Meng Ke, the Chinese Confucian philosopher whose honorific name Mengzi (Meng-tzu) is Latinized as “Mencius,” was, like Confucius [q.v.], born in what is now Shandong province. Also like Confucius, Mencius’ profession was primarily teaching; he is said to have studied under a pupil of the grandson of Confucius, Zisi (according to tradition, he studied under Zisi himself). Mencius lived during the Warring States period, a time of considerable political corruption and dictatorial rule, and traveled for about 40 years from one state to another attempting to persuade rulers of the need for reform and how to accomplish it. He also served as a scholar and official at the Jixia Academy in the state of Qi, but took a three-year absence for mourning after the death of his mother, and was revered for this expression of filial piety.
Respected as one of its principal interpreters, Mencius developed an intuitionist form of Confucianism. Mencius expands Confucius’s humanism by maintaining that human nature is originally and intrinsically good, though it may be corrupted by negative societal influences. The Mencius, said to be a record of his conversations with kings during his years of itinerant travel, was probably compiled by Mencius’ pupils after his death. Together with the Analects of Confucius and two other classic texts, Mencius’ work served as the basis of the imperial civil service examinations.
Although Mencius does not explore the issue of suicide explicitly, the famous passage traditionally translated “I like fish and I also like bear’s paw” shows that there are occasions on which one may not—indeed should not—attempt to preserve one’s own life, but should sacrifice it for a greater good, righteousness. The bear’s paw, or bear’s palm, passage is often compared with Confucius’ Analects, 15.9 and exhibits some of the same tensions over obligations to sacrifice one’s life yet also preserve one’s body.
The Book of Mencius, Book VI, Part A, 10, tr. Eirik Lang Harris. Some interpretive material concerning the traditional “bear’s paw” phrase is found in Wing-Tsit Chan, tr. and ed., A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, 6A10, 6A14-6A15, pp. 57–59. Interpretive material also from Eirik Lang Harris.
from THE MENCIUS
Mencius said: “Fish is something I desire. Bear paw is also something I desire. But if I cannot have them both, I would give up the fish and choose the bear paw. Life is something I desire. Righteousness is also something I desire. But if I cannot have them both, I would give up life and choose righteousness. Life is something that I desire, but there is something that I desire more than life, and so I will not be unscrupulous in pursuing life. Death is something that I hate, but there is something that I hate more than death, and so there are perils that I will not avoid. If it were such that there was nothing that one desired more than life, then, if there were some means that would help one continue living, what would one not use? If it were such that there was nothing that one hated more than death, then if there were some means that would help one avoid peril, what would one not do? From this, then, we see that there are means of staying alive that will not be employed and also that there are means for avoiding peril that will not be used. Therefore, there are desires that are greater than the desire for life and hatreds greater than the hatred of death. It is not merely the sage who has this heart; people all have it, it is just that the sage never loses it.
“Consider the case where, if one gets a [single] basket of food and a bowl of stew, one will live, if one does not get them, one will die. However, if they are insultingly provided, even travelers on the road would not accept them. If they are trampled upon and then provided, even a beggar would disdain them. Yet when it comes to a salary of ten thousand measures of grain, one accepts it without regard to ritual and righteousness. What does this salary add to one? Should one accept for the sake of a beautiful estate? For the respect of a wife and concubines? For the indebtedness of impoverished and needy relatives? Previously, when it was a case of life or death, one would not accept what was offered, but now when it is a matter of a beautiful estate one does. Previously, when it was a case of life or death, one would not accept what was offered, but now for the sake of the respect of a wife and concubines, one does. Previously, when it was a case of life or death, one would not accept what was offered, but now for the sake of the indebtedness of impoverished and needy relatives, one does. Is there no way of stopping this? This is called losing one’s fundamental heart.”