun with them. [translation from Van Norden, 195]

Mengzi’s use of the word “seem” suggests that his concern may be that village worthies exhibit mere semblances of virtue: a seemingly good exterior is unearned because it masks inner weakness. And yet Mengzi’s worry here seems to me to be subtly different from that in the Analects. It is not so much that village worthies (as he understands them) hide their inner weakness, as that they are celebrated for doing their quite minimal duties and no more. The problem with village worthies is that they thrive in and actively encourage a culture of doing no more than one’s duty, and they do this at a time when the collectively understood duties are too minimal to lead to genuine moral progress for individuals or for the society. In short, rather than calling Mengzi’s “village worthies” hypocritical, we should simply see them as conscientious; and Mengzi found such conscientiousness deeply troubling.

What do you think? Am I making up a difference where one does not exist?

51 replies on “What's Wrong With Those Pesky "Village Worthies"?”

  1. For those who’d like to see the Mencius passage in Chinese — and in (Legge’s) translation, I’ve cut and pasted the relevant segment from Donald Sturgeon’s Chinese Text Project:


    Mencius replied, ‘They are those who say, “Why are they so magniloquent? Their words have not respect to their actions and their actions have not respect to their words, but they say, “The ancients! The ancients! Why do they act so peculiarly, and are so cold and distant? Born in this age, we should be of this age, to be good is all that is needed.” Eunuch-like, flattering their generation – such are your good careful men of the villages.’

    Wan Zhang said, ‘Their whole village styles those men good and careful. In all their conduct they are so. How was it that Confucius considered them the thieves of virtue?’

    Mencius replied, ‘If you would blame them, you find nothing to allege. If you would criticise them, you have nothing to criticise. They agree with the current customs. They consent with an impure age. Their principles have a semblance of right-heartedness and truth. Their conduct has a semblance of disinterestedness and purity. All men are pleased with them, and they think themselves right, so that it is impossible to proceed with them to the principles of Yao and Shun. On this account they are called “The thieves of virtue.” Confucius said, “I hate a semblance which is not the reality. I hate the darnel, lest it be confounded with the corn. I hate glib-tonguedness, lest it be confounded with righteousness. I hate sharpness of tongue, lest it be confounded with sincerity. I hate the music of Chang, lest it be confounded with the true music. I hate the reddish blue, lest it be confounded with vermilion. I hate your good careful men of the villages, lest they be confounded with the truly virtuous.” The superior man seeks simply to bring back the unchanging standard, and, that being correct, the masses are roused to virtue. When they are so aroused, forthwith perversities and glossed wickedness disappear.’


    (In response to an emailed question from a reader: “They seem to dwell in devotion and faithfulness” is a translation of: 居之似忠信. “Seem” throughout is si 似)

  2. Hi Steve
    your reading of the Mencius seems to me right, and I think this way of thinking about “village worthies” is also in the Analects. It seems to me that being hypocritical is ONE way of being a “village worthy” in the Analects, and another way is to “do just enough and no more”, in the sense you suggest in the Mencius. For example, there’s Analects 2.7, which I think may help to illuminate the passage from Mencius you mention:

    今之孝者,是謂能養。至於犬馬,皆能有養;不敬,何以別乎? “Filiality” today seems to be just providing for (one’s parents). We can do this much for dogs and horses. Without respect, what is the difference? [modified from Ames/Rosemont]

    Here, it seems to be that Confucius is complaining just that people do not go beyond their minimal duties, as in the Mencius passage you mention. Such people who merely provide for their parents without respect are not being hypocritical, they’re just not doing enough. Of course, we could say that Confucius thinks that such people are not even meeting minimal requirements concerning filial duties–but I think part of the force of this passage is that these people ARE seen to be meeting their filial duties by the standards of society. This is the import of the 今之孝者,是謂能養. A person who provides for parents without respect is doing the minimal and no more, and Analects 2.7 seems to suggest that we should take a broader view about what is necessary to adequately perform filial duties. This could suggest that both Confucius and Mencius are arguing that the social norms connected with concepts like filiality be changed or expanded.

    Of course, Analects 2.7 doesn’t have any obvious connection to the “village worthy” passage 17.13. But it does, I think, at least show that something like the view of Mencius (on your interpretation, which I agree with) is in the Analects as well. Perhaps, although we can’t be sure about this, Confucius took the “village worthy” to be one who is a hypocrite OR who does “just enough”, OR… etc. –maybe he’s a pluralist about village worthiness… 🙂 It does seem to me that the “filial” son who does nothing more than provide for his parents would match up with the kind of person Confucius seems to be talking about in Analects 17.12 and 17.13, though. And it also seems to match up with the 自以為是 in Mencius 7B37–such a person would think of himself as virtuous, a completely filial son, because his actions meet the minimal standards of society.

    Very interesting topic– I’d love to see the paper on this when you’re done!

  3. Just a quick point: note that Legge actually seems to have the reading of Mencius you are suggesting, Steve, but snuck in through his translation of xiang yuan 鄉愿 as “good careful men of the villages.” On the other hand, Legge’s translation of Analects 17.13 also sneaks that in: “The Master said, ‘Your good, careful people of the villages are the thieves of virtue.'” Maybe Legge thinks the problem indicated is the same in both passages…

  4. Thanks, Manyul and Alexus. One thought regarding your comment, Alexus, is that it might be that the Analects recognizes both of these types of problems, but labels them differently. In 17:13 we have de zhi zei 德之賊 (thief of virtue), whereas the very next passage, 17:14, reads:

    Slingerland: The Master said, “To hear something on the road, and then repeat it everywhere you go, is to throw Virtue away.”
    Legge: The Master said, “To tell, as we go along, what we have heard on the way, is to cast away our virtue.”

    This abandoning of virtue (德之棄) strikes me as in keeping with sticking — perhaps without dissembling, so no hypocrisy — to too low a standard. One throws away one’s chance of true virtue.

  5. For some reason the topic made me look back at Russell’s essay “Nice People.” Also conscientiousness of a sort, but not really the same sort.

  6. Hi Steve et al,

    Great discussion so far. What’s puzzling me is a point I’m not sure you meant to raise: Why should we associate the “village worthies” with conscientiousness?

    You’ve probably defined what you mean by “conscientious” somewhere, but Google isn’t showing me. I take it to mean being careful to do the right thing by one’s lights – morally right or (by analogy) professionally right, etc. Thus in moral contexts the term suggests both carefulness and a concern for the moral as such.

    I don’t know how to read the term “yuan” (“worthy”) in the phrase translated as “village worthy.” But offhand it seems to me possible that the typical “village worthy” is someone who, having adequate resources and a supportive family, but no chance to take over the state, faces no significant temptation to go far astray; and who therefore might act well by village standards without being particularly careful or concerned with what’s moral as such (except in moments of self-congratulation). One might think of someone who, having grown up in a large friendly family, is in the habit of speaking her mind without hesitation, never developing much in the way of concealed motives or unconventional aims or tastes. That sort of character might lead to decent conventional behavior so long as there are always people around, even if the person never has a thought or a care about morality.

    Dan, is that what Russell is talking about?

    Offhand it seems to me possible, too, that what bothered Confucius about the “village worthies” was not any particular way in which they fell short of greatness, but simply that they were less than great people who, being better than anyone else in the village, were held up as models, regarded as “good” or “virtuous,” etc., thus arguably corrupting language and standards. (Might such a concern arise newly in Confucius’ time because of the relatively new phenomenon of scholar-nobles living civilian lives?) This reading is supported by Mencius’ extended version of Analects 17.13, in which Confucius’ complaint about the village worthies is laid parallel to his complaint about purple. Against this reading is the fact that Confucius seems to be criticizing the worthies rather than their neighbors. But that point doesn’t seem to me conclusive. He might similarly have called purple “the enemy of red.”

    I wonder whether your thought, Steve, is something like this: (1) The VWs live up to some low standard that one can meet perfectly. (2) In morality, the low standard one can meet perfectly is duty, which is made of rigid rules (as distinct from the aspiration of Yao and Shun). Therefore (3) the VWs’ standard is duty and is made of rigid rules. But (4) one can’t live up to rigid rules without doing so deliberately. (5) Therefore the VWs are conscientious.

    Objection that argument: If the kind of rules we’re talking about are not very demanding, then (4) may be false; or at least not saliently true. Well, we could break that objection into two. (A) Basic moral rules (don’t kill, don’t steal) are not very demanding. (B) While conventional rules (e.g. for funerals) may be demanding, and thus require a kind of conscientiousness, the conscientiousness they require isn’t moral. It’s analogous to moral conscientiousness, in being careful adherence to some standards.

  7. A quick note on 今之孝者,是謂能養。至於犬馬,皆能有養;不敬,何以別乎? that adds to what Alexus said. Yes, KZ is complaining that people do not go beyond their minimal duties but are nonetheless seen to be meeting their filial duties by the standards of society. But I think a more specific complaint can also be found. The complaint is that “as for what is called (wei) filiality nowadays…”

    In other words, it’s not just that “people nowadays” (PN) do F- where F- is, by KZ’s lights (in light of the ancient standard, let’s say) less than filiality (F), but that they also call X “filiality” (“F”). [Watch my notations because I’m going to be lazy and use them below.]

    Now, one way to talk about this is to say that PN don’t have the same concept of F as KZ; but I think that strictly speaking, it’s that KZ and PN are not even talking about the same concept referring to the same set of phenomenon even though they use the same word (“F”). And it’s that last bit that KZ is *also* complaining about in 2.7 (as opposed to the fact that PN fails to live up to F).

    The question now arises: why doesn’t PN just go ahead and call F- by a different name, say, “F-“?

    This is where I think something in the range of hypocrisy may be in play. PN would rather only have to do X (rather than meet the full demands of F). But the name or reputation of doing F rather than just F- is still widely held to be morally worthy. Perhaps PN themselves in their heart of hearts thought higher of F than F- too. It thus makes sense for them to prefer the name “F” even though they are really only talking about F-.

    In other words: Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. It’s a tribute worth paying only if virtue–or at least the reputation of virtue–pays. As long as the memory of the ancients continue to gold, a hypocritical age will find it convenient to articulate their less demanding moral standards using the language associated with the more demanding set of standards.

    (Disclosure: I’ve been working on a paper on the topic; the study will continue from where my paper on LY 13.3 in MS/David Jones ed. left off, and was partly presented at SACP ’09.)

  8. Hey Steve; I’m starting to think the problem isn’t primarily conscientiousness (as opposed to non-ruminative virtuosity? a kind of effortless moral responsiveness?) with the village worthies. Nor is it that they engage in a non-demanding, low-level “conventional” goodness. (By the way, those two aren’t necessarily compatible; it may be just as demanding to require conscientious effort of someone who has not achieved virtuosity as it is to require virtuosity of response — I think.)

    I think the real issue in Mencius’s rendering of Confucius is that the worthies are too morally “self-focused.” To be concerned about one’s own goodness shouldn’t, on Confucius’s view, be confused for virtue (恐其亂德也). The explanatory remark at the end of the passage (君子反經而已矣。經正,則庶民興;庶民興,斯無邪慝矣) suggests that being a “worthy” though in a certain way blameless, is limited because it is not other-focused — it is not focused on the transformative effect one should have on others. That would be true virtuosity (德), which is in keeping with the latter’s connotation of moral sway or influence, as opposed merely to something like “being morally virtuous,” a more Western notion. To put a Mahayana Buddhist spin on it, the worthies are like arahat who shouldn’t be confused with the bodhisattva.

  9. Steve (et al.),

    A couple of points, which overlap in some respects with Alexus’s and Bill’s comments.

    Like Bill, I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “conscientiousness.” As I use the word, I’d say the Analects/Mencius complaint about the xiāng yuàn 鄉愿 is that they are not conscientious.

    But fundamentally I’m not convinced that these passages have much relevance to the issues of moral continence or conscientiousness. My take on them seems rather different from yours. I don’t think their main emphasis concerns people faking the virtues or outwardly appearing to be virtuous while inwardly lacking the “stuff” of virtue.

    Bilingual dictionaries tell us that in modern Chinese, a xiāng yuàn (“honest person of the townships”) is supposedly a hypocrite or poseur. But I doubt that interpretation is justified for the Analects and Mencius. Indeed, I doubt it’s justified even for modern Chinese. It seems to me that a hypocrite is someone who intentionally and knowingly puts on a show of virtue, but then fails to act according to the values he has publicly committed to. I don’t think that’s what the xiāng yuàn are accused of.

    I suspect the phrase connotes something more like an unreflective conformist: someone who just goes along with the prevailing mores of his/her social group, without really committing, in a principled way, to a particular view of what is right or wrong. I think this is exactly the sort of person described in the passage you quote.

    Such people might end up doing hypocritical things. But they are not intentionally trying to appear good while failing to actually be good. Rather, they’re not really committed to any ideals — not even to the appearance of virtue. Hence, although their actions happen to coincide with virtuous conduct, they are not virtuous.

    So “thieves of virtue” seems to me a potentially misleading translation of 德之賊. The connotation of 賊 is quite broad, as reflected in modern Chinese glosses such as 賊害 or 賊亂. I don’t think the implication is that these people are “stealing” virtue, but that they are committing crimes against it. They are criminals or vandals against virtue, because they support and promulgate the prevailing view among the common people throughout the land that conformity to today’s everyday norms of social conduct is “enough.” They ignore, reject, or can’t be bothered with the higher standard of virtue represented by the dao of Yao and Shun. Thus they create disorder (亂) concerning just what virtue is. They don’t seek to return to the basic, unchanging guidelines (經).

    I can see some justification for this attack on the “honest people of the townships,” but I suspect that on the whole it’s unfair. So for the sake of discussion, let’s turn the tables and consider the issues from the townspeople’s standpoint. Might the townspeople’s criticism of the Ruists (the first paragraph in Manyul’s comment #1 above) be warranted? I think one could mount a very good argument that it might be, and that Mencius is out to lunch on this one.

    (Postscript: Loy’s, Manyul’s, and this comment were all posted concurrently, so I hadn’t read theirs while writing mine.)

  10. Hi All,
    Interesting Discussions! I’m new here, and I do no specialize in Chinese philosophy, so please let me know if I make any mistake.
    Response to Steve’s post:
    1. As to the Analects,I find no special connection between 17.12 and 17.13. In particular, I do not think the main problem of the village worthy locates in his “hiding his weekness” or “hypocrisy”, at least not in the ordinary sense of “hypocrisy”. By this I mean, roughly, people who 1) has values different from what is commonly accepted; 2)intentionally predends and appears to be have the commonly accepted values, for attain ; 3) thus, lacks intergity, and sometimes (perhaps not in all cases) is blameful for manipulating others perceptions and emotions.
    A much more relevant passage is 13.24
    Zi Gong asked, saying, “What do you say of a man who is loved by all the people of his neighborhood?” The Master replied, “We may not for that accord our approval of him.” “And what do you say of him who is hated by all the people of his neighborhood?” The Master said, “We may not for that conclude that he is bad. It is better than either of these cases that the good in the neighborhood love him, and the bad hate him.”

    The problem of 鄉原 is not that, he is wicked inside but hides it: he may not be ill intended, he does not want try to manipulate others for his own aim, which, if revealed, will be unacceptable for the society; on the contrary,he may really endorse and want to have the virtue that others value. The problem, as I see it, is that his concern is others’ approval only: he does not have independent conception of morality in himself; he does not lack intergity in the previous sense, because he lacks conception of value of morality of his own is, in a sense, not autonomous, for all he wants to do is what would be approved by others. This is a vice that Kongzi critisize in 14.24: 古之學者為己,今之學者為人 ( In ancient times, men learned with a view to their own improvement. Nowadays, men learn with a view to the approbation of others)

    2. In a different sense, perhaps, we can say the 鄉原 is hypocrite and hides himself: he may hide his original intention to please and get approved others, if he thinks others would not approve those who have these intentions.

    (Therefore, Steve, our disgreement on the relevant passages in Analects is largely terminological–but maybe not, for your view is not quite elaborated. My contension is only that we should be careful about what distinguishes 鄉原 from other, perhaps typical, kinds of hypocrisy.)

    3. This point is also taken up by Mengzi, in the previous quotes, for instance,眾皆悅之,自以為是(All men are pleased with them, and they think themselves right.)
    I find nothing makes me to think 鄉原 is someone who is not good enough, who “thrive in and actively encourage a culture of doing no more than one’s duty, and they do this at a time when the collectively understood duties are too minimal to lead to genuine moral progress for individuals or for the society.” For me, the views on 鄉原 is coherent in both Analects and Mengzi. It seems to me that the passage on filiality in irrelevant.
    Therefore, I second Bill in questioning the linkage between 鄉原 and conscientiousness. At least, the Confucian worry about 鄉原 is not that they are conscientious.

    4. But what’s problematic about 鄉原? They are not just less virtuous people, but also, according to Kongzi and
    Mengzi, the thief of De. I think the reason lies in that, the Confucians are concerned about objective standards of virtue, or the Way, and thus they would distinguish what the Way is,or the appearance of virtue, and what ordinary people thinks they are, or the apperance of virtue. The 鄉原 steals the name of De, blurrs the distinction, and thus undermines what is essential about De itself, it objectiveness.

  11. A lot of terrific issues have been raised; thanks to all, because this is really helpful. Bill (Hi, Bill!) has suggested a gloss on conscientious that’s pretty close to what I had in mind; as he put it, “being careful to do the right thing by one’s lights.” It suggests both a concern with a (typically externally determined) standard and making an effort to abide by that standard. If the effort is made against contrary inclinations of some kind, then I’d additionally call it continence. It seems to me that in Analects, Mengzi, and Xunzi, one sees roughly the same view of conscientiousness and/or continence: it is useful as a step for learners but also problematic and even dangerous. I’m ignoring many distinctions here, one of which I was exploring in the original post. But note that a potential problem for conscientiousness is that one might get the standard to which one holds oneself wrong.

    One thing the discussion has pointed out is the question of whether the xiang yuan really should be seen as scrupulously adhering to a standard. I still feel that they should, but I’ll need to think more about that. To Manyul (and to some degree Bill), don’t read morally into what I’ve said: that’s your word, not mine. Virtuousity for the early Confucians was certainly broader than typical views of “morality” would have it.

    Chris brings up several big issues in #9 – more than I can respond to right now. But the Mengzi passage has several elements that suggest something different from an “unreflective conformist,” including “they regard themselves as right (自以為是).” As for whether there’s a tension between inner and outer, I’m not sure there is in the MC passage, but remember that LY 17:13 comes right after LY 17:12:

    [Legge:] The Master said, “He who puts on an appearance of stern firmness, while inwardly he is weak, is like one of the small, mean people – yea, is he not like the thief who breaks through, or climbs over, a wall?”

    I’m sure there’s much more to be said, but that’s all for tonight!

  12. Hi Steve,

    I don’t think “they take themselves to be right” (自以為是) establishes that their main flaw isn’t a sort of conformism (conformists think they’re right, too). You’re right that 17:12 describes a lack of integrity or a gap between inner and outer. But I agree with “Johnny” that there’s no particular reason to read 17:13 in light of 17:12. I think the main flaws Mencius associates with them are (slavish? pandering?) conformity to prevailing mores (閹然媚於世…同乎流俗,合乎汙世…眾皆悅之) and failure to appreciate and commit to the dao of the sage-kings. In this regard, Johnny’s comment seems to help cast light on the role of the “honest townspeople.”

  13. Hi everyone,

    Very interesting discussion. You have all made some good points. The only thing I’m going to mention is something which probably supports Chris Fraser’s view. The Junzi “return to the Jing” (君子反經), or follow the Way of Yao and Shun (堯舜之道) whereas the ‘village worthies’ “are in agreement with current customs and are in harmony with the sordid era in which they live” (同乎流俗,合乎汙世).
    ~ Scott (Bao Pu)

  14. I agree with Chris and Scott here. The kind of person who uncritically follows the norms of society can 自以為是-one of the things I tried to draw out in my comments above is that Analects 2.17 suggests that most people who take themselves to be “filial” in Confucius’ day are doing just that–following the popular notion that providing for one’s parents is enough, and so even without the respect Confucius thinks a son ought to have for his father, for example, the son still 自以為是, because he’s met social expectations, is praised for his virtue perhaps, etc. It seems like the problem 2.17 is trying to point out is that the dominant social norms are inadequate, and they’re *producing* people like the “filial” son who merely provides for his father. I hate to seem like I’m connecting everything back to the issue of 正名, but it just occurred to me that this might be such an issue.

  15. More good stuff. Let me review.

    Everyone agrees that the “worthies” in MC are conformists. There are two main points at issue: (1) What kind of conformism? Is it such that it can be characterized as conscientious, in the sense I’m using that term? (2) Is there a difference between the view of “worthies” in LY and MC?

    Apropos (1), Chris wrote:

    “I suspect the phrase [xiang yuan] connotes something more like an unreflective conformist: someone who just goes along with the prevailing mores of his/her social group, without really committing, in a principled way, to a particular view of what is right or wrong.”

    In response to this, I reiterated that these people “take themselves to be right” (自以為是).” My point was not to deny that they are conformists, but to suggest that their conformism is conscious: they consciously hold themselves to what they take to be the right standards, rather than being mindless conformists. Now I this may be somewhat less than the “principled commitment” to which Chris refers, but I think it’s still enough to say that they are consciously holding themselves to a standard.

    On (2), I have definitely benefitted from the discussion of “hypocrisy” offered by Alexus, Hui-chieh, Johnny, and others. It is certainly true that one can find a concern with low standards in LY. The question is whether LY 17:13 has to be read as expressing that concern. In this context, I’m not sure that MC 7B37’s interpretation is telling. I would rather look for evidence in LY itself. A couple of you have said that there’s no reason to read 17:13 in light of 17:12, but surely it’s not a stretch to do so? Whatever exactly our theories might be of the LY as text, the fact that the two passages are adjacent to one another is relevant. Also keep in mind 17:14, discussed above, which might be explicitly making the “conformist” point, in distinction to the 17:12/17:13 pair?

    At any rate, This all continues to be very helpful — I see why folks go in for this blogging thing :-). Keep ’em coming.

  16. 1. When we’re reading the Analects we’re looking at Kongzi’s views but also at the compilers’ views, in some unknown proportion. I think juxtapositions of passages do tend to show something about the latter, and I think the latter are themselves some slight evidence about the former. Steve, your reading of 17.14 is intriguing. (Cf. 11.22.) Still, I don’t think we have much evidence about what Kongzi might have meant, or even whether “xiang yuan” meant the same thing in his mouth as in Mengzi’s.

    2. I’ve been assuming that the phrase “xiang yuan” tends to suggest one of the village’s leading figures, hence someone who is a focus of the village’s attention independently of virtue, and who is also pretty good. Maybe that’s because I encountered the translation “village worthies” first, “good and careful” much later. If instead the term suggests someone who is noticed for pretty-goodness, with no connotation of being a leading figure in any other way, then probably a xiang yuan does have to be conscientious as a matter of fact. But it doesn’t follow that conscientousness is something Kongzi or Mengzi had in mind.

    3. Thanks, Chris (and Scott and Alexus), for pointing to the criticism of the Ruists that Mengzi is answering. The critics charge Ruists with a particular kind of hypocrisy. As a modern conservative might attack pointy-headed intellectuals for irrealism and irrelevance (viz. theory), the critic charges Ruists with focusing on and elaborating a set of proposed conventions that is nowhere near being generally adopted, and that is at least for that reason unsuitable for current times. The Ruists cannot put their ideas into practice, and in that way cannot act on their words. Apparently the Ruists have lost sight of Kongzi’s defense of the ancients (or criticism of his students) in 4.22: “That the ancients didn’t spread [many] maxims is because they were afraid of not living up to them.”

    Mengzi seems to skirt the issue of hypocrisy in his reply. Rather he relies on the power of the names Yao and Shun. He assumes we’re all deep down thirsting for the great way, so that it would really move us if we only paid attention. The debate seems to be about practicality. The xiang yuan may be someone who is good in visible practical ways, good in the real world, while the Ruists can talk only about what they would do if they ran the circus. Thus the underlying issue would really be whether Mengzi is right about human potential. Mengzi says, “The superior man seeks simply to bring back the unchanging standard, and, that being correct, the masses are roused to virtue.”

    So, Steve, I agree that in Mengzi’s view the xiang yuan are conformists in the thin sense that the way they live meets and does not go beyond the current generation’s values (a vague and arguably lofty standard). Maybe we should rectify the term “conformists” to exclude that usage. The issue of conventionalism, or the authority of popular standards as such, is suggested by the rhetoric of the critic of the Ruists. Mengzi’s reply challenges conventionalism in order to answer the critic; but I don’t see that Mengzi attacks the xiang yuan for anything except thinking they are right while falling short of the way of Yao and Shun. Their neighbors make the same mistake about them.

    (Still, I don’t think of Mengzi as a Ru who is specially concerned with dancing untimely ritual, except as a language for defending his own moves in jockeying for authority, toward giving the ruler some of the village virtues.)

    4. Steve, do you see a distinction between duty and aspiration, or rules and virtue, in these passages?

    5. Hui-chieh and Alexus, I wonder if you see in any of the passages under discussion a distinction between having a wrong belief and using a term with the wrong meaning. There does seem to be a general problem with terms like “good” and “filial” insofar as they are partly comparative terms. How good is good depends on what alternatives or foils one has in mind.

    6. Manyul, in your #8 you mention the concluding passage: “The superior man seeks simply to bring back the unchanging standard, and, that being correct, the masses are roused to virtue. When they are so aroused, forthwith perversities and glossed wickedness disappear.” You say it suggests that the superior man is more other-focused than the xiang yuan. I think it suggests the opposite. It reminds me of the Analects passages urging leaders to focus on their own virtue and trust that the masses will follow (e.g. 12.19 on the wind over the grass), rather than attending more directly to what the masses do.

  17. Bill, excellent summary of strings. Apropos Analects 12.19, I don’t see the junzi’s focus on his own virtue there (…子欲善,而民善矣。君子之德風,小人之德草…); you must be thinking of self-cultivation as generally involving self-focus; but is that necessary? One might cultivate benevolence by focusing on others’ needs, for example.

  18. Hi Manyul,

    “Take care of the pence,” goes the saying, “and the pounds will take care of themselves.” Of course, if you heed that saying, in doing so you are to that extent paying attention to the pounds; but your main practical thinking will look to the pence instead. That’s how I read Analects 12.18 too. I’m encouraged by 2.1. Here they are:

    Analects 12.18:
    Ji Kang, distressed about the number of thieves in the state, inquired of Confucius how to do away with them. Confucius said, “If you, sir, were not covetous, although you should reward them to do it, they would not steal.”

    Analects 2.1:
    The Master said, “He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.”

    (Cf. 2.3, 2.21, 13.6; cf. 13.4 and MC 1A1, 6B4.)

    Granted, being virtuous means paying certain kinds of attention at least to the people around one. But the people Mengzi actually mentions in the “concluding passage” we’ve been discussing are the masses, and the attention in question would be a concern for their virtue. Insofar as the passage is contrasting self-concern with concern about “others,” the masses are the “others” meant, and the passage seems to offering a little push away from that concern about “others.” In line with that reading I’d rather translate Mengzi’s “君子反經而已矣” not as “The superior man seeks simply to bring back the unchanging standard,” but as “The superior man returns to the unchanging standard; that’s all.”

    I don’t mean to say that Mengzi is telling us not to be concerned about others at all; I’m saying that insofar as that particular concluding passage is addressing any kind of self-focus versus other-focus, I think it’s favoring the former.

    How about that?

  19. Or rather, what the concluding passage is saying is, “[To be in tune with the many,] you don’t have to worry about following others. Just act rightly, and they’ll follow you.”

    • Bill; you’re right, maybe “other-focus” is too strong. Returning to the Mahayanist take, the bodhisattva transforms others, sometimes simply by being the object of devotion. In our case, the junzi aims higher than the worthy by trying to attain 德, which has a transformational effect on others and in that sense is a more powerful state to be in than merely being blameless. Perhaps in that way the junzi also transcends the mores of a particular place and/or time, but that seems incidental to me. (How do you like the nested comment function? I neglected to enable this in the old blog. Just click Reply rather than jumping to the comment box (for everyone else, too!).)

    • Thanks for your reply, Manyul; and for the nested-comment function, which should help keep things well sorted! I haven’t seen two levels yet, so I’m a little worried about cumulative indenting. Which reminds me of something I found on a self-help web site:

      “There’s a popular saying in business circles that ‘the good is the enemy of the great.’ … Ironically this aphorism turns out to be a mistranslation of a quote by the French philosopher Voltaire, who actually wrote that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good.’…”

  20. Bill H, Alexus

    “5. Hui-chieh and Alexus, I wonder if you see in any of the passages under discussion a distinction between having a wrong belief and using a term with the wrong meaning. There does seem to be a general problem with terms like “good” and “filial” insofar as they are partly comparative terms. How good is good depends on what alternatives or foils one has in mind.”

    I’ll comment on 2.7 quickly (will need t think more about the others). It’s a “yes and no”–it depends on what you mean by “using a term with the wrong meaning”.

    “No”, if by the above question you mean, using a term with a meaning that is not normal, socially accepted linguistic usage, I’m inclined to think that in 2.7, KZ is precisely suggesting that “people nowadays” (PN) are using the term xiao (“F”) consistently to mean the sort of behavior mentioned (F-, rather than F). It is thus entirely possible that they are committing no *linguistic* fault. It is even quite possible that many members of PN have no factually false beliefs associated with their use of the term “F” since they know exactly what they are talking about (F-).

    “Yes”, to the extent that KZ has a preference for a correct (or conservative) usage of the term “F”–that it should mean F. And to the extent that in using the term “F”, (particular) members of PN are attempting to borrow/steal the reputation for F, they are either being hypocritical, self-deceived, or deceiving.

    (Incidentally, I do think that 2.7 is related to the sorts of concerns in the ballpark of zhengming. But if something in the ballpark of zhengming keeps coming up, it might only be because certain sorts of *linguistic* self-representation are a crucial to paradigm cases of hypocrisy.)

    • Interesting distinctions, Hui-chieh! Hm. Here’s another way to put my question: “Do you see in these passages any sign of a recognition of a distinction between “Smith believes that X is a type of F” and “In Smith’s usage it is analytically true (and therefore tautologous or empty) that X is a type of F”? What the two cases have in common is that Smith labels Xs as Fs.

      Suppose the word “filial” were publicly introduced as a convenient abbreviation for this: “acting rightly toward parents.” Kongzi could then disagree with the many about what kind of behavior is in fact filial, and report that disagreement using just the words he used in 2.7, without it ever crossing his mind that he and others might be using the word in different senses. (Cf. the use of wèi謂 in Analects 1.7, 1.11, 1.14, etc.)

      I’m not saying that’s what’s going on. I’m not saying that in 2.7 Kongzi is addressing substance rather than language (nor that he’s addressing language rather than substance). I think he might just not have that distinction in mind. I’m not sure.

    • Bill: That’s great–I see your point better now. Let me rephrase first. Let’s say that PN labels (behavior, attitude, etc.) X as “F”. KZ disagrees; he thinks that X is not enough to count as F. (Let’s say that for KZ, it has to be at least XY.) Options:

      (1) KZ and agree that “F” = “acting rightly towards parents” as a matter of definition. They disagree about what counts as acting rightly towards parents. This would be a moral disagreement over substance.

      (2) KZ and PN disagrees about the *definition* (analytical) of “F”. One says that “F” = “X” (or “acting rightly towards parents by X-ing”), while the other thinks that “F” = “XY” (or “acting rightly towards parents by XY-ing).

      Are (1) and (2) different things? Yes. Would he have appreciated the distinction? Since I do believe that he is a smart cookie, I’ll say, “probably–until proven otherwise”. It’s not that hard a distinction.

      But does KZ has the distinction between them *in mind* in 2.7? That’s tougher. Like you, I’m not sure, especially if by that, we mean to say that he is consciously opting for (1) or (2) *as opposed to the other*. (I suspect that there are locutions he could have naturally employed if he had (1) *as opposed to* (2) in mind, while, in contrast, the reverse may not be the case. But I’m not sure.)

      Perhaps the better (because weaker) question is: Does KZ has either (1) or (2) in mind in 2.7 without thereby saying that he has (1) *as opposed to* (2) and vice versa in mind?

      I don’t think the passage decides this issue conclusively but this it seems rather unlikely that at least some element of (1) is not involved, even if indirectly. (The alternative is to say that KZ and PN are disagreeing *purely* over how the word “F” should be used, which seems rather unlikely.) This suggests that *some( issue of substance as opposed to language is probably involved.

      But is nothing in the range of (2) involved at all? (That is, does KZ also think that at least some members of PN are fooling around with the definition of “F”, whatever other problems they may be having or causing?) I don’t think the passage rules that out–and to that extent, this possibility is behind my earlier “No” answer (in my previous comment). Can I prove that this is in the passage on the basis of 2.7 alone; doubtful I can. (It’s an interpretative hypothesis I am putting forward that I believe will explicate a larger chunk of the Analects’ in a way that allows for zhengming to make sense as an Analects teaching; but that’s another story.)

      But having said all that, a few final points.

      One. I’m very doubtful that xiao just means “acting rightly toward parents (whatever that may be)” in the common usage of KZ’s time (or today). More importantly, I’m doubtful that the line between (1) and (2) is a clear cut one for concepts as thick as xiao.

      Two, can we always tell–even in contemporary ethical and political discussions–whether some disagreement is a case of (1) or (2) (think of fights over the definition of “democracy”, “rule of law”, “liberalism”, etc.)? No, but I’m betting that a lot of disputes that look and perhaps even explicitly formulated as if a matter of (2) are really roundabout cases of (1). But the fact that disputing as if (1) persist suggests something, which leads me to…

      Three, note that which ever way we go, 2.7 does strongly suggest (to me at least) that KZ is not *just* concerned that PN (a) does X instead of XY, or even (b) thinks correctly that X is F, but *also* that they *call* (wei4) X “F”. (In other words, not just “take X as F”, which would be more naturally expressed using a “yi X wei2 F” construction or some such.) And it’s that last point which intrigues me: it seems KZ is irked not just by the *walk*, but apparently, by the *talk*, of PN.

      Anyway, nice one.

    • Thanks for the very clear and thoughtful reply! I prefer your weaker version of the question, and I find your “third” point very plausible (though 13.3 does seem to me uncharacteristic of Kongzi, offhand). And I agree that my hypothetical definition of “filial” is a non-starter in fact.

      My own efforts at defining terms over the years have led me to think that the normal or excellent use of a word is normally not the sort of thing that admits of being described accurately by a definition of the word – a phrase equivalent in sense, giving its “concept.” (Definitions are still useful to pursue, for various reasons.) Thus I’m inclined to think that (1) and (2) above are not the only or the main options in explaining any actual difference in labeling. Nor even (3): “While KZ and PN don’t have any opinions about definitions, still different definitions accurately describe their usage.”

      If it’s not right that word-meanings are not accurately given by definitions, then the analytic-synthetic distinction and the distinction (1) and (2) are a little hard to draw: one has to adopt a somewhat false view of language first.

      A distinction that is not so hard for anyone to draw is between someone’s misusing a word because she mistakes it for another, and someone’s knowing the word but saying wrong things with it. But once we drop any particular explanation of her linguistic error, then I think the distinction between not knowing a word and knowing it but saying wrong things with it is a very tricky and fuzzy distinction.

  21. Steve (et al.),

    We’re trending toward convergence on several points, at least.

    The xiāng yuàn 鄉愿 surely have a conception of right and wrong that guides or underwrites their conduct: they “deem themselves right” (自以為是). So Steve’s correct that they’re not mindless, unthinking conformists. I should have said that, from Mencius’s standpoint, they’re unreflective or uncritical insofar as they don’t see the flaws in the prevailing mores and the need to “return to the basic guidelines” (反經).

    Mencius sees them as “conformist” in that they allegedly pander to or fawn on their own times. But that may indicate little more than that these people are more popular or successful than he is. From our standpoint, some of the xiāng yuàn may have been quite reflective, as it could be that the initial criticism of the 儒 (Confucians) attributed to them stems from sophisticated critical reflection. And they may not really be what we would call conformists at all, as they probably are actually local social (and ethical) leaders.

    My earlier remarks overlooked an important point. Mencius may be using xiāng yuàn in a narrow sense. Going by the semantic content of the phrase, I was glossing xiāng yuàn as “honest townspeople.” But Mencius specifies that they are not simply honest, decent townspeople. Bill was right to suggest that they’re in some sense outstanding figures (Hi Bill, great to see you here!). The text tells us that they are people (a) of impeccable conduct who (b) criticize the for their grandiosity, hypocrisy, peculiar carriage and bearing, and obsession with ancient ways and (c) advocate identifying with one’s own times, rather than ancient ways, and simply being good. So in this passage xiāng yuàn probably indeed refers to “local worthies.”

    What’s wrong with these people, then, from Mencius’s point of view? Bill hits the nail on the head in his comment #16 (point 3). What’s supposedly wrong with them is probably unrelated to conscientiousness or continence or other aspects of moral psychology. It’s their normative stance: as Mencius sees them, these people conform to the prevailing mores of a corrupt era and do not join in pursuing the Ruist vision of the way of Yao and Shun. Thus, as Mencius sees things, they commit a crime against virtue, by causing confusion between their (allegedly) sham virtue and the real virtue that stems from commitment to the Ruist way.

    Yet Mencius himself admits that these are fundamentally decent people whose conduct is faultless. I can’t help suspecting that this passage as a whole is an ugly, defensive expression of frustration and resentment against good, thoughtful people who offered a largely cogent criticism of the — one that apparently stung quite painfully.

    • (Oops, I’d entirely missed the basic point that the xiang yuan here is not just someone approved by the critic of the Ruists, he is that critic. That was a bad misreading. Thanks for correcting it, Chris!)

    • Hi Chris

      Nice summary!
      Maybe we can make some conceptual distinctions, about different types of people who focus on others opinions, to consider your last suspicion, and hopefully it can also shed some light on nature of xiang yuan:

      (A) A does not care about moral good or right, but only his own good, pleasure, or happiness, which he thinks largely consists in being approved and praised by people around, and thus also partly in appear virtous.

      (B) B does care about moral good or right, but he thinks it is radically subjective, in the sense whether something is good or right is essentially determined by what people of the time actually think about morality.

      (C) C does care about moral good or right, but he thinks it is objective. But his conception of objective morality is also context sensitive, in the sense that the actual situation of the world plays an important role in deciding what is good or right of the time.

      Now it seems unlikely that xiāng yuàn is A, because they “deem themselves right” (自以為是). It’s unclear whether xiāng yuàn, as a matter of fact, are B or C, but it is sure that Ruists take them to be B. Whether Mengzi’s defence here works, to some extent, depends on 1) the interpretation of 生斯世也,為斯世也,善斯可矣, and 2) these corresponds to xiāng yuàn ‘s own words or are results of Mengzi’s distortion.
      A complexity: even if we take xiāng yuàn to be C, genuine good people, Ruists could take them to be B, because Ruists are preoccupied by the Way of Yao, Shun….
      (I have the impression that sentences like 善斯可矣 ( to be good is all that is needed) cannot come from someone who takes the objectivity and complexity of morality seriously. So they are more like B, if that’s what they said. Hence Menzi’s contension can be justified.)

    • Pengbo,

      You offer an insightful analysis (but instead of “subjective,” I’d say “contextual”). I agree that much hangs on just how we read the bit about “being good is all that’s needed.” Since the passage itself slanders these people, and since the Mencius book tends to distort its opponents’ positions (cf. how it treats Mozi), we can’t assume this is a reliable report of these people’s view. Shàn 善 (good) need not, and often does not, connote specifically moral goodness. So the view attributed to the “local worthies” might be that we should do whatever the community deems pragmatically good or satisfactory, without regard for moral goodness (仁) or rightness (義). Then I agree that the Mencian criticism of them might be justified. (Much would depend on whether these people’s grounds for that view are shallow or sophisticated, and we probably don’t have enough information to tell.)

      On the other hand, even Mencius admits that these people are honest and trustworthy, and all their neighbors approve of their conduct and call them yuàn 愿 (honest, decent, virtuous). Wan Zhang seems surprised to hear these well-regarded people maligned as “criminals against virtue.” So perhaps they were morally worthy people whose view of ethical decency just happened to diverge from that of the . Probably we don’t have enough information to resolve this historical question with any confidence.

    • Chris: “even Mencius admits that these people are honest and trustworthy, and all their neighbors approve of their conduct and call them yuàn 愿 (honest, decent, virtuous). Wan Zhang seems surprised to hear these well-regarded people maligned as “criminals against virtue.” So perhaps they were morally worthy people whose view of ethical decency just happened to diverge from that of the Rú.”

      Mencius actually doesn’t think they are honest or trustworthy, for he says they reside in what seems like Zhongxin (似忠信) and what seems like honest and pure behaviour (似廉絜). So yes, he has different standards than they do.

      By the way, thanks for glossing yuan 原 as yuan 愿. That makes more sense.

    • Hi Scott: My thought was that in those phrases Mencius is grudgingly admitting that they’re more-or-less honest and trustworthy. But of course, since they won’t or can’t enter the dao of Yao and Shun, they can’t be fully virtuous.

    • I searched for 鄉原 and 鄉愿/願 in Donald Sturgeon’s collection, and found something kind of interesting. The only place either phrase appears outside of the Analects and the MC is in 楊子法言 11.19, which I’m not sure how to translate, though I’ll make a start. Here’s the whole of 11.19:

      Foolish praise injures virtue;
      foolish bad-mouthing injures justice.
      Injuring virtue is near to the village yuan 原;
      Injuring justice is near to the village slanderer (or the village’s slanderee or shamed-one?).

      Here apparently the term “xiang yuan” is supposed to run parallel (and opposite) to “xiang shan”, in which “shan” means to slander.

      It’s a Han Dynasty text, I think.

    • Yes, Han Dynasty text attributed to 揚雄 Yang Xiong. By the Han, the village yuan probably accumulated a bad reputation among the Confucian moralists, no doubt based on blog discussions like this one. Also, for 賊, I’d probably go with “plundering,” or maybe something more sneaky — “pursecutting,” say.

    • Chris,

      I can’t help but come back to that 自以為是 point. It seems to me we’ve got to distinguish between a number of possible kinds of people, and consider which of them can in some sense “believe themselves to be right”, and also which of them should be considered “unreflective conformists.” Certainly there are differing degrees of “unreflectiveness”. We can imagine:

      (1) a person who simply follows the social norms concerning filiality because it’s the way they’ve been raised to act and they’ve never really considered not doing it (like a person raised with a particular religious practice who continues to practice out of habit when they get older).
      (2) a person who has been raised to act in the way described above but who reflects on the reasons for acting in such a manner (even if this doesn’t actually influence their actions).
      (3) a person who is like (2) except that they continue to act as they do based on the reasons for acting in this way-the idea is that if they had come to the conclusion that there were not good reasons for acting in such a way toward there parents they would not do so. This person, we might say, is able to critically reflect on the social norms they’ve been raised with.

      So, there are *at least* these three possibilities, and perhaps more. But it seems to me that each of these people could be said to in some sense 自以為是, although in different senses. Person (1) would, as never seriously questioning his actions or considering reasons for acting in the ways he does, at least claim (and believe) that he was doing the right thing. Of course, we would probably want to say that he would claim and think this because of his failure to adequately reflect on what the right thing to do is in general–we might say that his conception of what is 是 is itself faulty because of his lack of reflectiveness. Still, though–we could not say that this person does not really believe himself to be right.

      We might be inclined to say that Person (3) believes himself to be right, but has a much better conception of “right”, because he understands moral justification, etc. The difficulty here seems to be that all 3 of the people can be said to 自以為是, but they have more or less adequate notions of what it is to be 是 in general. The unreflective person (1) may think being right is nothing more than not being looked down upon, where as the reflective person (3) might think of it in much different terms. The Mencius quote, it seems to me, will only distinguish between these kind of people if we know what sense of 自以為是 Mencius has in mind. Does the person he’s talking about believe himself as right in the robust sense of person (3)? Or in the minimal sense of person (1)? And it’s unclear from the passage that we have any way of ascertaining what Mencius has in mind.

    • Many people, for example (including some I’ve taught) assume that the right way to live is to try to get rich, simply because they’ve never considered any alternatives to this, and have unreflectively followed along in the mainstream belief that “this is just what one does”. They certainly still think that it’s right to do this–and their adherence to such a life shows it. It’s just that they’ve never adequately reflected on what “the right kind of life” is, and whether the life they are leading matches this. It’s a deficiency in knowing what right is (metaethical), or in knowing what makes something right (normative), or both.

    • Hi Alexus

      I think you are addressing more or less the same problem as I do in the previous comment on Chris, about the motivational ground of these people. Your distinctions are quite useful and provocative. I tend to think the sense of (1) is too weak for 鄉原,because
      First, my impression is that the worthies not only follow the common opinions or customs that they are raised with, but also are ready to change their behavior if those opinions change. Because of this disposition, they are more reflective and active than type (1): they keep an eye what current people approve, and tailor his behavior correspondingly. It is said 閹然媚於世也者,是鄉原也. Unlike 同,媚is more about something people intentionally do. (I assume Menzi’s depiction is correct, and they are 德之贼 not simply because they adopt different values from the Ruists)

      Second, I think simply following the custom and claiming they are doing the right thing do not make them as dangerous as德之贼. Their vice should be deeper: for instance, perhaps because they have wrong conception of rightness (the approval of others in the community), and critizes others on this conception. These, according to the Ruist, tend to corrupt the genuine 德, which is supposed to be, in a sense,objective. Only reflective people would possess this deeper conception and compare it to others’ conception.

      So I think 鄉原 fits more into (2) or (3). They have some ideas about what actions are right, and also some idea about what makes them right, and thus also actively pursue it. Perhaps they are unreflective–as you said, on the metaethical level—about what rightness amounts to. Hence they may reflect on a particular customary action, but not on whether others’ approval of certain action is justified—because the approval itself serves as the justification ground for actions.

    • Hi Pengbo-
      you’re right there is a great deal of overlap in our comments! This reply system is throwing me off a bit–I hadn’t seen your previous comment!

      The main difference between our views seems to be on the first kind of person–my “type (1)” and your “type (a)”. I guess tailoring behavior to the opinions of the majority requires some reflectiveness (perhaps minimally), but it’s not clear it requires specifically *moral* reflectiveness. One can simply be good at understanding and conforming to dominant norms–some people seem to do it even unconsciously, from almost brute habit, like “mimicking”.

      If this is the case we might consider the 媚 involved here as a kind of attraction to what other people think, rather than any consideration of morality. This kind of attraction *might* it seems to me be understood in much the same way that I might be attracted to the latest fashions and imitate the dress of those I see on television and in film, even without explicitly reflecting on either why it is I follow these trends, or how it is I understand what is trendy, etc.

      Likewise, one might be attracted to a certain kind of life just due to their desire to “be like the crowd” even without reflecting much (or at all) on this. Such a person (the person of kind (1)) can, it seems to me, believe themselves right, even if they can offer no explanation as to why they’re right (indeed it’s just this that shows how unreflective they are). This often happens for example when people are pressed to give their reasons for prizing a certain kind of life. They seem not to really understand why it is they prize it. The person of types (1) I mention above in this way seems a bit different than the person of type (A) you mention, because it’s not clear that type (1) person is acting as they do out of a desire for pleasure, happiness, etc.–that is, they may not know why it is they act the way they do, and the consciously unaccessed reason is some kind of desire to conform. Nonetheless, in some sense they will 自以為是, if we think of this in a weak enough sense, something like “believe themselves to be in the right, or doing what they ought to.” They may *believe* that acting in a certain way is what they ought to do, even without being able to offer a single reason, simply because they’ve linked normativity to their unreflective desire to conform, for example.

      It may be the case that Mencius has in mind someone like your (B) or (C), but it seems to me he hasn’t ruled out someone like my person (1), who is as unreflective as one possibly can be, but can still be said to believe themselves right.

      In fact, it seems to me like our society, for example, is littered with type (1) people who still “believe they are right”. We’ve got lots of people ready to go to bat for why a certain way of living or act is right or wrong without being able to articulate reasons for this belief. In many of these cases, the reasons for belief may actually be emotional, or due to desire for happiness, self-promotion, etc., but these are not always (maybe even not often) consciously accessed, or are actively suppressed (because of cognitive dissonance–“I am not a selfish person” for example conflicts with “I think x is right because it helps me”).

      I guess the main dispute is over how much reflection is necessary to “believe oneself right.” It seems to me that the content of one’s belief “that one is right” requires less the less reflective one is, and this makes it the case that one who is minimally reflective can still have such a belief. With a more robust conception of what is right and what makes something right, more reflection will be necessary to support such a belief that one is right (even though one may still irrationally have such a belief). But with a minimal conception of right which may include nothing more than “what I should do”, wholly unreflective people will often have such a belief. “Living in way x is the way I should live. Why? Because it is.” (Sadly I sometimes see people apparently just this unreflective)

      Of course, I agree with you that Mencius (and the authors of the Analects) may not have had this kind of person in mind when discussing the 鄉原. But for all they say, it seems they give us no way to distinguish between this (type 1) person and the others. Type 1 persons seem to qualify.

      This is an excellent discussion, by the way–I haven’t thought about these issues in the Analects and Mencius in a while!

    • Alexus: I agree that the question is to what extent their attitude of “deeming themselves right” (自以為是) reflects some fairly reflective or critical commitment to a conception of shì (right) or dào. I think Mencius’s main complaint is that it doesn’t represent any. Steve suggested that we read 自以為是 as indicating some degree of reflectiveness; I tried to develop that idea a bit in #21. But another possibility is that 自以為是 here means roughly what it does in modern Chinese, where it’s used of people who complacently, arrogantly, and perhaps uncritically assume they’re always right.

    • Hi Alexus
      Great discussion!
      I agree that your type (1) can qualify as 媚于世者. Still, it seems that our disagreement mainly lies in the degree of (moral) reflectivity or (moral) concern: I tend to think the worthies have more, while you think the lesser ones cannot be rule out. ( Correct me if I am mistaken here).

      The issue is subtle. The reason I think it should be more, imagine someone who has no conception of and thus no concern for morality or virtue at all, for instance, a child who simply wants to be embraced and praised by the whole community. He wants to please others, and is ready to change his actions with others attitudes, simply for joy, or that’s the only way of life he can think of. He will, of course, regard his deeds as right. But whether he is virtuous, or judged to be virtuous, is by no means his concern. But would this poor child be regarded as village worthy, who corrupts objective morality? My intuition is that, there should be some degree of moral concern, but maybe not strong as either that of (B) or (C) in my previous post. The worthies need not consciously do things because of their moral rightness, but they may nevertheless regard what they have done is morally right or virtuous, or at least judged by other as “virtuous”, and because of this quality (being “virtuous”), they are approved by others. Therefore, they are, to some degree, satisfied in being virtuous man (as he understands), and because they cares about what others think, they are also concerned about their being so. This degree of concern is less than what I proposed in (B) and (C), but maybe more that what you have in mind when you proposed (1).

    • BTW, I think the claim 生斯世也,為斯世也,善斯可矣, and their ciritisms of others’ stick to the ancient way, may (but may be not, as Chris notes, for we don’t really know enough about what these people thought besides those attributed to them by the Ruists) suggest they have some degree of conscious metaethical conceptions on what rightness is, and is not, about. So besides saying, in your words, “Living in way x is the way I should live. they can add that ” Why? Because the right way, the way one should live is determined by the situation of his world.”

    • Pengbo: Yes, and it’s important that the claim that we should act “for this era” is proposed specifically in contrast to what they see as an inappropriate Ruist focus on “the ancients.” Their position may be that it’s irrelevant whether one’s conduct conforms to the ancient ways of Yao and Shun. What’s important is that one is good.

      One way of reading the passage is to credit Mencius with appealing to universal moral standards established by the sage-kings of old, in contrast to the “worthies,” who fail to see beyond the parochial mores of their time. But we can also read it the opposite way. Perhaps the “worthies” offer a universalistic conception of how one should act in any era, while the Ru have a puzzling, parochial attachment to the ways of “the ancients.”

  22. Here are some small considerations in favor of reading “xiang yuan” not as “good and respectable village elders” but simply as “ordinary decent townspeople.”

    Mengzi has been discussing Kongzi’s remark that he sought students who were (too) bold or cautious, because he couldn’t find people in the middle of the road (or people who hit the target of the way: zhong dao 中道). It’s a remark that demands discussion if Kongzi means “middle”. Wan Zhang asks about the bold and about the cautious, and then the conversation turns to the xiang yuan. The MC text seems to have lost some bits, but apparently Wan Zhang has asked, (A) “Aren’t there plenty of ordinary decent people in the middle?” or (B) “What about good and respected village leaders?” (Perhaps he even used the term “xiang yuan” in his question.)

    Question (A) seems more apposite to the discussion of choosing apprentices. When thinking of potential apprentices, I suppose one would not think first of established village leaders, who are already well-established in life and probably not young.

    The fact that Wan Zhang and Mengzi are discussing the xiang yuan specifically as potential apprentices helps explain what I find otherwise weird: that Mengzi begins his description of them by imitating them complaining about Ruists.

    Chris & Scott, perhaps the reason one can’t find anything in particular to blame in the conduct of ordinary village townspeople, is that, unlike village leaders, they don’t do much – i.e. in public affairs. They go along with the age (同乎流俗,合乎汙世), but perhaps mainly just in the sense that they don’t do or say much against it. Perhaps the blameworthy things Mengzi says they say are supposed to represent what they would say were they to consider a Ruist calling?

    Granted, as Chris suggests, some of the criticisms of the Ruists that Mengzi attributes to the xiang yuan as a class might be a bit sophisticated for ordinary decent townspeople who don’t do much. But Chris, do you want to rely on the idea that the failings of the Ruists were hard to notice?

    • Bill: You may be right. I’m wavering. My thought in #9 was that they’re just ordinary, decent folk. Good neighbors, basically. In #21, I was thinking that since “everybody” (眾) likes them, wherever they go the whole town praises them as honest or decent, and they speak out to criticize the Rú, they may be prominent in the community (though they needn’t be elders). Of course, it’s crucial that they don’t make the sort of (conspicuous?) commitment to the dào that Mencius thinks one should, so they’re ordinary folk in that regard. This probably distinguishes them from, say, Mohists, who are conspicuously committed to moral ideals.

  23. Alas, I’m overwhelmed right now with administrative meetings, grading, deadlines for sending off letters of recommendation, etc., etc.; I can’t give all your thoughts here their due. But let me just reiterate an alternative reading of the “worthies” that gives a “yes” answer to Bill’s question (4) in #16, above. The difference between the worthies and someone committed to the way of Yao and Shun isn’t that the expression of the values is fundamentally different, at least in their more rudimentary appearances: that’s why the worthies are able to appear to have genuinely virtuous character. The problem is that the worthies are content with simply not violating the current rules/customs, rather than striving for more. They would be friends of the idea that going beyond the typical norms is a matter of “supererogation,” and purely optional. This represents, I think, a fundamentally different stance from the truly virtuous, whose character motivates them to respond with devotion, faithfulness, and so on at all times.

    It seems to me perfectly reasonable to think that there would be “worthies” like Mencius describes, and that it would be something of a surprise to Wan Zhang that they be criticized. Yet one can see Mencius’s point.

    • Hi Steve, I hope someday you’ll see this!

      Regarding my question (4) in #16, on duty v. aspiration, here’s what I’m thinking of (from Lon Fuller, The Morality of Law, p. 5f):

      “The morality of aspiration is most plainly exemplified in Greek philosophy. It is the morality of the Good Life, of excellence, of the fullest realization of human powers. [If one is found wanting as a citizen or official, one is] condemned for failure, not for being recreant to duty; for shortcoming, not for wrongdoing. … instead of ideas of right and wrong, of moral claim and moral duty, we have rather the conception of proper and fitting conduct, conduct such as beseems a human being functioning at his best.
      “Where the morality of aspiration starts at the top of human achievement, the morality of duty starts at the bottom. It lays down the basic rules …. It speaks in terms of ‘thou shalt not,’ and, less frequently, of ‘thou shalt.’”

      I want to say there are two largely orthogonal distinctions here: (ViRu) the distinction between virtues and rules, and (HiLo) the distinction between high standards (or aspirations) and low or modest standards (or aspirations).

      It’s clear that Mengzi has (HiLo) in mind, but I don’t see that he has (ViRu) in mind in distinguishing the worthies from the best.

      Incidentally, I think that while one can use the word ‘conscientious’ in connection with virtues, the word is more at home with rules or protocols.

    • Steve: I agree that this is probably how Mencius views them. He might add that because of their attitude, they see no need for moral or social reform, for seeking to return to the way of Yao and Shun.

      The reaction of the “worthies” to the Ru may suggest that the rhetoric and outward trappings of Ruism tended to interfere with the aim of persuading people to accept its moral doctrines.

    • Chris, I’m curious: do you mean (among other things) that you agree that Mengzi associates the “worthies”/best distinction with a distinction between clear standards of conduct (well-marked procedures or types of action) and fuzzier things like virtues (however modest or conventional)?

      Also: do you mean you agree that a key mark of the “worthies” is that they think or are ready to think in terms of a distinction between good enough and best? Granted, they say “to be good is all that is needed善斯可矣.” On the other hand, what saliently characterizes the worthies in Mengzi’s account is their positive disapproval of the Ruists and of a return to the ancients, and in general of critical distance. When they say the Ruists’ words and actions don’t match, they don’t explain; but perhaps the thought is that such a failure is part and parcel of any ideals too far from this world.

      I agree about the bells and whistles: they didn’t work! Perhaps if they were a little more contemporary…

    • Hi Bill: I was agreeing with Steve’s summary of Mencius’s view of them, which in several respects echoes my own tentative summary in #9.

      As to your comment, I agree that “ViRu” isn’t really relevant to Mencius’s attack. His concern is with “HiLo,” or perhaps with the distinction between morality and mere custom.

      My (tentative) take — though I’m not sure — is that the “worthies” are not claiming one should settle for “good enough” instead of pursuing higher ideals. Rather, they’re denying the relevance of Ruist ideals; they’re rejecting the Ruist dao. Unfortunately, they may well see the bells and whistles as the core of that dao.

    • Sorry – I understood that you were agreeing with Steve; I was asking about two particulars. I didn’t make that clear!

      Steve writes, “The problem is that the worthies are content with simply not violating the current rules/customs, rather than striving for more.” I originally thought he meant that Mengzi thinks of the worthies as thinking that it would be better to do much more of what they value but it’s OK not to, and I wanted to challenge that.

  24. From Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 44f.

    “I am suggesting that we see all these diverse aspirations as forms of a craving which is ineradicable from human life. We have to be rightly placed in relation to the good. This may not be very obtrusive in our lives if things go well and if by and large we are satisfied with where we are. The believer in reason whose life is in order, the householder (I am talking of course about someone with a certain moral ideal, not the census category) who senses the fulness and richness of his family life as his children grow up and his life is filled with their nurture and achievement, these [householders] may be quite unaware of this aspiration as such, may be impatient or contemptuous of those whose lives are made tempestuous and restless by it. But this is only because the sense of value and meaning is well integrated into what they live. The householder’s sense of the value of what I have been calling ordinary life is woven through the emotions and concerns of his everyday existence. It is what gives them their richness and depth.

    “Or alternatively, someone might see in the same everyday life which so enriches the householder only a narrow and smug satisfaction at a pitiable comfort, oblivious to the great issues of life, or the suffering of the masses, or the sweep of history. In recent decades, we have seen the drama repeated that the ones who often react this way turn out precisely to be the children whose growth the householder so cherished. This is just one example, a peculiarly poignant one in our day, of how this aspiration to connection can motivate some of the most bitter conflicts in human life. It is in fact a fundamental drive, with an immense potential impact in our lives.”

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