Mencius and Misericordia

Mencius leaps right over the dichotomy of mind and heart: “all people have a mind and heart which cannot bear to see the suffering of others,” that is, misericordia.  Mencius thought with his heart and felt with his head.

“All people have the mind/heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning is this:  When people see a child falling into a well, they feel distress, not to gain friendship with the parents, nor to seek the praise of neighbors, nor because they dislike the reputation of in humanity if they did not rescue the child. A person without misericordia is not a person; a person without the feeling of shame is not a person; a person without the feeling of deference is not a person; and a person without a feeling of right and wrong is not a person.  The feeling of misericordia is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.  People have these four beginnings, feelings, just as they have four limbs. Having these four beginnings, but saying they cannot develop them is to destroy the people.  If anyone with these four beginnings, feelings, in them knows how to give them extension and development, the result will be like fire beginning to burn or a spring beginning to shoot forth. When developed, they will be sufficient to protect all the people.  If they are not developed, they will not be sufficient to serve even one’s parents.” 

The Book of Mencius,  2A:6

The four beginnings are innate moral qualities that bridge the dichotomy of head and heart. For Mencius, they are the core of humanity and the center of education.  Analogously, these four beginnings help us understand that our educational mission is essentially religious, but specifically intellectual.  Our educational mission should neglect no significant dimension of human possibility and experience.

The one thing necessary here is not to draw an unnecessary dichotomy.  Our merciful minds and hearts, fully engaged in education, seek to understand and encompass the full breadth of human experience. Our Sister of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, challenges us as educators to see higher education as a work of mercy, as an activity of a compassionate mind and heart, as misericordia.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

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