Ancient Chinese Schools of Thought | Mohism

Of the various popular schools of thought that survived ancient China. Mohism is probably the least understood or covered in historical references. Mohism or (Moism), is a 5th century school of philosophy founded by the ancient Chinese politician Mozi (original Mo Di) (470? – 391? BCE). The philosophy was birthed sometime during the Liu-Song dynasty (420–479 CE), during what is known as the Northern & Southern dynasties of Chinese history. During Mozi lifetime China was not a country, it wasn’t even called China. In ancient times it was an ethnically homogenous region that was split into seven separate kingdoms. Mozi sought to harmonize the political corruption and social dystopia brought about by the constant civil warfare and infighting. Its essential purpose was to challenge the central authority of Confucian ideals concerning ceremonial tides, filial piety, and wasteful spending. It also sought to universalize the political and social philosophies that disconnected the various warring states. The focus of this essay will cover the classic 10 major tenets of this ancient philosophy. And to further extrapolate its historical intention tied to the purpose of its revisionary ideas.

“May you live in interesting times”

— English proverb

To understand Mohism it’s important to step back into the past. His philosophy was birthed during a time of great social, spiritual, and political turmoil. Mozi, for his time, could be considered a beacon of hope — a trailblazer of progressive ideas meant establish social order and quell political opposition. What is mostly known about Mozi early life are only secondary accounts. He came from humble origins. His parents were artisans that worked near shipping ports. From an early age he was intelligent and showed an interest in politics. He pursued a political career and managed to become a high member of the governmental ministry of the Liu-Song dynasty. He was an eccentric figure well known for his pacifism. It is said that he traveled throughout the three kingdoms to dissuade rulers from seeking further military conquest and expansion. Unfortunately, there’s not much more detail known about his personal life but plenty is known about his infamous era.

To understand what may have influenced Mozi philosophy it is necessary to contrast with the tragic events that occurred during his lifetime. The Waring States Period, as it is known, refers to an historical collection of territorial disputes between the waring-factions in the region in what is known today as China. The genesis of these skirmishes began as a result of the fracturing of the Zhao Kingdom. The First Disaster of Wu occurs during Mozi lifetime. It marks one of three historical upheavals between the growing foreign influence of Buddhism and other traditional Chinese spiritual practitions. Traditional Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism still reigned supreme in the region but Buddhism popularity grew with the new emperor of the southern Liu-Song dynasty adopting it as the state’s official religion. In the Northern Empire Taiwu of Wei (北魏太武帝, 408–452 CE) considered Buddhism to be a militant threat. In (446 CE) Emperor Taiwu rebelled against the foreign religion by condemning nearly all of its temples and monasteries throughout the northern Guanzhong region. Parricide, was also commonplace amongst the nobility. The southern Liu-Song dynasty was probably one of the worst examples of this. The first emperor Liu-Yu was assassinated by his son Liu-Shao, and then his son was in turn assassinated by his brother Liu-Ju. His brother then reportedly assassinated all of his blood-relatives that were boys to secure his right to the throne. His son Liu Ziye reigned after only a year before being violently murdered by his uncle Emperor Ming of Song. Apart from how the tragedy of the Liu-Song dynasty played out, all of these events occurred during Mozi lifetime. It’s fair to assume how his environment may have shaped his philosophy. And, quite possibly, what may have made Mohism such an attractive idea.

The principium of the Mohist philosophy is centered around The Ten Triads or Ten Doctrines of the Mohist school of thought. It should be noted that these ideas were developed into a collection of essays that may have more than one author. The five main principles we will discuss are,

  1. Antifatalism: also known as identifying upward, meant we should each exemplify the social and political virtue of the hierarchical order (Zhi).
  2. Promoting the worthy: meant that we should promote only those who are exemplary of their virtues.
  3. Condemning aggression: a consequentialist view that marks those who violate these principles, that they may be condemned for their actions, and unfavorited by the heavens.
  4. Moderation in utility: showing austerity in funeral processions and ritual festivities.
  5. Will of Heavens & On Ghosts: disagreements on moral righteousness and virtue leads to conflict. The Heavens should be considered a universal and objective moral standard.
Undifferentiated Love & Condemnation of Aggression

Mozi fought against reactionist ideology that favored the classical teachings of Confucius. Mozi felt that Confucius teachings of filial piety (loyalty to ones family and state) created division. He favored the idea of universal-love (jiān’ài, 兼愛). And, that we should only show fealty to a bureaucracy that is filled with persons that exemplify moral virtue and actionable merits. This is also, one of the earliest documented evidences arguing for a meritocracy — by promoting only those who possess specific virtues and skills for leadership. This principle is antithetical to the role of fatalism prevalent during this era. According to the Mohist political philosophy, one should strive to achieve higher positions by virtue and merit alone. This concept was known as Identifying Upwards. Even the monarch must be an exemplary figure in both ability and benevolence. This ruler, known as the Sun of Heaven, was only to be appointed by an official election. How that election was determined is up to interpretation. What is most obvious perhaps is the ideological shift from the more commonplace hereditary monarchy to an electable ruling class (Pines, 2009). The Condemnation of Violence refers to concept of Ren — a universal constant that appealed to both the decency and selfishness of humanity. With the idea being that since we all value ourselves then we ought value one another. This is thought of as a universal truism as it is based on the human desire to maintain self-preservation. The idea of universal self-preservation could be interpreted as a direct address to the ongoing conflict of The Warring States period. As an activist for nonviolence it is a fair assumption that his desire was to see an end to the violence between the warring factions. Unfortunately, this would not happen during his lifetime.

Austerity of Expenditures & On Ghosts

Another virtue of Ren would be the idea of moderation of utility. Sickened by the lavish ceremonial expenditures tied to Confucius ideology, Mohism sought to replace extravagances for austerity. This would have meant that funeral services, especially processions for high-officials, would be less extravagant and more self-effacing. This in theory would make formalities and etiquette a priority rather than wasting resources on expensive rituals with extravagant displays. Mozi also denounced musical events as a wasteful expenditure. The spend-thriftiness of government officials on musical entertainment was considered an unnecessary expenditure. To Mohist, these funds could have been spent more responsibly by allocating resources to help care for the sick and poor. This is in line-step with the principle of condemning aggression which also mentions a divine punishment by the heavens for wasteful spending. The Will of Heaven & On Ghosts referred to these virtuous ideals as universally objective. Embracing The Will of Heaven would in theory promulgate its moral philosophy in a socialized manner without the need for argumentation; this is known as Yi. The virtue ethics of moral righteousness is objective and universal. What makes the principles of Yi objectively true are that they are transcendent beyond reality; this makes Yi a universal constant. ‘Heavens Intent’ is sometimes used to describe this principle. This relates back to the term ‘On Ghosts’ as each person must uphold to these standards of morality unless they dishonor the spirits of their ancestors.

The essence of Mohism was to search for a universal and ethical truth that which all of humanity could agree upon. These ethical standards was referred to as simply Fa (models and standards). The Mohist terminologies may seem vague and unprincipled but it has deeper meaning that encompasses its principle epistemology, language, and moral reasoning. The Mohist doctrine strikes a common cord with its moral standards by contrasting it with common laborers. The labor of work should be the same for moral acts as laborers commit to a regulatory action to get a task done. And so to should moral acts be thought of in the same manner. Mohist moral philosophy was the constant shaping of society using principles of utility and practicality. In Mohism the idea of laborers was an important metaphor because labor was understood universally from the poorer class to the social hierarchy. Each person could understand the concept of labor to some extent; obviously some more than others. It was thought that a person utility was an important factor in guiding moral excellence. Those who contributed to the economy, and by extension to the greater good of society, were thought to live a noble and happy life. The goal was not to find an intellectual concept but to gradually build upon a universal guide that had greater emphasis on practicality and moral utility. Mohism should not be viewed as a form of consequentialism because certain outcomes are not guaranteed to bring happiness. It could be better understood as a utilitarian principle of the greater good. If an act did not benefit the state nor society then it was not considered universal and should be avoided.

This presents an overview of some of the principle tenants of Mohism and a brief look into its history. By showing this relationship the meaning surrounding Mohism as a philosophy becomes more intelligible. The crux of its sociopolitical ideology was intended to create a utopias society through moral-utility and pragmatism. Its purpose was reactionary to offset the existing dystopian society that was brought about through the years of constant conflict between the Northern and Southern Dynasties. It is structured around universal humanitarian principles of nonviolence, utility, work ethic, and moral excellence. It also condemned many of the traditional Confucian practices of over spending, nepotism, and cronyism among the wealthy elites. Most significantly, it sought to unify an ethnically homogeneous region through the unification of progressive ideas rather than bloodshed.


References

Loy., Hui-chieh., Mozi (Mo-tzu, c. 400s — 300s B.C.E.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/mozi

Fraser, Chris, “Mohist Canons”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved from plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2018/entries/mohist-canons/>

Pines, Y. (2009). Envisioning eternal empire: Chinese political thought of the Warring States era. United States: University of Hawaii Press.

N. Standaert, C. Defoort (2013). The Mozi as an Evolving Text: Different Voices in Early Chinese Thought. Netherlands: Brill.

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