For the great Chinese phil0sopher Mencius, disciple of Confucius, the unique aspect of the human being was his heart. What did Mencius mean by heart?

As human thought had its greatest advance in the few hundred years following the 5th century BCE, this time, too, saw the revelation of the meaning of hsin in Chinese philosophy, most accurately translated as heart/mind. Previous to this time, including in the writings of Confucius himself, though the heart is named, its meanings were not explored in depth.

As our inspiring quote has it, “The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” When Mencius writes about the heart, and tells us about a process of self-development based on a rediscovery of original nature, he is describing his own life process. As Mencius relates his experience of actualization in his discussion of heart, he serves as an inspiration for other questers in search of their own essential being. As we understand from our exploration of hermeneutics, the purpose of reading the Mencius in depth is not some intellectual exercise of understanding, but a central method of self-cultivation. The goal of reading Mencius is not to understand the heart, but to find it. This heroic journey of self-realization which is made possible by travelling with Mencius into the symbol of the heart is what makes his writings on the subject so valuable.

Essence, Entelechy and Heart

In their search for the good of all, the Confucians looked for the ‘single thread,’ or universal law. They found these principles through an examination of nature, as exemplified in agriculture.  “The principle in the course and operation of nature . . . obeys only its immutable law . . .”

Agriculture operates from the understanding that when we cultivate plants according to the laws of the processes of nature, we can dramatically increase and control our yield. If our plant withers, it must mean we are not honoring nature’s law. This power of understanding also poses a danger, because as much as we can improve on nature, if our understanding is one-sided we can disturb nature’s ecological balance. We can create a short-term gain and create a long-term problem. The workings of nature are more subtle than simply increasing an immediate yield. We see how even today we continue to struggle with accomplishing sustainable fecundity.

Through a process of inference, the Confucians believed that in the same way that nature has hidden laws that can be discovered, humans, too, have these subtle, profound principles. This is human nature, which is embedded in nature as a whole. Through an observation of living things in nature, the Confucians recognized that each living thing grows and develops. It has an inherent pattern that exists originally in potential. When it is optimally cultivated, it realizes this potential. This was the Chinese discovery of what Aristotle would call a telos, a purpose, or that to which a thing aims.

The Chinese view is that the principles of development and realization found through agriculture are a microcosm of universal patterns.  If we can understand these universal principles, and live in harmony with them, then we, too, will grow maximally, and fulfill our potentials.

As the universe, through the example of life, is about growth and change, so too, the universe must have its telos, purpose, or developmental realization. Archeologist/theologian Teillard de Chardin recognized that there are two basic movements in the universe. One is toward a loss of differentiation. Much of the universe is moving toward entropia, a breakdown of complex, systemic organization into ‘noise.’ Rather than the universe developing, this indicates that the universe is falling apart. However, a smaller, but far more important segment of the universe continues to move toward greater differentiation and complexification. As this segment has complexified it has become alive and has increased in consciousness and freedom. It is this universal complexification axis that the Confucians intuited through coming to observe relationships and processes of growth and development. By observing this process, we can infer where the universe is heading. This motion is what the Chinese would call the Tao, or Way.
This corresponds to Aristotle’s entelechy. Human nature is a process of becoming. That is, we all have the potential to continuously grow. Individually, this process leads toward each of us becoming an absolutely unique being. When we realize ourselves in this way, we are living in harmony with our own nature, and so in harmony with universal nature. This is what nature wants from us.

Our life is meant to be an expression, a manifestation, of what one essentially is, both in its universal aspect of a fulfillment of our human nature, and in its most individual, unique and particular aspects. Both together make up our entelechy, the purpose for which we exist, and the realization of our inherent potentials that exist ab origine, nascently, in our beginning.

Observing the workings of nature, Mencius understood the Aristotelian cause of form. One cause of a thing’s individual existence is its organization. The greater the complexity of a thing, that is, the greater the harmony of its parts, the greater the thing’s health, capacity for development, and power. The laws of nature can be perceived in this growth through a harmony of parts, which is one way of defining a complex structure. This would lead to the conclusion that in order to achieve fulfillment, we need to not only have internal order, but to be in harmonic relation to a greater whole. We need to find our proper place in the cosmos. This is good both for the individual and the cosmos in its totality. As sentient beings, we get to participate in the process of optimizing our use of natural law through its understanding and so advance the natural movement of nature’s development. Our job then, is to comprehend the laws of nature and live according to these principles. In this way, we find individual fulfillment and the fulfillment of the greater universal organism.

That which is taken to its summit point of development, beginning with the simple and moving to the complex, leads to infinite realization. As Mencius said,

“Or consider the high mountains: they consist of nothing more than a multiplicity of single handfuls of stones. But when these are taken to their fullest extent of breadth or vastness, then trees and grasses grow upon them in untold profusion, all manner of birds and beasts dwell within them and hidden treasures emerge from their midst.”

As every realm is ecologically intertwined, our inherent potentials are not only designed for the good and growth of the individual, but for culture, group, society, species, world, and universe. We are inextricably interwoven in a web of relationships and relatedness. These, too, make up organism, and system. These developmental and relational laws are the Heavenly Mandate.

That which we are meant to be, our purpose or telos, is one way of defining our essential nature. Mencius asserted that what makes a person’s essence is that which makes them unique. He called this unique feature of humanity, that is, our entelechal purpose, the heart. For Mencius, the home of human nature within the individual is the heart.

We can know the heavenly mandate—universal nature—if we understand human nature. Therefore, the home of the heavenly mandate within the person is the heart. As such, Mencius’s humanism is a transcendental one. As he said, “Following our inner knowledge, we shall know our heart, thereby know our nature, and thus come to know our heaven.”

If we find our hearts we can know these universal laws of nature, and by living in accord with them, we can achieve our life’s purpose.  Our task in life, the Confucians believed, is to find what they called the Central Harmony. When we make manifest the Heavenly Mandate by living according to the principles of nature, we achieve the Central Harmony. By finding our hearts and living according to the Tao we achieve the Central Harmony. The heart is the part of us that “possesses the nature to grow” toward the realization of our true humanity.

This contribution of Mencius, of defining the heart as the place of our realization, is the core of the Chinese humanistic philosophy.   The source of fulfillment is within. Mencius tells us that a phenomenological process of self-exploration, a journey to this inner source, will lead us to rediscover the heart, and to be in harmony with essential human nature.

Furthermore, through coming to comprehend microcosmic and macrocosmic nature, this dynamic, inspiring symbol leads us to the ultimate realization of the self, humanity and the universe in its totality.

If this subject of entelechy is of interest to you, you might want to explore Dr. Art Rosengarten’s blog.

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