Focusing on the Physical
Live Like a Confucian
The mouth in relation to flavors, the eyes in relation to sights, the ears in relation to notes, the nose in relation to odors, the four limbs in relation to comfort: these are matters of nature (xing 性) but they are also fated (ming 命). Nonetheless, a superior person does not refer to them as “nature.” Benevolence between father and son, righteousness between ruler and minister, propriety between guest and host, wisdom in relation to the worthy…: these are mandated, but they also involve nature. Nonetheless, a superior person does not refer to them as “fated.”
– Mengzi 7B24
Mengzi distinguishes between two sets of inclinations: physical ones (like our desire for tasty flavors) and moral ones (like the tendency of parents and children to interact with benevolent care). The moral inclinations are what Mengzi also calls our “sprouts”; you explored one of your sprouts in yesterday’s exercise.
Mengzi also distinguishes in this passage between an inclination’s being our “nature” and being “fated.” For Mengzi, “fate” refers to things outside our control. Our mouths are drawn toward sweetness more or less from birth; we do not have to do anything to make this so. This is “fate.” If you lose your job because the company goes bankrupt and everyone is laid off, this is also fate since it is outside your control. “Nature,” on the other hand, refers here to the best self that a thing has the built-in (i.e., natural) potential to become. In this sense, it is an acorn’s “nature” to be an oak tree.
There are two things in particular that we should note. First, superior people refer only to our moral inclinations as “nature”; second, the physical inclinations themselves are also part of our “nature.”
This is obviously very compressed; here’s what’s going on. Both moral and physical inclinations arise in us on their own (think of the reaction to seeing a baby about to fall into a well) and so are “fated,” but the physical ones are much more robust than the moral ones. If we do nothing to nurture our moral reactions, they’ll remain weak and will rarely move us to action. This is why we need to “cultivate” our sprouts. Physical reactions, on the other hand, don’t need our help. Sure, you can cultivate a taste for something new or learn to appreciate subtle distinctions of flavor, but even without this, you’ll enjoy food. So superior people focus their efforts on the moral reactions, and Mengzi signals this by saying they don’t actively think of the physical ones as “nature.” Still, physical satisfactions are nonetheless part of our nature, part of our best lives. Living a good Confucian life involves physical pleasures as well as moral ones.
Yesterday, you focused on one of your moral inclinations (one of the sprouts). Today, in contrast, focus on one of the physical inclinations Mengzi identified: that of the mouth, eyes, ears, nose, or four limbs. Spend the day thinking about how best to cultivate and satisfy this inclination and trying your best to do so. (Yes, this bears some resemblance to the life Callicles would want you to live.)