Joshua J. Mark
published on 20 December 2012
Mo Ti (470-391 BCE, also known as Mot Tzu, Mozi, and Micius) was a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period. He is best known as the founder of Mohism, a philosophical system which emphasized universal love as the meaning of life and the solution to all conflict. Mo Ti strongly disagreed with Confucius and his legalistic system and maintained that only through reflection, self-study, and sincere behaviour could one become good, not through adherence to ritual and conformity.
The Warring States Period in China (476-221 BCE) is so called because seven independent states fought each other for supreme control of the land. The Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) was still recognized as the ruling house from Luoyang but in name only; they no longer had the power to enforce any of their laws nor perform any functions associated with a strong, central government. Mo Ti was a highly skilled carpenter and craftsman who became an expert in building siege ladders and designing fortifications and, so, was in high demand among the rulers of the seven states in helping them defeat each other. Although initially it appears that Mo Ti did design and build various devices and fortifications for the warring parties, he came to understand that war was senseless and antithetical to the goodness of life.
The historian Durant writes that Mo Ti believed, “selfishness is the source of all evil, from the acquisitiveness of the child to the conquest of an empire [and] marvels that a man who steals a pig is universally condemned and generally punished while a man who invades and appropriates a kingdom is a hero to his people and a model to posterity” (678). Mo Ti then devoted himself to travel between the warring states in an effort to convince the rulers to embrace love and pacifism.
One of the best known examples of his efforts is when he travelled to the state of Chu in order to stop their ruler, Gonshu Ban, from attacking the state of Sung. Mo Ti ably defeated Gonshu Ban in a series of war games and then informed Gonshu that he had already provided Sung with help in fortifications and strategy and so an attack would be futile. Gonshu Ban then called off his attack. It would appear, through this and other like episodes, that Mo Ti endeavoured to neutralize the power of each state by making them equal to one another in military advantage. His efforts were largely unsuccessful and he was often mocked but this did not in any way dissuade him from his course. He had earlier set up a school in his native state of Lu, in which he trained students in carpentry and philosophy, and many of these students became ardent disciples and helped him spread his message of universal love.
Mo Ti believed that love began “close at hand” with one’s family and friends but should by no means end there. He preached an “impartial love” whereby one would regard all people as members of one’s family. This teaching was at odds with the already-popular Confucian concept of respect for one’s family and one’s ancestors above all others but Mo Ti countered the criticism by pointing out that one still had to honour one’s kinfolk first and then treat other’s kin in the same way. This belief formed the basis of Mo Ti’s ethics of Consequentialism in which one’s individual behaviour, regardless of proscribed ritual, dictates one’s character and, by extension, the quality of the state. If one is kind and lives a harmonious existence, one will draw kindness and harmony to oneself and, conversely, if one is contentious and spiteful, one will attract a like response from others. Simplicity in all things, and adherence to the principle of universal love, was at the heart of Mohism. Mo Ti wrote, “Men in general loving one another, the strong would not make prey of the weak, the many would not plunder the few, the rich would not insult the poor, the noble would not be insolent to the mean, and the deceitful would not impose upon the simple” (Durant, 678). Through love, and sharing all things, he claimed, China would find peace and could leave behind the constant warfare which marked the world he knew.
His philosophy gained a groundswell of support but was criticized as being too idealistic and impractical. The philosopher Mencius, a great proponent of Confucianism, condemned Mo Ti’s concept of universal love as subversive and called for its suppression. He considered Mohism as dangerous a belief system as the hedonism of the egoist philosopher Yang Zhu, another contemporary.
Mo Ti’s cause was not helped by his well-known belief in the existence of ghosts, which ran counter to the accepted understanding of the dead as existing in another realm, even though he argued his beliefs on rational grounds. He reasoned that when people tell of how a certain machine operates with which one is not acquainted, or how certain people behave or speak in a land one has never been to, one should accept what they say if their report seems credible and if they, themselves, seem reliable witnesses. Following this line of reasoning, then, one should accept what is said about ghosts if those who tell one about them can be trusted in what they have said about other things in life. As ancient historical accounts, as well as contemporary reports, contained references to ghosts, they should be accepted as a reality in the same way one recognized established history and news reports of the day, even if one has not experienced a ghost oneself. Further, he claimed, even if ghosts do not exist, the communal rituals involved in such a belief would provide occasions to “gather our relatives and neighbours and participate in the enjoyment of the sacrificial victuals and drinks” (Durant, 678). Still, his arguments were not met with success since a belief in ghosts, as defined as spirits of the dead who walked among the living, contradicted the long-held belief in ancestor worship in which the dead enjoyed an existence removed from the world of mortality and strife.
The Warring States Period was concluded with the victory of the state of Qin over the other six states and the ascent of the first emperor of China, Shi Huangti. Following his consolidation of power, the emperor ordered the burning of all books which did not support his philosophy of Legalism or his dynasty’s version of history. The works of Confucius, Mo Ti, and many others were burned but Confucian concepts survived through the devotion of his adherents and the widespread acceptance of his precepts and were revived during the Han Dynasty. Mo Ti’s philosophy, however, which had never gained the widespread acceptance of Confucian principles, was largely forgotten, as was his name, until the Communist Party of China revived interest in his work in the mid-20th century CE. Today he is recognized as one of China’s greatest philosophers and his concept of Consequentialism on par with any other philosophical system.
- Mohism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Christopher, Fagan, Brian M. (Authors) Scarre. Ancient Civilizations [Paperback]. Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2011.
- Karyn L. Lai. An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Will Durant. Our Oriental Heritage. Simon & Schuster, 1954.
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Mo Ti Books
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470 BCE - 391 BCELife of the Chinese pacifist philosopher Mo Ti, founder of Mohism.