7A:5 Mencius said, “To act without understanding and do so habitually without examination, following certain courses all their lives without knowing the principles behind this is the way of the multitude.”
It’s amazing how ancient thinkers from both the eastern and western philosophical traditions have emphasized the value of reflecting and examining one’s life. A “version” of the above text from the book of Mencius would be Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living” dictum. There’s agreement even with contemporary thinker Paul Ricoeur’s “the untold life is not worth living,” for narrating one’s story presumes an attempt to reread and interpret one’s experiences. Agreeing therefore with the “understanding and examining one’s life” part of the above excerpt is easy. What’s difficult to accept upon first reading of Mencius is the latter part: the part about the way of the multitude.
Vox Populi, Vox Dei. This is the principle behind many of the procedures we follow. This is the main premise behind all democratic institutions, notwithstanding the possibility of having “godless” people behind these institutions. Many take it for granted that there is wisdom behind what the multitude decides upon. This is the wisdom behind “majority rule” and the democratic process we call elections.
Going back to Mencius, what is implied in what he says above is that there are very few who manage to extract principles from the way they live their lives. Thus, the rest of humanity live their lives unguided. Is Mencius right? If he is, then it is totally irresponsible to leave important aspects of a nation’s life for example to the “wisdom” of the many. If Mencius is right in his regard of the multitude, then a great cloud of doubt is to hover around the principle of Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
So is Mencius right?
I recall a play staged by Tanghalang Ateneo which I watched two years ago. It’s entitled Enemy of the People. The message of that play is how the majority could be so devastatingly wrong. The one who knows what should be rightfully done is persecuted.
I actually don’t have to look very far. A story close to my heart provides a sufficient argument for Mencius. The story of Christ’s condemnation to die on the cross. The multitude wanted the head of Christ more than they wanted Barabbas’.
This is hard to say, I hope I don’t get judged as “enemy of the people” if I side with Mencius. My agreeing with him doesn’t mean I am regarding the majority’s opinion as containing no value. My agreement with the above saying of Mencius makes it imperative for me to rise above in terms of being more reflective and evaluative of my decision-making and my living of my life. It’s a call to rise above the multitude not because the multitude is in a “lower thinking class”. But because my every decision will probably have consequences not only to myself, but also to people around me.