Friday, February 02, 2007

The Parable of the Farmer of Song (Mengzi 2A2)

No, he doesn't harvest music!

One must work at it, but do not aim at it directly. Let the heart not forget, but do not help it grow. Do not be like the man from Song (Sung). Among the people of the state of Song there was one who, concerned lest his grain not grow, pulled on it. Wearily, he returned home, and said to his family, 'Today I am worn out. I helped the grain to grow.' His son rushed out and looked at it. The grain was withered. Those in the world who do not help the grain to grow are few. Those who abandon it, thinking it will not help, are those who do not weed their grain. Those who help it grow are those who pull on the grain. Not only does this not help, but it even harms it.

This parable appears in the middle of a larger fragment, Mengzi (Mencius) 2A2 (Bryan Van Norden, trans.). The standard interpretation these days (e.g. P.J. Ivanhoe) is this. Just as the man of Song harms his grain by trying to force it to grow, so also we can harm our moral development by trying to perform grand acts of morality before we are psychologically ready to do so -- i.e., before we'd feel happy and unresentful doing so.

Two considerations may seem to compel this interpretation. First, Mengzi often uses agricultural metaphors to talk about the cultivation of moral goodness. And second, the sentence preceding the parable is: "Consequently, I say that Gaozi never understood righteousness, because he regarded it as external." Hence, the "it" at the beginning of the parable might naturally be understood as "righteousness".

But here are two problems: First, its plausibility. It seems strange to say that "Those in the world who do not help the grain [i.e. morality] to grow are few." Are people generally as eager to work at becoming more virtuous as this farmer is to help his grain? And furthermore, is trying to force oneself to be virtuous such a bad thing? -- something that generally harms one's moral development?

Second, Mengzi never says, anywhere else, anything like "That would be a morally good thing to do, but you would resent doing it, so you shouldn't do it. Take it slow, instead." On the contrary, Mengzi seems to demand instant moral behavior from everyone and is unsatisfied with half-measures (e.g. 3B8, 7A39, 1A3).

A better interpretation of the parable, I think, comes from looking at 2A2 as a whole. 2A2 begins with long discussion of the "unperturbed heart", the "floodlike qi [breath/vital-energy]", and courage. The kind of courage Mengzi most admires is strength of moral conviction (which seems to be the core of "sageness", e.g., in 5B1) -- not being blown about by the winds of circumstance and drawn away from one's convictions by the temptations of personal advantage. If no circumstance, good or bad, could perturb your heart and interfere with your breath [qi], then you will be unshakeable from morality: This is having a "floodlike qi". Immediately before the parable of the farmer is this:

Gongsun Chou said, "I venture to ask what is meant by 'floodlike qi.'"

Mengzi said, "It is difficult to put into words. It is a qi that is supremely great and supremely unyielding. If one cultivates it with uprightness and does not harm it, it will fill up the space between Heaven and earth. It is a qi that unites righteousness with the Way. Without these, it starves. It is produced by accumulated righteousness. It cannot be obtained by a seizure of righteousness. If some of one's actions leave one's heart unsatisfied, it will starve. Consequently, I say that Gaozi never understood righteousness, because he regarded it as external."

In this broader context, I'd suggest the parable is not about the cultivation of morality or righteousness per se but rather about the cultivation of a floodlike qi -- i.e., steadfastness of character. Plainly this is related to morality for Mengzi, but it is not the same.

What is it, then, to try to force one's character to grow, per the farmer of Song? Maybe this: Overestimate one's steadfastness. Allow oneself to be put into situations that bring out the bad in people, thinking that you can resist in a way others can't -- allowing yourself that "one more drink", saying to yourself "I won't yield to temptation this time", or "politics won't corrupt me", or "if I get [money, power, influence, the promotion, etc.] I won't be like those other people". There are few of us who don't overestimate ourselves in that way; and so overestimating ourselves we put ourselves in situations that greatly harm our moral character.

This interpretation, although only subtly different from the standard, is different enough to avoid the latter's difficulties.


Brad C said...

Hi Eric,

This really makes me want to read Mengzi! What translation should I get?

I have two comments. The first raises some doubts about the interpretation you give. The second proposes an alternative (might be complementary to yours).

(1) I am not seeing how the idea of overestimating one's character fits with this characterization of the farmer's motive: "Among the people of the state of Song there was one who, concerned lest his grain not grow, pulled on it." Is the idea that the less-than-steadfast man is concerned lest his quality of character not grow?

If so, some problems crop up:

First, that seems to run into your first worry - it seems overly optimistic to say that most people are trying to develop steadfast character.

Second, how does the metaphor of "pulling at the grain to make it grow" fit the description you give: "Allow oneself to be put into situations that bring out the bad in people, thinking that you can resist in a way others can't." That does not, e.g., sound like an active attempt to improve one's steadfastness to me.

(2) At the end you gloss "floodlike qi" as "steadfastness". I do not mean to deny this is part of the story -- after all I have not read any more Mengzi than what you quote and am likely influenced by my reading of Daoism and Buddhism. But any way, I want to suggest something else (or in addition) to what you do.

In the quote you give, Mengzi says "If no circumstance, good or bad, could perturb your heart and interfere with your breath [qi], then you will be unshakeable from morality: This is having a "floodlike qi."

Having floodlike qi, then, seems to me to centrally involve being unperturbed by the good or bad that befalls you, those you care about, etc.; floodlike qi involves resilient equanimity. This seems interesting to me and helps us to avoid the problems listed above:

First, it does seem that many, perhaps most, people desire equanimity - everyone wants to be rid of worry, envy, etc. And many try, unproductively, to achieve it by the method I will next suggest as a gloss on "pulling on the grain."

Second, if you realize that you are bothered by the good or bad that befalls you and are concerned to achieve peace of mind (i.e. you are "concerned lest [your] grain not grow") then, you might well try to force yourself to be indifferent, perhaps by trying to convince yourself that you do not care about the good or bad or by repressing the emotional reactions that betray the fact that you DO care (i.e. you "pull on your grain").

I note the attempt to battle your own emotional reactions that embody your caring about good and bad - either by denial, repression, or other mechanisms - often makes one tied or depressed and thus fits this: "Wearily, he returned home, and said to his family, 'Today I am worn out. I helped the grain to grow.'"

Finally, I think this is a plausible account of how many try to overcome a "troubled mind”.

Justin Tiwald said...

I have so much to do this weekend, but I can't resist!

I wrote up a response to this interpretation last time, Eric. But somehow it didn't register on the blog and I became too discouraged to write it up again. As I wrote then, 2A2 is ambiguous in a number of different ways, and your reading is certainly within the range of plausible ones (as is Brad's, when read as a complement to yours). I appreciate it even more now that I see the insightful arguments you have mustered to your cause!

I just have a couple of points for now.

First, it's not so far-fetched to think that people might try to hard to be good people and yet go about it in the wrong way. Remember that the virtues were widely understood as giving the virtuous a kind of power over their beneficiaries (in large part a power of indebtedness). Ambitious rulers even saw sage-like virtue as a likely qualification for anyone who wanted to unify the empire under his rule.

One of Mengzi's thematic concerns is that people generally aim to become virtuous for the wrong reasons. In an article on the "Paradox of Wuwei" Nivison points out that this is a major preoccupation of a number of early Chinese thinkers. Virtues were generally understood as being good for the virtuous, and yet one can't successfully cultivate the virtues out of self-interest. (Obviously this isn't a paradox in the strict sense, but you get the picture.) So many of these early thinkers--especially the Confucians and Daoists--sought for ways if cultivating virtue "indirectly," just as the language in this passage suggests.

Second, I'm not entirely clear whether the key move you make--suggesting that it is "steadfastness of character" that one shouldn't rush--really runs against the grain of the Ivanhoe and Van Norden reading. It might, but I suppose we should talk about it a bit to figure this out. Surely having the virtue of "yi" (rightness, righteousness) requires steadfastness of character. And Mengzi does say that we shouldn't cultivate the flood-like qi through a "seizure of righteousness." However, the Chinese in this sentence isn't perfectly clear, and there might be a better translation of the character that Van Norden reads as "seizure." Perhaps "ambush," since it's really a kind of military term. But "seizure" sounds a bit more natural to the English-speaker's ear.

Third, Mengzi isn't condemning the performance good actions per say. He's just arguing that it isn't effective in cultivating virtue. So I don't think he would insist that a person's moral immaturity should to stop her from saving a drowning child simply because she's be rushing her moral cultivation. Similarly, he wouldn't want a king's moral immaturity from stop him from instituting policies that would save his people from starvation (as per 1A3). Obviously some immediate moral imperatives are going to trump the demands of cultivating virtue in the right way for the right reasons.

Finally, I think you may be right that "it" doesn't refer to "righteousness." In the sentence that Van Norden translates as " It is produced by accumulated righteousness," "it" is clearly to be understood as flood-like qi. And the Chinese could just as well be translated as "it is grown by accumulated righteousness," a perfect analogue to the farmer's grain!

Justin Tiwald said...


I like your interpretation, and wonder if it couldn't somehow help to illustrate Mengzi's more general worry that morally immature people who attempt to do virtuous things will tend to do them for the wrong reasons.

Yes, Mengzi is simply great. And Eric really brings out his sophistication on matters of moral psychology. He's helped to enhance my own appreciation of Mengzi in this regard.

Since Mengzi's work is canonical there are many translations available. I rather like Van Norden's, which can be found in Ivanhoe and Van Norden's Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. Unfortunately, the book only makes room for the "greatest hits" and I don't think Bryan has finished a comprehensive translation. The best complete translation is probably D.C. Lau's (Penguin). And I recently ran across an on-line translation by Dan Robbins which isn't bad.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Wow, great comments, Brad and Justin! Now, let's see, there's a lot to address:

* I agree with Justin's remarks about the translations (though I say this only knowing a bit of classical Chinese).

* I like your interpretation, Brad. I think my statement "strength of moral conviction" captures only part of what I meant to capture: Really, I'd suggest that it's the strength of moral conviction that arises from, and yields, what you aptly call a "resilient equanimity" -- in my rather literal, physiological reading of the passage, not being prone to have one's heart race and one's breath break its slow, even pace. That aspect didn't come out clearly enough in the post.

* I accept your criticism, Brad, that overestimating our steadfastness of character is in some sense more passive than the farmer's tugging at his grain, and that is a weakness in my interpretation. Most people don't actively aim at steadfastness of character.

But I also suspect most people don't actively aim at "resilient equanimity". (This might have been different in ancient China, but we should remember that Mengzi lived long before Buddhism began to have influence there.) And forcing oneself to be indifferent and consequently battling your emotional reactions doesn't seem nearly the widespread moral crisis that overestimating one's own steadfastness of character is.

So maybe on balance, your interpretation is a bit closer to a straightforward reading of the text and mine is a little more charitable?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

And Justin:

* I agree that my claim that people don't generally aim to improve their moral character is weakened somewhat by the fact that in ancient China de (virtue) meant both moral virtue and power, and there was a tradition of seeing morality and power connected; so ordinary folk (or rulers) might aim at the one as a means to get the other, or even just conflate the two in their minds.

* I'm inclined to disagree with you, though, about Mengzi having as a central concern people's aiming toward virtue for the wrong reasons. I agree that there are a few passages where he says you need not only to act out what right but also have the right heart behind it. But I'm also struck, again and again (esp. in the early books) by his seeming to use the promise of political power as a means to persuade kings to do what's morally right.

In fact, through the whole ancient Chinese tradition I'm struck by what seem to me the rather crude and implausible appeals of moral philosophers to convince the reader that what's morally right is also to their personal advantage -- not only Mengzi with kings but Mozi with ghosts and Xunzi in chapters 1 and 2.

* On your second point, I agree that the position I advocate isn't very different from the Ivanhoe position; but I think it's subtly different in an important way. Maybe it's better called a refinement or friendly amendment?

* And finally, I agree that advocates of what I'm calling the standard interpretation could avoid my objection by saying that in passages 1A3 etc. what's going on is that doing the right thing overrides the importance of cultivating one's character. But given the importance Mengzi puts on having the trust of the people (even more important than food! -- what's that passage?), I think we should be cautious about assuming that Mengzi would have thought that the development of the moral character of the king is less important than feeding the people. And it remains striking that there's no confirmation (or none that I can find) in any other passage for the Ivanhoe "go slow" approach to moral development.

Thanks again to both you and Brad for comments that really help me see the issues here more clearly! This is philosophical blogging at it's best.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Oh, and let me add one more point in defense of my "steadfastness of character" interpretation:

As I see it, whether one has a sagelike strength of character or whether one like ordinary people is blown about by situation, is a recurrent theme in the Mengzi; but people's aiming at indifference is not. So my interpretation resonates better, I think, with the broader themes of the text.

(You might say in reply, Brad, that ignoring the feelings in one's heart is a recurrent theme; but I don't think that's the same as aiming at equanimity.)

Justin Tiwald said...

Hi Eric,

I'm enjoying this--you are really forcing me to think more clearly and systematically about my reading on Mengzi on this issue. I'm coming around to a compromise position. But I'm not sure it's a compromise you'll be satisfied with.

I appreciate your concern that there is too little evidence for the "go slow" approach, understood should only advance in baby steps, favoring the more modest deeds that we already find somewhat rewarding and have a kind of immediate appeal to us over the ones that will make us resentful. I'm sure you'll admit that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it takes a long time to cultivate the virtues of righteousness and humanity. But this is not the same thing as saying that we should be wary of morally ambitious projects that are likely to be unrewarding and make us resentful, which apparently would be the opposite of going slow ("rushing things"?).

I'm not sure, though, that this last sentence is the best characterization of the Ivanhoe reading. As Ivanhoe says (I think) in his article about extension (in Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi), a person shouldn't take on great tasks without first having developed a kind of intuitive appreciation of the good in one's more ambitious deeds. Furthermore, the mechanism of moral appreciation is such that one must feel a kind of immediate joy in contemplating the deed and its outcomes. That appreciation works in tandem with that immediate joy. In order to do things for which one doesn't have such an appreciation, one has to "build on" an intuitive appreciation of goodnesses that one already has (in some sense), which means that one has to build on the sense of immediate joy one already experiences in relevantly similar (but less heroic) deeds. I'm pretty sure that this is how PJ reads the passage in 1A7, where Mengzi points out to King Xuan that he felt spontaneous compassion for the sacrificial ox, and should therefore work on "extending" it to his subjects (1A7).

One might object that the whole project of moral cultivation can't even get off the ground unless one is willing to do things that will make them resentful. But the point of the above analysis isn't that a person should only do things that don't make them resentful at all. It isn't even that a person should do things that, on balance, make them feel more joy than resentment. Rather, it's just that one should work on those things that give them some immediate joy, because that joy is a necessary constituent of moral appreciation. Mengzi readily admits that people are going to find difficult doing good deeds. Our moral sprouts are young and immature, and there are often countervailing desires and inclinations. So there's going to be some resentment no matter what (except in the case of moral paragons). But there is nevertheless an imperative to take baby steps in just this sense: that one should already have developed some basic capacity to feel immediate joy in doing the good deed.

(Perhaps I should add that what applies to immediate joy in the case of good things also applies to immediate distress in the case of bad things. So one learns to appreciate what's abhorrent in subtly evil kinds of behavior by building on the immediate feeling of distress they feel for the child about to fall into the well.)

I'm inclined to agree with your reading of the passage on the farmer of Song. I think it can be enlisted as one of the reasons not to be too ambitious in one's struggle to become a good person. And like I said, I agree that the implicit "it" in the text could well refer to flood-like qi. I don't think your reading runs against the spirit of the "go slow" reading in general. But it could well run against PJ's explicit reading of this passage. I wish I had my books here, so I could check.

Justin Tiwald said...

Oh yeah, regarding Mengzi's worry about doing virtuous things for the wrong reasons--I admit that my evidence won't entirely satisfy everyone. However, I see it as playing a rather fundamental and dynamic role in motivating much of his moral psychology. On the one hand, as you say, Mengzi often appeals to self-interest as a reason to start down the path of moral cultivation. On the other hand, he also implores his audiences not aim for the rewards of virtue for selfish reasons (most famously in 1A1). The trick, then, is to find a way of getting people to recognize that moral cultivation is in their interest, while simultaneously getting them to lose self-interest as a motive. I'm not clear on how this is accomplished. Perhaps we could say that a person should gradually "forget" what set her out on the path of moral cultivation in the first place. Or perhaps we could tell some story about McDowellian "silencing" of reasons. But worries of this kind tend to be the background of a great deal of moral speculation in early China. Sometimes it's made explicit (e.g., in the Daodejing), but I think it looms large even in those texts that don't make it explicit. In this sense it's not unlike the way theological volunteerism loomed so large for empiricists in the early modern period. Even if the early empiricists didn't say so, much of their drive to "naturalize" ethics was motivated by a worry that God's will is too metaphysical or too unverifiable a foundation for moral claims. Some philosophical worries are just so much "in the air" that the philosophers of the age rarely bother to make them explicit. But I find this worry in the appeal to ritual principles in Xunzi, in the appeal to music as a device for moral cultivation, in the way that Confucian implore us to build on familial love in order to develop appropriate concern for others, and in many other places. But of course, my strong hunch may not be convincing by itself, since I think it is more often implicit than explicit.

Eric, thanks for pushing me on this. It really has been a worthwhile exercise. I see in this area a lot of potential to refine many of the popular readings of Mengzi and hope we can talk more about it sometime. Or feel free to keep pushing!