Meng tzu, known to the West as Mencius, was born about 370 BCE in the principality of Tsau, located in what is now the province of Shantung. Shortly after he was born, his father died, and he was subsequently brought up by his mother alone. Meng Tzu went on to become Confucius's greatest disciple. Mencius, the common Anglicized name of Meng Tzu, emulated Confucius and their lives led close parallels. Mencius, too was a teacher who tried to influence the rulers of the day. Just like Confucius, Meng Tzu had very little luck. Eventually, Mencius became known as the Second Sage in China.
It was Mencius who introduced the large component of compassion to Confucianism. Contrary to Kao Tzu, Mencius believed that, by nature, all people were good. This idea was the source of much controversy, both within and outside the Confucian movement. The goodness of man's nature was often compared to the nature of water to flow downward. Meng Tzu argued that peoples' environment is what makes them bad people. Just as water can flow upward, it simply takes some outside force.
Mencius believed the qualities characteristic only to man were believed to be innate. These two qualities were “Humanity,” jen, and “Justice,” yi. Jen is love for one’s fellow man. However, Mencius did not support loving everyone equally. Yi is the ability to judge right from wrong. This virtue allows people to “have knowledge of the world and of Heaven by looking inward to into one’s own nature.” (Smart, p. 173) The most important feature of the universe is that it obeys moral law, the Way of Heaven. In his good nature, Mencius believed that man reflects a miniature structure of the universe.
Meng Tzu fought for a government that exemplified these virtues of man. He believed a ruler should contain Jen, Li, and Yi. Confucian thought argued that the interests of the people should be first and the interests of the ruler should be last. “The ruler who neglects the people for himself is not a true ruler. He loses the Mandate of Heaven, and the people under such circumstances have the right to revolt."(Crim, p. 476) At the time, however, this was seen as too ideal by society. People did not understand how Confucian teaching related to governing a people. Mencius fought even harder for the disintegration of the feudal system, only to reach minimal success.
After growing tired of political rejection, Meng Tzu took on the role of teacher. Second only to Confucius himself, Mencius was the chief architect of Confucian thought. He met rival schools of philosophy in head-on confrontations. As a teacher, Mencius wrote The Book of Mencius which “stresses the vitality of the sagely tradition, the necessity for well-established rituals, and the need for a stable political order.” (Biallas, p. 199) Using stories and parables, Meng Tzu emphasized nurturing of the essential goodness of human nature as the key to the recognition of social and political significance.
Mencius was the Confucian student who had the greatest impact on Confucian thought. He added components and gave others greater emphasis. He continually taught wherever and whoever he could with the hopes of someday reaching out to the rulers of the land and changing the style of governance.
The Chinese Classics, Volume II, The Works of Mencius, translated by James Legge. Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895
Biallas, Leonard J. World Religions A Story Approach. Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic. 1991.
Crim, Keith (ed.). The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. Harper & Row Publishers: San Francisco. 1981.
Eastman, Roger (ed.) The Ways of Religion. Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.