Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

What Is Shun’s Awful Family Doing in the Mencius?

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.


February 12, 2011 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Filial piety, Mencius, Sages


  1. I’m inclined to agree with you, Dan, largely on the grounds that the stories are so wackily unrealistic that one wouldn’t freely choose them as showpieces to make any important point about real life. (To my mind the two most strikingly unrealistic features of the story are Shun’s attitudes toward his family and the family’s failure to kill him. Especially the latter.) For the same reason I think we are likely to be getting reports of real conversations here.

    Dan, the title of your post first suggested to me a different question: Based on the Mencius, can we make a reasonable guess about what the original story was like? What were those people about? Thinking about that question might help us figure out what the Mencius is up to. Or not.

    (I have only a few small thoughts about that question, and none about what in particular we might learn toward Dan’s topic. Shun’s attitudes are the parts of the story most easily changed in the retelling. So what about the rest? (One objective feature of the story, the father’s blindness, would seem to be there to help explain his failure to kill Shun.) What kind of myth would have a father and brother of an emperor trying and failing to kill him? Three things come to mind: (a) a trickster myth (perhaps one with a “Being There” flavor, or a comedy of errors), (b) a story meant to educate people about the problems of high position, and (c) a story meant to tell children that there are no limits to the requirement of obedience. (a) Surrealism is at home in trickster myths. (b) A political story could involve constraints on the family’s behavior that would explain their failure. (c) A fable for filial piety would have a hard time with the failure of the father and brother. Not only would the father have to be blind, they’d both have to be stupid. And either they would have to fail to tell Shun what they wanted, or the story would have to underemphasize respect and obedience.)

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 13, 2011 | Reply

    • Shun’s escapse sound pretty improbable—therefore maybe exciting?

      The bit about Shun not telling his parents he was getting married isn’t striking in the same way. Especially in 4A/26, the claim at least is that Shun behaved in a perfectly virtuous fashion, despite the apparent conflict he faced between two filial obligations (to tell his parents and to produce an heir).

      Come to think of it, it’s interesting that this is would be a conflict within filial piety, and has nothing to do with Shun’s position as emperor.

      Comment by Dan Robins | February 13, 2011 | Reply

    • Bill, you suggest that reading these passages as a filial piety fable incurs interpretive costs: the father and brother would ‘have to be stupid’ and have undesirable communication skills. Though that may be true, could you say something about why those outcomes ought to prompt us to give up the filial piety reading, which I regard as the most obvious interpretation?

      I think a key feature of the stories is the kin-status of the characters involved. Xiang isn’t Shun’s brother. My understanding is that at most they are half-brothers and at least step-brothers. (Am I correct to think that Gusuo is Shun’s genetic father but that Xiang’s mother that isn’t Shun’s mother?) Canonizing this in Mencius sends a potent message to readers about dangers of mixed families: trust kin because non-kin can be threatening. As we know from lots of empirical studies of step-parenting–most dramatically Homicide by Wilson and Daly–step children are at many many times the risk of abuse and mistreatment by step-parents and step-sibs than are genetically related children. The symbolic value of the particular items Xiang seeks to steal from Shun by killing him (at 5A2.3) in this sib-rivalry show Xiang’s interest in usurping Shun’s martial power and virility. One effect of reading these passage would surely have been to give great pause to men (already with children) considering taking on a wife who already has a male child. Perhaps the blindness of Shun’s father implies is to suggest that he has been the victim of scheming by Xiang, which would (on my reading) shift more of the moral responsibility for the attempted murders to this non-kin rival.

      Comment by Ryan Nichols | February 15, 2011 | Reply

      • Please pardon my typos! Yikes.

        Comment by Ryan Nichols | February 15, 2011 | Reply

      • I have trouble with the idea that a fable designed to inculcate 孝悌would present father and brother as malicious boobs, even to make an a fortiori argument. (More likely would be a fable in which what appears to be malicious or foolish turns out not to be.) And I have trouble with the idea that a filiality fable would present as the happy ending the thwarting of the aims of father and brother. I didn’t mean to suggest the point about communications skills.

        I think those worries are somewhat more telling against the idea that the original story was a fable aimed at the young, then against the idea that it was a fable for adults. But a fable for adults would, I’d think, have to make more of a case than just to say “Shun was filial even until X, so be filial even unto X.”

        Your points about the incomplete kinship seem telling; I find your proposal about the original story plausible.

        Comment by Bill Haines | February 15, 2011 | Reply

        • I see your point, which you echo in the original comment when remarking “(c) A fable for filial piety would have a hard time with the failure of the father and brother.” But would you agree that filial piety is a virtue directed generationally upward, from child to parent or to older sib? If so, then we ought not think of the case as one in which Shun’s *father* is being unfilial. (That wasn’t quite your implication, but it seems close.) Strictly speaking, his behavior is irrelevant to whether his son is filial. The lesson here is that, even when your father is an sob, don’t depart from the rule.

          Given other studies of fairly outlandish behavior required of filial sons, some of which are recorded in the Knapp paper I mentioned, other interpretations have a problem–or so I infer. The other interpretations on offer–Manyul’s inversion of the moral; Steve’s fairly theoretical interpretation about dilemmas being resolvable; Dan’s interpretation that Mencius was in need of reputation management–*appear* to be motivated by an interest in making the passages palatable, even plausible. (Am I mistaking the metaphilosophical motivations?) But I’m not sure they have the generality to tackle the many further anecdotes and family stories emphasizing extreme and immoral demands made of sons by fathers in the name of filiality in the Confucian corpus.

          BTW I’m not claiming that the endings here and in allied passages are happy. I’m sure they are not. My main interpretive point is that these cases are primarily directed at encoding behavior and cognition–getting people to think and live a certain way. Making readers feel good about the anecdotes and their characters’ actions is not always the best way to influence readers.

          Also, re your other remark, I wasn’t thinking Nisbett, though that’s fascinating stuff. Cross-cultural psych article (e.g. Buunk 2009) shows that populations (men and women both) in the Confucian diaspora are more likely than any populations in the rest of the world to endorse their parents’ preferences about their mating strategies and mating preferences. That’s especially interesting in light of the fact that (as M Apostolou has demonstrated in a recent series of elegant experiments in evolutionary psychology) parents and children have differing fitness interests (‘parent-offspring conflict’) in regards to offspring mate preferences and strategies.

          The point? The influence of Confucian filial piety appears as the best explanation of the sharp variance between East Asian populations and other populations. This is because filial piety is morally plastic obedience to fathers, i.e. the ‘Do not disobey’ of Analects 2.5. This includes most importantly obeying parents about decisions about mating and mate preference. The fact that Shun’s dad wasn’t consulted about his son’s mating behavior forms important background to the way the parent-offspring conflict shakes out.

          Comment by Ryan Nichols | February 19, 2011 | Reply

          • Hi Ryan, just a quick comment—I don’t intend my reading to make the passages palatable or plausible at all, in fact it’s one of my premises that they aren’t either of those things. That, plus the pattern of defensiveness elsewhere in the Mencius, is why I take these passages to be fundamentally reactionary.

            Comment by Dan Robins | February 24, 2011 | Reply

        • I’m not sure you did see my point. I wasn’t thinking that there’s an issue about the father’s filiality, and I wasn’t failing to notice what I called the “a fortiori argument … Shun was filial even until X, so be filial even unto X.”

          What I had in mind, in connection with the story as it might have been current prior to Mencius, was that it is not well suited to be a fable in support of filial piety.

          I’ll try to spell out my assumptions about how edifying fables work.

          1. Their being internally coherent as stories is a necessary condition of their having any edifying power. The characters are psychologically plausible, except sometimes for the one whose shortcoming is the target of the fable.

          2. A fable standardly makes its point usually by way of its happy or unhappy eventualities: Androcles was right to engage in random acts of kindness, as shown by the fact that the lion spared him later. Pierre was wrong not to care, because it got him eaten by another lion. “What wins in the story is right”: that’s a language we don’t need explained to us. It’s part of the internal coherence of the story.

          Granted, the story of the sour grapes doesn’t work quite that way. But that story’s point isn’t exactly that it is wrong to think as the fox does. Rather, I think, the point is more the “factual” point that people are in fact susceptible to that kind of mistake. The fable is a picture of a type (of thinking), and once we grant the reality of the type, there’s no need to make the further point that it’s foolish. Or perhaps we should say that by juxtaposing the two parts of the fox’s inconsistency so closely together, the story makes his foolishness salient and thus presents it as noticeable, as shameful.

          3. The fable makes its point not just about Androcles or Pierre, but about people in general. Fables make their general arguments by claiming, implicitly, to present representative cases, models for general use in shaping one’s appreciation of one’s circumstances and options. That’s a language we needn’t be taught: stories automatically claim to be representative. (Of course there’s the question of their scope: a problem shared by pithy sayings.)

          Now, I don’t agree with you that filiality is obedience to fathers. I think it’s a broader complex including, in addition to obedience: respect, emulation, and love; and by love I mean enjoyment, care, and support. I think the idea that filiality involves mainly obedience underlies the view, shared by the Brookses and others, that Youzi at 1.2 conceives 仁 as “docility.” Confucius thought the common view emphasized mainly support. I think Mencius tends to envision filiality as love.

          (A filial son will help serve the parents’ aims and/or interests without being ordered to do so. My memory of the fables of self-mutilatory filiality is weak, but I didn’t think the hungry parents asked for the children’s limbs. Did they? I thought the usual story involved some token resistence by the parents.)

          I think a fable is more than a little incoherent as a story/paradigm for filiality and fraternity (conceived as love, respect, emulation, assistance, etc.), if it presents father and brother as nasty boobs and its happy outcome is the son’s thwarting one of their main projects. The story seems to side against assistance and emulation, and to make emulation and respect saliently inappropriate.

          The argument I’m proposing is strenghened by the point that it would not be hard to write a different story that would make roughly the same a fortiori argument, without the flaws. All that’s needed is that the father and brother merely appear to be nasty boobs, so far as the son could tell, but were not in fact.

          The argument I’m proposing involves some conception of moral limits to filiality, or conditions under which filiality (love, emulation, respect, etc.) do or don’t make sense. One might object that the Confucian tradition sees no limits (though I don’t think that’s your view). My reply is that the fables by which the values are introduced would still have to make some sort of case to common sense, i.e. to an audience in which the absurdity has not yet been implanted. (Hence e.g. the admittedly thin idea that filial duty derives from the justice of repayment.)

          Of course the argument I’m proposing is not conclusive.

          One might offer as a counterexample to my views about fables the example of stories of Jesus, who was humble and selfless and suffered and died.

          Except that he demands to be worshipped, the healing cost him little or nothing, he rarely went out of his way to do it, his suffering was transitory, and most importantly, he knew he wouldn’t really die, and he gets to take all the people we hate and smash them forever. (Without these features the story would be completely different.) Maybe something like that is going on in the pre-Mencius story of Shun too, in a non-transcendent way: his filiality is what helps him keep the empire or something. Though the story we have in Mencius seems to lean in the opposite direction: only by thwarting his family does he get to survive as emperor. (And in Mencius’ hypothetical, what eventually costs him the empire is his filiality.)

          Do you mean to include the Confucian homelands in what you’re calling the “Confucian diaspora”? And are you thinking that early filiality fables had a genetic impact? And are you suggesting that the fable’s point is that Shun behaved wrongly, either by not helping his father’s project, or by not sufficiently opposing his non-brother sufficiently? I’m puzzled.

          Comment by Bill Haines | February 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. Among the stories about Shun’s steadfast family devotion, 7a35 stands out for me. That he could forgive his brother for attempting to murder him, that he might invest said brother with a sinecure, that he pines for loving relations with parents who despise him – all these my dramatic instincts can stomach. (To say nothing of my tender xīn.) But that he would sooner resign his kingship and flee his own laws than see his murderous father duly punished trespasses from saintly into unbelievable. That Mengzi has Shun carrying his proverbially vicious father on his back, fleeing to distant lands, pushes 7a35 almost into slapstick – it’s like a parody of Aeneas and Anchises.

    What Mengzi praises in Shun is his willingness to cast all procedural justice to the wind for the sake of his father. Not just justice, but his own role as protector and benefactor to his people. (That Shun permits his father’s arrest is a red herring to make us think otherwise – in the end, Shun frees him illegally.) Presumably Shun’s action is meant to stand as a lesson to his subjects about the supreme importance of family relations – as 4a28 relates, Shun “exhausted” the service of his parents, and all the parents and children in the world took notice and rectified their relationships. I wonder how many readers here think that 7a35 is satisfying, either dramatically or philosophically. The text is asserting that a supremely virtuous person, the one best qualified to rule the world, expresses that virtue by sheltering his father from the consequences when his father commits a murder. I find it very hard to take seriously the claim that Shun’s decision would have a positive effect on the society of which he was the erstwhile leader and exemplar. If we read 7a35 and 4a28 together, then the effect Shun has on his subjects is to inspire all sons to be ready to treat their fathers the same way, even if their fathers have savagely abused them.

    This is Upright Gong on crazy pills. It does, however, comport with what Mengzi says elsewhere (3a5, 4a27) about the foundations of social order: family is not only the ultimate object of loyalty, it is the nursery for understanding and practicing human relations in general. If everything is done right, social order “grows” organically out of good family relations, so that conflicts between family loyalty and broader social obligation do not arise. It is pretty to think about, but so are Mengzi’s stories about kings “whose armies are welcomed with rice and wine wherever they invade”, as Dan mentions.

    Comment by Stephen C. Walker | February 13, 2011 | Reply

  3. Hey Dan; the Shun family saga would make for great Korean soap opera!

    re: 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 would think the image problem you speak of is a philosophical image problem, so the way to address it is by trying to make either the philosophical point Steve sees or I see in the passages. I mean, it’s not like Shun is running for office. If the authors of the Mencius care about Shun, it’s got to be in his role as historical moral (hence, philosophical) icon, right?

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 13, 2011 | Reply

    • My official position is that I know nothing about Korean soap opera.

      If the point were philosophical, it would have to be fully general, wouldn’t it? I mean, the point would have to be either Steve’s (that there’s never genuine conflict between the virtues) or yours (that even really good people can be driven by their emotions to do bad things) or something else that in a way applies to all of us. I’m saying these passages don’t have that degree of generality, they’re ad hoc apologetics.

      Comment by Dan Robins | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  4. Very interesting, Dan. Your reading of those passages as apologetics is definitely worth considering. Like Manyul, though, I don’t think we should assume that either his or Steve’s philosophical interpretation is inconsistent with apologetical (?) motives. In fact, I don’t think we even need to conclude that philosophical justifications offered in those passages are ad hoc. If Mengzi (or his students) didn’t like a given version of Shun’s biography, the easier thing to do (and the old thinkers did it often) would be to adopt a different version, not grope around for an unsatisfying and ad hoc rationalization, much less record the hastily assembled rationalization for all of posterity. There were other accounts of Shun’s life in circulation, and the big thinkers didn’t hesitate to tweak given versions of history so as to make them more consistent with their presuppositions about the charismatic power of de, virtue and vice, sagehood, etc. And the story in which Shun relinquishes the throne for to save his father isn’t even a given version of events that Mengzi or his students would have felt the need to rationalize–it’s a hypothetical by their own lights! There are indications that Mengzi’s students made a sport of throwing hypothetical “hard cases” at Mengzi, as in both 7A/35 and 4A/17.

    Finally, if you look at philosophy in any manifestation–even if you look at the “lite” philosophizing that goes on in religious texts–you find that people use hard cases to generate more philosophical coherence and systematicity, not less. Think of the parables of Jesus or the 56 variations of the trolley problem (yep, exactly 56). All other things being equal, we’re much more likely to find a coherent philosophical story attached to the voluntarily chosen hard cases than to the run-of-the-mill ones. There’s quite a bit more pressure toward systematicity in the former than in the latter.

    I also have some thoughts about your reading of 2B/8, but they’re distinct enough that I should put them in a separate comment.

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Does this mean 7a35, one of the hardest cases in the text, might serve as a kind of “trolley problem” on the connection between social order and family relations? As I understand the overall context, Shun’s action is being suggested not merely as morally exemplary, but as suitable to his role of moral paragon for his subjects. Hence bucking the laws and fleeing abroad is something that will lead to better social order *if* a Shun does it for a Shun’s reasons.

      Comment by Stephen C. Walker | February 14, 2011 | Reply

      • Interesting, Stephen. Yes, it seems in keeping with early Confucian views to suggest that Shun’s example of filial behavior helped (ironically) to strengthen the social order, or at least mitigate the damage that his departure might have done (although you might not like the latter formulation).

        Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 17, 2011 | Reply

    • The idea for this post actually came from a conversation Steve and I had about whether the MC tries to treat hard cases, so it’s a good point to bring up. And I certainly agree that 7A/35 looks a lot more like an attempt to treat a hard case than does, say, 5A/2.

      But do you really see an attempt at systematisation there? A reading a bit like Steve’s makes more sense to me: faced with two apparently conflicting sets of values, Shun finds a way to act that satisfies both. But where’s the system? The passage doesn’t try to generalise or explain anything. Is it even really saying that genuine conflicts cannot occur? (That’s how Steve reads it, I think.) It doesn’t really say even that, though maybe the sort of challenge and response it depicts only makes sense if Mencius was committed to a lack of conflict. Certainly it doesn’t try to give any sort of general account of why conflict cannot occur.

      And the exchange also makes sense as an attempt to respond to a genre of unsagely stories about Shun and his awful family, even though it is as you say hypothetical. The stories, if I’m right to think they were about, would have presented Mencius or his followers with hard cases not because they threatened to reveal theoretical incoherence but because they threatened the image of a cherished model of virtue. One response would have been to deny that the stories were accurate, maybe by telling competing stories, but that’s not the only possible response. Trying to assimilate this genre of story by giving them moralising interpretations also makes sense. I’m not sure it matters that the treatment in 7A/35 is hypothetical, since it’s part of my view that these passages respond not just to one or two fixed stories, but to something like a genre.

      (Aside: any idea who this Tao Ying is? It’s his only appearance in the Mencius. Zhao Qi says he’s a disciple, but all that means is that Zhao Qi didn’t know who he was.)

      The case treated in 4A/17 isn’t a hard one and isn’t treated as a hard one—the whole point is that it’s obviously a case in which you bend the rules. So it’s not really relevant here.

      Comment by Dan Robins | February 17, 2011 | Reply

      • In my view, the most systematic philosophy tends to come out of concerted attempts to deal with hard cases, including apologetics. Aquinas is never so consistent as he is in his treatment of Aristotle’s categories–more consistent than Aristotle himself. And yet, in my view, his treatment is largely driven by his desire to justify the embarrassing claim that an individual thing can change in substance without having any changes in properties, which is the centerpiece of his defense of the eucharist. You might say, “Yeah, but that’s Aquinas, a painstakingly systematic philosopher.” But it’s true of reflective thinking of almost every kind, from the New Testament’s treatment of forgiveness to undergraduate attempts to justify their views on capital punishment.

        You say, the passages on Shun’s awful family look to be ones that really test Mengzi’s philosophical commitments, and so are likely ad hoc solutions motivated more by apologetics than some concern with “making a philosophical point.”

        I say, “catch the burden of proof.” First, I wonder whether most of these cases really are apologetics. As I tried to argue earlier, if Mengzi would have preferred a different version of history, he would have helped himself to it. The pre-Qins did it all the time. Second, even if these passages were apologetics, so what? More often than not, apologetics are the impetus to philosophical system-building. Steve and Manyul (among others) offer readings of these passages that show them to hang together, readings which highlight the very sorts of hard problems around which people tend to build coherent philosophical systems. In such cases, the fact that these passages offer up philosophical hard problems strengthens rather than weakens the case for philosophical point-making.

        Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 17, 2011 | Reply

      • The case treated in 4A/17 isn’t a hard one and isn’t treated as a hard one—the whole point is that it’s obviously a case in which you bend the rules.

        True enough. I should have been clearer: I mean “hard cases” in the broader sense that includes cases that are hard to explain, not just cases that are hard to resolve. These include things like Gettier problems: everyone agrees that one guy really knows and the other doesn’t; the challenge is to explain why. Mengzi declines to do much explaining, but in declining he make a philosophical point, which is precisely what his students are pushing him to do by giving him a hard case.

        Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 17, 2011 | Reply

  5. Hi, Dan. A quick reaction to your reading of 2B/8. I’m certainly open to the proposal that the story arises from embarrassment about an incident in which Mengzi foolishly endorsed or condoned Qi’s plan to invade Yan. But here again, I don’t think apologetical motives are inconsistent with a coherent philosophical interpretation. Insofar as one can discern a coherent worldview from texts like these, 2B/8 has much going for it. In 2B/8 he introduces what appears to have been one of Mengzi’s terms-of-art, the Delegate of Heaven (Tiān Lì 天吏), which apparently refers to the member of the ruling class who is uniquely qualified to dethrone sitting monarchs. As I tried to argue in my paper on Mengzi and rebellion, the Mengzi is consistent in saying that only a member of the ruling class who has the clear and unambiguous endorsement from Heaven has the right to overthrow a sitting monarch, and Mengzi even has considered views about how Heaven would make it’s approval of that person known. So whatever the underlying motives for the story, I find it to be one of the better candidates for a systematic philosophical view, and I think this illustrates my general point that here–as in the treatment of hard cases in almost all religious and philosophical traditions–we should expect that there will be more pressure toward systematicity, not less.

    In Qi, Shen Tong asks Mencius whether Yan should be invaded, and he says it should.

    Just a quick note about a widespread misreading: it’s “may,” not “should.” Hortatory ke 可 only takes active verbs, and 燕可伐與 is a passive construction. Moreover, hortatory ke was rarely used in the classical period, although some of the pre-classical texts they cited used it.

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 14, 2011 | Reply

    • Mengzi comes out looking a little better on this reading.

      Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 14, 2011 | Reply

      • I actually didn’t mean to imply that there’s nothing systematic in the ideas attributed to Mencius in 2B/8. In fact I’d go further and say that the ideas around the true king and his military conquests are where Mencian normative ideas get most systematic. I was presenting 2B/8 as an example of Mencian defensiveness, not of lack of system, and the defensiveness of 2B/8, and the unflattering portrait of Mencius it implies, isn’t really reduced if he’s appealing to sincerely held, systematic ideas.

        In fact the whole issue could be (as maybe implied by the opening to 2A/2) that Mencius was too quick to see his fantasy of a true king come to life in the king of Qi. If so, then appealing to that theory would be a pretty weak defense. “What were you thinking, thinking that guy was heaven’s delegate?” “Don’t blame me, he wasn’t heaven’s delegate.”

        In any case, the criticism is that he provided moral cover for the invasion of Yan and the opening of the passage makes it clear that he did. How we translate “ke” is really irrelevant to that (though point taken). He was asked for permission, and gave it, and was wrong to do so. And the whole issue puts the Mencius on the defensive.

        Comment by Dan Robins | February 17, 2011 | Reply

        • Sounds like we more or less agree on 2B/8. And I find quite useful the hypothesis that this instance of system-building was prompted in part by an historical embarrassment. If Mengzi was so certain that Qi wasn’t licensed by Heaven to invade Yan, why would he have waited until after the invasion to tell them so?

          No doubt the strange sequence of events can be explained in part by an attempt to fit Mengzi’s view into the fill-in-the-gaps-for-yourself formula characteristic of pre-Qin dialogues. Mengzi might have in fact made his views clear from the start, or perhaps not weighed in until it was too late, but you never know…

          Comment by Justin Tiwald | February 17, 2011 | Reply

          • This actually helps me understand your view better, I think. I was taking you to mean that because of an interest in systematisation, they thought about hard cases. But really the idea is that thinking about hard cases, no matter why, pushed them in the direction of systematisation. I hadn’t actually been thinking of 2B/8 that way, but it makes some sense. Interesting.

            But in none of the other cases that have come up do I see any evidence that there actually was any systematisation. Take 7A/35. What’s the system that explains why duty to parents and duty to the empire don’t conflict for Shun? Where is it described? All we have is an example, tendentiously described. Does anyone really think Shun would have been behaving virtuously if he’d abandoned his people and helped his father escape?

            That’s a big part of why I doubt Mencius or his followers just made up these stories to suit their purposes: they don’t really suit their purposes, because despite (as I see it) the apologetics, they portray Shun in a really poor light. If Mencius or his followers had wanted to intervene in the Shun mythology just by making up their own stories (your suggestion above), I can’t imagine these are the stories they’d want to make up.

            And is it really plausible that the Shun discourse was one in which someone like Mencius and his followers could make up whatever they wanted, and people would just accept it? They apparently didn’t think they could get away with that even with Mencius himself.

            4A/17, to pick up another thread, still doesn’t seem to me to be dealing with a hard case. Chunyu Kun is arguing that Mencius should compromise on some things in order to benefit the world, and he gives the case of the drowning sister-in-law as one in which compromise (in this case of ritual propriety) is clearly justified. The issue of why it’s justified doesn’t get raised, and isn’t a hard one.

            Comment by Dan Robins | February 17, 2011 | Reply

  6. I’m afraid I haven’t read all the comments yet. I hope to write something else in response to them, but responding to the original post has happily delayed me from packing for a flight for an hour or more…

    Without delving into the several reasons why, I want to pause and recognize what a good question this is, and why the evident non-obviousness of the answer to the question is fascinating. Thanks Dan.

    Editorial and authorial intent is to portray Shun as virtuous in all of the passages cited. I’m neutral on the Damage Control reading. What evidence from the contemporaneous literary context could be brought in favor of the statement that Mencius, or the Confucian/Mencian tradition, was in need of a public relations treatment such Mencius receives? Please advise.

    Qingping’s set of papers on filial piety in Early Confucianism would appear to suggest that the stories in 4A, 5A, etc. serve as evidence of a wider emphasis on filial piety as the supreme Confucian virtue, trumping ren. We learn about Shun that without the affection and blessing of his parents his life will—at least from his own perspective, even if from no one else’s—appear meaningless and without happiness.

    Arguably the implications go further. It appears that even if Shun manifests full measures of other familiar Confucian virtues, and in so doing he is given the Emperor’s virgin daughters to marry, he won’t attain happiness unless he also exemplifies filial piety. In addition to being the trump virtue, xiao also appears to be a sine qua non of a happy life.

    More troubling, the emphasis of the editors and authors of Mencius on filial piety is misplaced. We mustn’t forget that we have no reason (or do we, and I don’t know we do?) to think that Shun is anything but filial. That is, Shun appears completely filial so long as filial piety doesn’t include as a necessary condition that one’s parents think one is filial or volunteering to kill yourself at your parent’s command or things like that. This would render filial piety a weird kind of response-dependent trait of character in such a way that it would be difficult to construe filial piety as a virtue. (If memory serves Knapp, in his piece on stories about filial piety in later Confucianism, might discuss a macabre case of suicide by filial piety.) Mencius suggests that even filial piety isn’t enough; only satisfying your parents is.

    Parental control. That’s what these passages are about, and that’s what they morally support and encode into the culture.

    Imagine your forebears successfully slipped into culture a set of cognitive, affective and behavioral cues that, passed down, have now conditioned your children to deceive themselves to believe that they couldn’t ever be happy unless they did just as you said. (Separate question: Would you think you were lucky to live in such a culture as a parent? As a child?)

    For my part a complete answer to the question being posed would appear to require information about the (pardon me) biocultural context. A comment to a post isn’t the place for much—any?—further discussion. But there’s relevant evolutionary psychology and telling cross-cultural studies that support this sort of reading. But frankly I’d rather the interpretation I’ve fronted were wrong. Please convince me it is.

    Comment by Ryan Nichols | February 14, 2011 | Reply

  7. Hi Ryan,

    I guess you’ve been alluding to Richard E. Nisbet, “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, and Why”? And other things?

    On whether the stories suggest that M thought filial piety trumps ren: So long as he thought, following Youzi, that filial piety is a necessary condition of (the rest of) ren (7A15), he could think that faced with what appears to be a choice between the two, one has to opt for filial piety, because the other option in fact yields neither.

    Mencius suggests that even filial piety isn’t enough; only satisfying your parents is.
    Perhaps instead the idea is that a filial child won’t be satisfied unless (he thinks) the parents are – that that’s part of filiality?

    It appears that even if Shun manifests full measures of other familiar Confucian virtues, and in so doing he is given the Emperor’s virgin daughters to marry, he won’t attain happiness unless he also exemplifies filial piety.
    Isn’t it just that, being filial, he won’t be happy unless he feels his parents are happy?

    I don’t understand how a willingness to kill oneself (or sit still …) if that is what a father wants or commands would make filial piety a “response-dependent” trait.

    Are you saying that it is hard to construe response-dependent traits as virtues? Or just certain weird kinds?

    I agree that a filial piety that would involve killing oneself at a father’s command, or just because one knows it’s what he wants, would be a bad trait. What is taken for filial piety (at times) in the Chinese tradition may indeed be very bad, in very commonly requiring too much obedience and deference. As you mention, there are some gruesome exemplary tales. As for the marginal badness of a willingness to kill oneself (or sit still …) if that is what a father wants or commands, — that extra badness may not be very significant, if such a wish by a father is rare. Manyul has argued that on Mencius’ view, even 仁 can lead people to regrettable acts, even wrong ones. So if it s granted that Mencius thought filial piety short of that suicidal obedience is a virtue, and that Mencius thought the suicidal obedience would be wrong, I think it doesn’t follow that he wouldn’t think the virtue of filial piety disposes one to the suicidal obedience.

    Even if the stories don’t show any crack in Shun’s filiality, still insofar as they highlight his thwarting a main project of his father and brother, they seem to make him a less than ideal picture of filiality (and a poor picture of “parental control”).

    But maybe I have that view just because when I think of filiality I tend to think first of respect and obedience. Mencius seems to think first of love, and maybe also of enjoyment of the parents’ company. Maybe that’s a cultural difference, or maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time with the Analects.

    Comment by Bill Haines | February 15, 2011 | Reply

  8. I’ve always read the passages about Shun’s family closer to the “ethical dilemmas” view; and part of this stems from my assumption that Shun is regarded as a kind of perfect ethical ideal.

    To perhaps put a spin on Dan’s “image problem” reading that doesn’t let it slip into either the dilemma or anti-perfectionist reading, we could understand Dan’s notion of “com[ing] to terms with that mythology” in another way.

    I believe in some of Sarah Alan’s early work she discusses the various mythologies of Shun. Is it possible that the (conflicting) stories of Shun were included in _Mencius_, not so much for ideological coherency, but for communal coherency?

    I’m thinking of something like the Documentary Hypothesis in Biblical Studies, where the formation of the canon is a process of combining various mythologies (J, E, D, and P) for the purpose of bringing different traditions into one. The redactors strive for a degree of ideological coherency, but that seems secondary to the goal of incorporating the stories of all the concerned parties involved.

    In the case of _Mencius_, I’m not sure what kind of evidence is available for this, but it seems like similar arguments have been made for texts like the _Lüshi Chunqiu_ and _Huainanzi_.

    Comment by Agui | February 15, 2011 | Reply

  9. It’s great to see such terrific discussions going on, and sorry for my lack of participation. My excuse, such as it is, is that my family and I are currently on a ski vacation. One point that occurs to me on the current topic is that any discussion of why such passages–which sure look to be about moral dilemmas in some sense, whether or not one thinks they are meant to express the philosophical point I claim–appear in Mencius should contextualize them with the prevalent rhetoric of various dilemmas that one finds in many early texts. Mark Csikszentmihalyi’s book Material Virtue has some excellent discussions, including these passages from Mencius.

    Comment by Steve Angle | February 15, 2011 | Reply

  10. It seems to me perfectly plausible that the stories in Mengzi 5 and 7 about Shun and his murderous family members is in some respect an attempt to control an unwieldy mythology about Shun. I’m perhaps ignorant of who you are referring to, Dan, when you say this mythology was not in the control of the pious Confucians; who was in control of it? Do we know?

    I have up to now been rather sympathetic with the view, at least as an interpretation of the text, that, in addition to the damage control incentive, these stories are attempting to show what a filial son, but also an ideal Confucian ruler, does when faced with a genuine conflict of duties to family and duties to realm. But perhaps Shun comes off looking bad not to Confucian partisans who themselves idealize xiao before and above all other virtues, but to those who find Confucian expectations of filial behavior themselves unreasonable and impossible, and not just the text of the Mengzi. Surely these stories seem to present Shun as reacting with an impossible degree of deference to his horrible family members. But is this depiction any less plausible than the portrayal Kongzi gives in the Lunyu of the son who covers up for his supposedly criminal father? The degree of xiao that Shun shows in the Mengzi stories indeed also seems entirely out of the reach of human psychological capacity, but perhaps it’s not any less plausible than the truly righteous person Kongzi dreams of in the Lunyu, who loves virtue more than sexy girls, a person by the way whom Kongzi admits he has never met. (He presumably has never actually met a truly good person or a perfected sage either.) The unlikelihood that no one will ever meet such ideal people with ideally perfect xiao does not bother the Confucians as much as it should, because they only expected once-in-every-five-hundred-years-moral-messiahs to exhibit that degree of perfection in the first place. You raise the objection, for instance, that Shun comes off looking bad in these stories because his hypothetical removal of his family members from the realm, which saves their lives, is against the law. But it seems that most Confucian texts would aver that xiao is more important than procedural justice anyway, because to them it is the virtue without which even the most basic of all other social ties would collapse. Given this general Confucian idealization of xiao, Shun might not come off looking all that badly to a Confucian disciple, but would come off looking terrible to anyone else who thought that level of idealization of xiao was implausible, unjust or both.

    So, is it possible that what you are objecting to here is not just the implausibility of these Shun stories in the Mengzi, but rather more generally to the degree to which xiao is idealized by classical Confucians? The text of Mengzi might be putting forward its best philosophical defense of xiao in these stories, and of what priority it’s supposed to have weighed against other moral demands. That doesn’t mean it’s good philosophy, but maybe it’s just that no Confucian can put forward a philosophically compelling defense of what they expect xiao to achieve in both human psychology and conduct. The Shun stores of the Mengzi are in that sense extraordinary because they highlight these generally problematic Confucian expectations of xiao. I’m suggesting, I suppose, that your fundamental problem may not be what Shun’s awful family is doing in the Mengzi, but instead what an awful thing classical Confucians made of xiao. I don’t mean this suggestion to detract from the exegetical points you are making about Mengzi; the text is in many places rather obviously defensive about Mengzi’s own reputation and trying to explain (away) wild cases or wild myths or really callous and dumb things Mengzi himself did and so on. But it seems to me that the stories in the Mengzi about Shun are trying to make philosophical points about what they believe perfect xiao is capable of, even though these very stories and their informing expectations can’t fail to hide the fact that their philosophy of xiao as such was itself beyond credulity.

    Comment by Doug Berger | February 24, 2011 | Reply

    • I don’t have a story about who it was telling these stories. Just it’s independently plausible that there were lots of people telling stories about Shun, and on evidence internal to the Mencius I think it makes best sense to see these passages as reacting to stories over which the Mencius people didn’t have much control.

      I suppose it’s possible that Mencius or his followers or whoever had such an extreme conception of filiality that Shun’s behaviour in these stories wouldn’t have made them even a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe they wouldn’t even have realised that those outside the fold wouldn’t share their comfort. But really, are these the stories they’d have picked or made up if all they were doing was playing up the importance of filial piety?

      Comment by Dan Robins | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  11. I doubt the Shun stories in the Mengzi were made up by the text’s own authors. As I mentioned, I think your idea that they are damage control stories makes good sense. I was just curious, because I just don’t know, whether we know of anyone specifically in WS or Han was telling Shun stories to embarrass Confucians, and in this way were in control of the Shun myths.

    I also think it’s entirely possible that some people inside the Confucian fold were uncomfortable with the Shun stories; the Mengzi represents some of his own students as troubled by them and that’s what prompted their desire to hear explanations (though it’s hard to judge whether these students are just literary foils or not). I wasn’t trying to dispute your exegetical analysis. I was just asking whether or not the Mengzi stories about Shun tell us only something about the apologetic purposes of the text’s authors, but also may tell us something about what incredible (and implausible) things Confucians may have more generally believed about and expected of xiao. They were after all willing to claim that these beliefs were true and expectations justified, no matter how implausible they may have looked to others.

    Comment by Doug Berger | February 25, 2011 | Reply

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