The Gentleman

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(This is an excerpt from the book 10 Great Souls I Want to Meet in Heaven by S. Michael Wilcox.)

In Doctrine and Covenants 121, Joseph Smith listed the principles of righteousness that bring with them moral authority, some of which are persuasion, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, and unfeigned love. The Chinese also had an inventory of virtues. These included, among others, courage, propriety, courtesy and respect, doing one’s best, righteousness, honest speaking, public service, and the cultivation of the mind through literary and artistic pursuits. One who had achieved these qualities was called, in the closest English translation, a “gentleman.” Nobility had nothing to do with birth; it was acquired through education and unselfish service. Nobility was all a matter of character. The greatest of all Chinese virtues was benevolence, just as Paul taught that the greatest Christian virtue was charity, and the Buddha taught that the greatest virtue is compassion. Mencius believed completely in these virtues and that man was born with them. They did not need to be instilled in humanity; rather, people came from heaven equipped with them. The challenge was to not let these virtues die, but to foster their growth. What made man unique among all of God’s creations was his heart, which had moral tendencies placed within it that, if nurtured, would lead all men to wisdom and goodness.

Modern man thinks with his brain, but most ancient cultures believed we think with our hearts. If thought and action were directed by our natural heart, then stability, peace, and goodness would dominate. “Slight is the difference between man and the brutes,” Mencius stated. “The common man loses this distinguishing feature, while the gentleman retains it.”

Ideally, man would not need to respond to outward commandments issued with prophetic authority or the ethical discussions of philosophers. He certainly did not need harsh, controlling laws such as those trumpeted by the Legalists. One needed simply to look within and one would find innate goodness part of his or her own soul’s furniture. Does not the Bible in numerous verses speak of a time when the law will be written within the human heart? Mencius was affirming this truth in China. Proper education would bring man’s natural morality out and make it ascendant. If this took place, each man would find himself acting in accordance with the will of heaven. “Given the right nourishment there is nothing that will not grow, while deprived of it there is nothing that will not wither away.” Both Confucius and Mencius believed the end product of a moral education was—“the Gentleman.”

The responsibility of both the ruler and the gentleman was to set the example, and then the people would follow, just as in a well-known Chinese metaphor: The grass bends when the wind blows over it. “Only the benevolent man is fit to be in high position. For a cruel man to be in high position is for him to disseminate his wickedness among the people.” We often quote Paul’s phrase, “charity never faileth,” suggesting that charity is and always will be necessary, and equally that charity will ultimately succeed. So too did Mencius teach that a man must act consistent with his heart: “There has never been a man totally true to himself who fails to move others. On the other hand, there has never been one not true to himself who is capable of doing so.” What we need is already in us, we must simply act in concert with what we already have and know. The teacher, whether a parent, a sage, or the king, accomplished the highest good by helping others do good. There is no greater thing one can achieve. Mencius taught this achievement could be accomplished in five ways:

1. Cause others to grow by nourishing them like rain upon plants;
2. Bring out and encourage their virtues;
3. Help them develop their talents;
4. Answer their questions;
5. Above all, give them an example to emulate.

As a parent, I have often turned to Mencius to understand my role, as his writings reduce it to such basic truths.

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