Advantage and Righteousness, with Mengzi 1A.1

Perhaps under the influence of my Chinese name, I have always thought as Mengzi did on this matter. Though as a pre-Christian philosopher he did not know about grace and redemption, his philosophy is worthy of attention, because it does contain jewels of truth that even take us back to what Jesus said.

《梁惠王上, 1》

孟子見梁惠王。王曰: 「叟,不遠千里而來,亦將有以利吾國乎?」
Mengzi had an audience with King Hui of Liang. The king said, “Venerable sir, you did not count a thousand li too far in coming; surely there is about to be means to profit our kingdom?”

孟子對曰: 「王,何必曰利?亦有仁義而已矣。王曰: 『何以利吾國?』 大夫曰: 『何以利吾家?』 士庶人曰: 『何以利吾身?』 上下交征利而國危矣。萬乘之國,弒其君者, 必千乘之家; 千乘之國,弒其君者,必百乘之家。萬取千焉,千取百焉,不為不多矣。苟為後義而先利,不奪不饜。未有仁而遺其親者也,未有義而後其君者也。王亦曰仁義而已矣,何必曰利?」
Mengzi replied, “O king, why should we speak of profit? There is only goodness and righteousness, and that is all. When the king says, ‘How to profit our kingdom?’, the great officer says, ‘How to profit our house?’, and the scholar and commoner say, ‘How to profit our self?’: high and low they strive together for profit, and so the kingdom is in peril. For a kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the one who assassinates his lord must be from a house of a thousand chariots; for a kingdom of a thousand chariots, the one who assassinates his lord must be from a house of a hundred chariots. From ten thousand take a thousand; from a thousand take a hundred: that counts not as ‘not much’! If you pull back righteousness and put forth profit, no one is satisfied without grabbing. Never was there one who was good and neglected his parents; never was there one who was righteous and put his king last in his priorities. The king speaks only of goodness and righteousness, and that is all: why speak of profit?”

Language Notes: Skip if you wish

I like the structure of “萬取千焉,千取百焉,不為不多矣”, I must say. I find the embedding of a topic-comment structure inside the sentence-level topic to be an elegant way of saying what is said. And in the sentence-level comment, the litotes by a double negative is very nice.

The whole causative or putative use of words used only intransitively in modern Mandarin, found in “叟不遠千里而來” and “苟為後義而先利”, is also something I really like about classical Chinese.

“未” survives in Cantonese. Much more succinct than Mandarin periphrastic expressions.

In the same sentence, stative verbs are used substantively for personal agents of such qualities without modifiers added. This I find surprising, something I would rather expect for classical Greek or Latin but not for Chinese. Stylistically the chiastic closing of Mengzi’s reply is also reminiscent of Biblical Hebrew literature.

Did I mention I’m thoroughly enjoying the syntax of classical Chinese?


If everyone is motivated first and foremost by self-interested pursuit of advantage and profit, says Mengzi, the state will be put in danger. He makes this claim not only about personal gain but also about any enshrinement of advantage as the primary mover, including a relatively altruistic gain such as the advantage of a kingdom (which some would conflate with “the good”), contra Adam Smith, who contends that, given basic limits, reasoned self-interest will produce a desirable outcome.


Why? Because where righteousness is placed after and profit is placed before, people will not be satisfied without grabbing and snatching. Just drawing lines is unnatural and arbitrary, insufficient for the cultivation of good character. Putting profit first with corollaries is indulging temptation.

Now this passage sounds like a political-philosophic application of Jesus’ injunction: “But(A) seek first(B) the kingdom of God and his righteousness,(C) and all these things will be added to you” (Mt. 6.33). We know the Bible’s claim that the one God of Christianity is Lord over all things. This being so, the Bible should have something to say about this matter, since it is, being the word inspired by the Holy Spirit in witness to the Christ from God the Father, not only inerrant but also sufficient, i.e. there is nothing of spiritual importance about which it says nothing. But is Mengzi’s claim a good interpretation and application of seeking the things of God even before our own living necessities and advantage?

I think so. For those who seek God and His glory, gain is merely incidental. It is appropriate to think about what is advantageous, then, only in the framework of what is right. And seeking to know God’s righteousness is enough work that we need not worry about profit and advantage. Or as Mengzi says above,

Why speak of profit? Indeed there is [with me] humaneness and righteousness, and that’s it.

Interpretation and Implementation

So what does this look like in the conduct of public and private life?

Machiavelli’s The Prince is obviously out. It represents very well an odious hypocrisy endemic in political life, though as a side note I would have to say that I do appreciate Machiavelli’s advocacy of citizen armies. Otherwise, though, I say throw it out, though not before good examination of the ideas’ merits and demerits.

Should a statesman who follows the Lord take this from Mengzi? It would seem that he is in line with the spiritual truths of the gospel. So this is a perfectly fine path to take.

But what indeed is the scope? It is unclear whether the import is only that righteousness should come first and rulers should not discuss benefit with advisers, especially from the very first sentence, or that benefit is so overwhelmingly insignificant that it should not be discussed at all.

By what the text says, it appears that cursory mention of disadvantage is not off limits, at least when one is making a strong point: “上下交征利而國危矣。” However, even this can be taken to mean that it is not just to do such neglect to the kingdom, the focus being on what is right rather than on what is profitable even when the two coincide.

Yet Scripture mentions benefit too in admonishing the hearer from trusting in his own sense of profit and thus being unwilling to live and lose his life for Christ’s sake:

(A)For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For(B) whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed(C) when he comes in(D) his glory and the glory of the Father and of(E) the holy angels. (Lk. 9.25-26)

But though it is true that the greatest benefit comes from following Christ, it is Him our eyes look upon, His glory we seek, His righteousness we put on, amen? And so no longer is it about our own profit but about God’s glory. Holiness, not gain, is what propels pursuit of God as the Holy Spirit transforms those whom He has called by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12.2).

So much for “private” life. All the while there is no wall between our private selves and our public selves, save for a curtain between where we come before Him and where we live in Him. What’s more, that curtain has been torn in two (Mk. 15.37-39)! Same person under the same Lord, and now His Spirit dwells in the hearts of His children by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Thus the same truth holds true. So it is for political life. Seeking the holy nature of God is the essential, and all other things are under His providence. Righteousness, and do not occupy yourself with bald advantage. Without a good ultimate outcome it is meaningless for something to be true, to be honourable, to be just, to be pure, to be lovely, to be commendable, be there any excellence, be there anything worthy of praise, but it is only with these things by Christ that there is an excellent outcome.

Some call it foolish. I? I call it grace that refuses to be captured inside a prism of dead belief. It must come out in works, and so the same righteousness in governing the state, for Christ is righteousness for us. And all the other things will be added as well. So we have no cause to worry about benefit or otherwise, because there is someone to trust. To God be the glory forever and ever, amen.

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8 responses to “Advantage and Righteousness, with Mengzi 1A.1

  1. Very interesting and very true. If only people these days would be able to focus on these pearls of wisdom instead of fishing foolishly for riches that do not exist.


  2. The invisible hand works to an extent. A profit motive can serve public good, but citizens have to pay close attention to who is getting what. They should not blindly buy from companies without realising what they are patronising.

    I used to be rather dismissive of the encouragements to “be an entrepreneur!” or all those “start your own home business” commercials. My reasoning was, “everyone can’t be a CEO, and there can be only so many entrepreneurs” — seeing venture capitalists etc. as people who were often parasitic agents, seeking to exploit markets.

    So while I am still dismissive of claims that you can start your own home business for nothing if you buy this 70 dollar CD (and don’t forget, you can get this extra DVD free!), I am now receptive towards the idea that everyone can own their own business (or have a considerable stake in one), and in fact should.

    It’s amazing how much incomes have increased (even after accounting for inflation) and how people can still struggle because they spend beyond their means. People who aren’t that wealthy splurge on that new iPhone could be investing that money in other ways to become economically self-sufficient later. It’s the classic case of Esau selling his birthright.

    Given the sheer market share of profit-taking corporations, I assert it is quite possible for everyone to own their own business. In doing so, they take away from the market share of the oppressive entities people so often complain about, and increase individual participation and control over the economy. Banded together in conscious collective citizen action, it would present a sizeable force against abusive entities in the economy.

    Consumerism is not the only way to drive the economy — as long as people invest their income, the economy grows. But alas, people see it more fit to buy something for the sake of status symbol (bowl of soup) rather than asserting their birthright.

    There are two types of profit, I have come to realise — profit that comes from exploitation and profit that comes from performing a function of economic value. For example, I was reading an Entrepreneur article about people whose business models were based on selling things off on Ebay, and the article was basically encouraging readers to try it too.

    There was a home business that consisted of buying golf clubs and other equipment from manufacturers and selling them for a profit. Meanwhile, all the customers flocked to it because the prices were lower than anybody else’s. My initial thoughts were, “how can it be lower than anybody else’s! They’re buying and reselling! They’re betting on people not knowing better and getting cheated!” But then I realised that the economic good performed was replacing the middleman — the retailer — who is an inefficient sort of distributor (having to pay for floorspace, electricity, sale staff and so on …) The internet is a far more efficient medium. Hence this sort of business actually benefited, not cheated, society.

    Then there are the entrepreneurs who end up selling worthless products (like ‘therapeutic rings’) that have no benefit, but making a fortune anyway. These are the sort to be discouraged — but they are the type who can be fought using consumer activist groups and social engineering.

    There is a social contract explanation to putting the profit motive second I suppose — an incentive to altruism (and adherence to law) because ultimately the good comes back to you. A sort of a political take on what the Bible had advocated all along.

    “I do appreciate Machiavelli’s advocacy of citizen armies.”

    “Did I mention I’m thoroughly enjoying the syntax of classical Chinese?”

    And the spoken language that it originally derived from! I yearn to hear how Old and Middle Chinese sounds like in conversation.

    It’s a few minutes to my first college classes, I better sign off now.


  3. Indeed the invisible hand does do some things well, often very well. I do not by any measure believe that Adam Smith was a “horrible man”.

    But there are better ways to frame economic activity than “profit”, because focus on benefit takes us away from why we conduct our economic affairs in the first place. It leaves our society prone to pursuit of perhaps superficially similar ends but with lack of coherence with respect to means.

    “Stewardship” reminds us that everything is God’s and thus that even what we have is for His purposes, to be earned, saved, invested and spent wisely because it’s the right thing to do, that even the ways we generate revenues can be acts of faith and love.

    Why frugality and shrewd investment? Because it’s part of stewardship, not because much can be squeezed out of it. Why the use of just means? Because we are responsible to the Lord, not because we just randomly insert it into our financial programme.

    Yes, I believe in rectifying names.


  4. And an article that relates to the discussion of capitalism: Christians and Competition.


  5. Mmm. I inherently dislike the idea of the rat race though I accept its existence.

    One of the key differences I think, is having material rights versus having a material culture.

    The first is necessary for progress, the second I see as completely unnecessary.


  6. I agree completely: the materialistic culture is grotesque, but material rights are necessary. And you cannot be charitable (in both the spiritual sense and the economic sense) if you have no choice.


  7. Pingback: Onus of the Family, Mengzi 4B.33 « Cogito, Credo, Petam

  8. Pingback: The State’s Duty to God (Part I): Accountable and then Authoritative « Cogito, Credo, Petam

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