Mencius: Why Speak of Profit?

Mencius met with King Hui of Liang.

The king said, “Venerable sir, you have not considered a thousand li too far to come. Surely you have some means to profit our state?” Mencius replied: “Why must the king speak of profit? I have only teachings concerning humaneness and rightness. If the king says, ‘How can I profit my state?’ the officers will say, ‘How can I profit my house?’ and the gentlemen and the common people will say, ‘How can I profit myself?’ Those above and those below will compete with one another for profit, and the state will be imperiled. One who murders the ruler over a state of ten thousand chariots surely will be from a house of a thousand chariots; one who murders the ruler over a state of a thousand chariots surely will be from a house of a hundred chariots.A share of a thousand in ten thousand or a hundred in a thousand is hardly negligible; yet, when rightness is subordinated to profit the urge to lay claim to more becomes irresistible. It has never happened that one given to humaneness abandons his parents, nor that one given to rightness subordinates the interests of his lord. Let the king speak only of humaneness and rightness. What need has he to speak of profit?”

Sayings of Mencius

3 thoughts on “Mencius: Why Speak of Profit?

  1. Sounds like a proponent of non-profit work during free time. Mind you did he believe in slavery? I don’t know. Made me think of Xunzi the Confucian I have enjoyed learning from. I think his most significant disagreement with Mencius is that unlike him he did not believe in the natural goodness of human beings. He thought we were disposed to being detestable. Like Stiegler he believed in education and lived also like us during a time of significant change (phase-shift in Simondon’s sense Stiegler might say) – the Warring State Period. It is natural given his concrete situation that he would dream and promote harmony, or the regulatory practice of ritual (Li) perhaps more as established rule than rule to come. I don’t know but it is repetitive habit that comes to be a custom in a person but also is part of a social construction. Oriental law, no? We occidentals have this too, I mean I can’t help but Westernize who could? Our ancients (Quintillian for example) called it decorum* which is sometimes translated as propriety and custom. He thought, it was a topic of conversation with Cicero, that humor softened the stricture of decorum but at the same time too much humor degrades decorum. It seems that it is the right tension between them that is urbane. Mind you the proper rules that are part of our customs are always changing. Humor seems important and risky I might add. I have learnt to be more prudent with humor the hard way. Irony for instance can be missed, not gotten, and what you laugh at is turned around and applied to you as ironist without any irony. (see book 6, chapter 3 of the Institutio)


    • Yes, in that sense I much prefer the Daoists like Chuang-Tzu (Zhuangzi), who was an almost exact contemporary of the Confucian thinker Mencius. The humor of such men with their paradoxical statements were the precursors of those Zen monks whose thought forms were meant to break the mind of its habitual references, seeking to spring the intelligence from its sleep in social mechanisms of command and control. None of us are ever free of sociality: thinking is itself born of the social mind. Intelligence is the child of dialogue, the conversation between primary, secondary, and tertiary memory. The sly trace of a pure negativity… separating out, abstracting; and, synthesis. Humor dissolves the contract, the lines in-between these processes; short-circuiting the broken powers of social control, freeing the mind from its cage in the shared delusions of its time. But, of course, this too is illusion and illusive as a telic goal. To be free of the social mind would entail absolute solipsism: cut off from communicative resilience, one drifts within the sea of absolute autism. We are, for better or worse, all tied to our shared illusions: the social mind (traces, linguistic/matheme) is our cage and our freedom, a paradox of thought itself as intelligence. Intelligence is this oscillation between concept and its intelligibles. Think of it simply as this: your background and reading are of various histories that share touchpoints with mine, and yet each of us is also limited to those patterns that we have worked through rather than the data points we share. Individual thought is this broken pattern between shared recognitions. Seek what is broken in one’s dialogue with the Other… i.e., if we disagree it’s this and this alone that produces new thought… one works on the brokenness, not on the shared agreements.


      • Thanks for your thoughts on dialogue. I haven’t focussed that much on working on what is broken rather than on agreement. I will have to pay more attention to you on this. Going back to the I-We or We thing. Honestly too much we talk makes me nervous. It is like there is this pathos of agreement that is assumed which makes any constructive disagreements more difficult. But how is a we operative really? As I read the we they are the long term memories (long circuits) of tertiary retentions which according to Stiegler comes to us from past generations and have a technological component. For instance his notion of self-care had its source, like for me, in part at least in Foucault’s studies of the care of the self in ancient Greece. As a technique tertiary retentions or long term memory forms us and is a living form thereby establishing normativity or a habit that regulates how secondary retentions deal with the direct experience of the senses in a concrete situation as I would simply describe what happens when we read a situation or a book for that matter. One has to use the I for how one is translating this transindividuating endowment because, well, because my lived concrete situation is obviously different than yours or any other and this causes divergences in how each of us interiorizes the heritage of the generations. Individuating interiorization is a source of divergences but this fertilizes the non-profit work of free-time and makes of my understanding of the cultural past dynamic and a living Thing rather than a dead, fixed thing. Your comment on who is the we and my grappling with how I experience reading Xunzi made me think a lot about this I-We not like I haven’t before. Actually for me this has been a life long process of understanding at issue here. My reading of Chinese philosophy has been mediated by Francois Jullien. He speaks about cultural dialogue in “On the universal, the uniform, and dialogue between cultures.”

        So… let me think when I related Xunzi to my individuating interiorization of my culture, the long circuits of my past generations Jullien as I read him says this is a translation which is a divergence that resists the imposition of a reading that would operate like a standard or uniformity, or a fixed and dead reading of the past. Dialogue when it concentrates attentively on disagreements as a fertile groundless ground that gives life does this as its work.

        I started out reading and liking the Taoists but in my old age (54 now) I am more inclined towards the structure of ritual. I think I need more structure than you do. I am tired of walking from place to place with a bottle of rice wine and a spade hanging from me for someone to bury me with. a-Tzu! excusing for sneezing our some old spirits… a-Tzu!

        That little a is always bothersome.

        It is not like Xunzi (3rd century BC) is defending a static sense of ritual organization(s). He is examining the construction of a more structured future during a time of war and chaos, a construction which is grounded first of all in self-care or self-governence as traditional forms of life always are. The rhythm of a soothing device or transitional object is important in this work. This is why he uses musical rhythms to get at the effect of ritual. He is not a conservative in this regard more like a dreamer but not one that does not escape into an idealist fantasy. The mind in his time, like ours, is already broken from its habitual references this is the nature of nihilism and what has broken it is the uniformity of the Leviathan. If this wasn’t the case it would not take us forty years to sound half-coherent.

        Ritual in this regard is the repetition of a counter-habit that breaks up the monotony of robotic thinking and its short-circuits that being short-term memory has no sense of a future much less care for one.

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