“Every man has in him that which is exalted,”  Mencius tells us, and that is the heart, the best within the person. The heart is a symbol of our greatest aspirations. As Tang Chun-I, (1880-1978) a contemporary interpreter of Mencius stated, this symbol of heart inspires us to reach “supreme humanity.”  Mencius stated that our moral nature has four essential aspects. The first is ‘the heart of compassion’. This is proved by our natural abhorrence of the suffering of others. Second is ‘the heart of shame,’ which is proved by our disgust at atrocity. ‘The heart of courtesy and modesty’ emerges from our reverence. Finally, the ‘heart of right and wrong,’ emerges from the heart being the sense organ of goodness.  Each of these four aspects has its virtue, or optimal realization of its capacity.

The cultivation of the heart of compassion leads to the realization of benevolence or jen. This notion of jen represents the achievement of our ultimate humanness, or being humane.

The cultivation of the heart of shame, leads to rightness or dutifulness known in Chinese as yi. Our healthy shame leads us to take the right action even when no one is looking.

The heart of courtesy and modesty, when cultivated leads us to have the virtue of decorum or li. This means following the right form of behavior and an observance of rites.

Finally, the heart of right and wrong leads to wisdom or chih.

Though Confucius concerned himself deeply with what was called, li, or external, ritualized form, the felt experience was what was essential for aligning with the ethical value. He tells us that symbolic actions without embodied emotional qualities are meaningless. In this sense, for the outside to have meaning, it had to derive from the inward, the heart. Confucius said, “In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.”  Authentic feeling is our goal, not fulfilling some outer ritual.

In the same way, the virtue, the integral quality of the person, is what is of significance, not some external marker like station, wealth or success. “The Master said, ‘High station filled without indulgent generosity; ceremonies performed without reverence . . . wherewith should I contemplate such ways?’”

For each of these virtues to be authentic, they must emerge, as Augustine also asserted, from the heart. To simply follow the form of jen, yi, li or chih without an intrinsic, natural motivation for doing so, is merely to have the conduct, not the virtue. Authentically embodying these virtues means that we are in harmony with the principles of nature. Living by the dictates and form rather than the intrinsic principle inevitably leads to inner, and outer, conflict.

Without proper cultivation, these incipient capacities can be easily lost. This is tantamount to the loss of our original heart. Since for Mencius these potentials are the defining characteristics of human beings, to not develop them to the utmost is to lose the heart, where heart means essence. To be distanced from our essential nature is to go against the principles of universal nature which inevitably leads to an unfulfilled, unhappy and unsuccessful life.

The extent to which we live out of harmony with universal law or the heavenly mandate is revealed through symptoms both individually and collectively. The laws and principles of nature are not explicated magically, where the result proves the cause, like in the early Old Testament view, promoted by the likes of Pat Robertson even today, who claimed that AIDS and the hurricane and Katrina were examples of God’s retribution against sinners. In this view, any disastrous event proves in some way to be God’s punishment for some unrelated wicked deed. Instead, in the Mencian view, there are natural consequences to living out of harmony with universal law. If we can see the tragic lawfulness behind occurrences, we come to understand principle or the order of the cosmos. Natural law is proven by our inability to escape the consequences of living out of harmony with nature.

Despite the fact that we can lose touch with these aspects of ourselves does not mean that they are destroyed or that they are not natural.   They can be found again. They can be cultivated, which is defined as the act of searching for the heart.  Mencius focused on our own efforts as the path to finding or retaining the heart. To find the heart means accessing the right way to live according to universal principle and human nature, as exemplified by an ideal inspired by a timeless, ancient form. This defined the moral. By pursuing the good, we could find the heart. The way to find the heart was to seek it. As Confucius put it, “Is benevolence really far away? No sooner do I desire it than it is here.”

Keeping the original heart is a defining characteristic of the Confucian ideal of the profound person. Mencius says, “A gentleman differs from other men in that he retains his heart.”

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