Right to Revolution? Not Quite

Does Mencian political philosophy support the people’s right to revolution? What is the proper relationship among sovereigns, ministers and subjects? Mengzi I.B.4 says:

King Xuan of Qi received Mencius in the Snow Palace. The king said, “Do worthy men find these same things to be pleasures?”

Mencius replied, “They do; and if people generally cannot be satisfied, they condemn their superiors. They who cannot be satisfied and so condemn their superiors are wrong, but those who are the people’s superiors but do not rejoice together with the people also do wrong. For him who rejoices in the joy of his people, they also rejoice in his joy; for him who grieves at the sorrow of his people, they also grieve at his sorrow. Such joy will capture all under heaven; such sorrow will capture all under heaven. Where this is so and the ruler does not attain to the royal dignity — there has never been such a thing.”

Mencius claims that the people would be wrong to condemn their rulers if they did not attain to the level of enjoyment that they wanted. I take this as an important corollary to the Mencian doctrine that a ruler who has lost legitimacy by his actions must be deposed: not only does Mencius imply here that revolution is not the free prerogative of the people, but he says plainly that even censuring one’s true “superiors” is wrong.

Since this book is to edify the rulers and not the many people, though, it does not dwell long on these considerations. Even for the minister to the state, deposing the king is far from a routine correction, though indeed the historical examples are both memorable and important. It is not even mentioned. Instead Mencius counts him with the king among those who must see to it that they make merry not in the seclusion of their hallowed halls but together with the people, in the same spirit, sharing in common joy and sorrow.

At the same time, Mencius is clearly talking primarily about the sovereign when he says that the one who sympathizes and empathizes with the exultations and groans of his people will gain their sympathy and be master of the kingdom. Because of this, the ministers also serve an intermediary role between their lord the sovereign and their flock the people. They are not expendable. It is with them that the sovereign shows his love for the people and through them that the people rejoice and grieve toward the sovereign.

To the best of his ability, this is what the minister must do, even as Mencius does in his audience with King Xuan. Like the people, he owes fealty to his lord as the earthly authority he serves, but like the sovereign, he owes compassion to the people who look to him and the court as leaders. Chinese court histories expand this to imply that if the sovereign transgresses, the minister has the duty to remonstrate respectfully but persistently to support the sovereign in his position. If the sovereign becomes nothing more than a criminal, and only then, the minister has the duty to depose him.

Regulated by these things, the sovereign, the minister and the subject each have what is proper to them.


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