Mencius (c. 372-289 BCE), the first great interpreter of Confucius, had a relatively optimistic view of human nature. Yes, humanity has made a mess of things, but despite our inclinations toward disharmony, we remain good at the core. Humaneness—empathy and fellow-feeling—is naturally embedded in the human heart. Anyone seeing a child about to fall into a well, he argues, will immediately jump to prevent it from happening. Our spontaneous caring reveals our true nature.

Unfortunately, society has developed in such a way as to distance us from our inner humanity. We have learned to value individual wealth, well-being and fame above our communal flourishing. It’s very much like a nearby mountain, he says. It was once covered with a beautiful forest, but over the years it has been so exploited by logging and goat herding that it is now a wasteland. Given time, the seeds of its goodness would sprout again and it would again flourish. Only, as soon as these sprouts arise, they are once again foraged by goats.

The answer to this disharmony is education as a form of moral cultivation. People can be taught to let their natural humanity predominate once again. I am not familiar enough with Mencius or Confucianism generally to say what formal structure this education was intended to take, but it seems enough to know what humanness is and to cultivate it in one’s daily interactions with others.

This self-cultivation, because it looks within and attempts to reconnect with the inner self, lends itself to a form of mysticism. We experience ourselves through a release into ourselves beyond words. It also follows that if human nature is good then Nature (Heaven, Everything) as a whole is also good. Reconnecting with our unmediated self-experience organically reconnects us with the Totality. It gives one a sense of joyous oneness. This is likely what Mencius experienced when he spoke of being overwhelmed by “flood-like qi” (vital energy).

We will continue this discussion of Mencius, especially as he might be compared to Zhuangzi, in the next post. In closing here, I would like to point out the simplicity of this model. Releasing into yourself you release into Everything. What could be more natural? What does one need to “know”?

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