From Francis to Mozi: ‘Social Friendship’ and ‘Inclusive Love’

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Benoit Vermander, SJ

 Benoit Vermander, SJ / Church Thought / Published Date:9 March 2021/Last Updated Date:21 April 2021


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Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti (FT) resonates as a passionate tribute to a fraternity without borders. If fraternity has a distinctive “local flavor,” Francis asserts, it is necessarily lived in a context of universality. Living a kind of fraternity that “integrates and unites” should appear as a kind of imperative, as an obvious fact that is accepted; yet, as Francis writes, “there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different.

Faith, and the humanism it inspires, must maintain a critical sense in the face of these tendencies, and prompt an immediate response whenever they rear their heads. For this reason, it is important that catechesis and preaching speak more directly and clearly about the social meaning of existence, the fraternal dimension of spirituality, our conviction of the inalienable dignity of each person, and our reasons for loving and accepting all our brothers and sisters” (FT 86).

We would like to present here the thought of a Chinese author who, 2,500 years ago reflected on the way to establish just and fraternal relationships between individuals, communities and nations. He did so with a different logic from that followed by Christian theology. But his way of dealing with the issue provides a stimulating counterpoint to the quest we are pursuing today to live fraternity more intensely and more broadly.

La Civilta Cattolica

Mozi: a thinker to rediscover

The writings and teachings of Mozi 墨子 (or Mo Di 墨翟, 479 – 392 B.C.[1]) and his disciples are not always easy to reconstruct. One reason is that they have come down to us in different versions, elaborated by the three currents into which late Mohism was divided. Mozi’s writings were undoubtedly the main victims of the purge of 213 B.C.,[2] and the attempted reconstruction was subsequently most fragmentary. Moreover, the Han dynasty, which succeeded the Qin, showed no sympathy for Mozi, who remained more or less on the fringes of Chinese intellectual history as a whole. However, the evidence that has come down to us attests to the extent and depth of his influence in the pre-Imperial period.

As we have it today, the Mozi (the Book of Master Mo) represents a remarkable collection of texts. At the time of its highpoint, organized as a canon, it constituted the essential elements of the networks (very united and organized, it seems) that referred to the master. It consists of 71 chapters, 31 of which describe the fundamental ideas of the movement; 7 deal with logic; 5 are biographical in nature and refer to the movement itself; 11 deal with the techniques of defensive warfare (Mohists no doubt were employed in this capacity by the various principalities): other chapters are corrupted in transmission or more difficult to classify (one of them is an anti-Confucian polemical warning, satirizing literati eating their fill during funeral banquets).

Mozi’s thought is strongly rooted in the current debates of that entire period, while expressed in a very particular style. Here we will limit ourselves to presenting two excerpts, perhaps the most famous ones from the work.

The first is very brief: “Seeing a dyer dyeing silk, Mozi said sighing, ‘What is dyed blue becomes blue, what is dyed yellow becomes yellow.’ When you change [the cauldron] in which the fabric is immersed, its color also changes. Dipped five times, its color will necessarily change five times. When dyeing, one can never be too careful’” (Mozi, Suoran 1).

Three points are noteworthy in this text. First, the circumstance described confirms the tradition that makes Mozi a man of modest circumstances, originally from the state of Lu, like Confucius,  and born into a community of artisans. He may well have been a carpenter, which would explain his skill in defensive fortifications; his surname (mo: “ink”) indicates, according to some, a mark on his body, inflicted as punishment for a crime of which we know nothing; others interpret it as indicating a very dark complexion, which can be traced back to his profession or to the emigration of his family from the South to the principality that is currently part of the province of Shandong. There may even be a connection to dyeing. These are only hypotheses, but they all indicate Mozi came from modest circumstances, from which other intellectuals clearly kept their distance.

Secondly, the continuation of the short chapter containing this anecdote applies it to three situations: that of states subject to the influence of successive sovereigns; that of sovereigns themselves listening to advisers of different value; that of each person in the choice of their friendships. Tradition has made it above all a sort of axiom of neutrality with regard to the qualification to be given to human nature, which in itself is neither good nor bad, but able  to receive whatever imprint is imposed thus the importance to be attached to education and the environment . “Society is a gigantic cauldron of dye”: this is what the wording in Chinese says, more or less.

Thirdly, it is no exaggeration to say that the anecdote impresses the listener just as the cloth absorbs its dye in the dyer’s cauldron. This is an endorsed model of the way things are done.

‘Inclusive Love’

We now come to the central element of our research. The passage with which we want to delve into the specific dialectic of Mozi is taken from one of the three chapters dedicated to “inclusive love” (jian’ai 兼愛), which is at the heart of the work: “The task of the truly human person (renren 仁人) must be to try to procure the universal good (li 利)[3] and to eliminate universal calamities (hai 害). Now, in our time, what is the greatest universal calamity? I answer: the aggression against small states by large states; the disorders which large lineages create in small ones; the oppression of the weak by the strong; the violence of majorities against minorities; the deceptions which conspirators hatch against the naive; the contempt of the great for the humble. These are the most general calamities. And again: the fact that princes are so unkind to their subjects; that officials lack loyalty, parents lack goodness, children lack piety; these too are great calamities that are seen everywhere. And then, the seriousness of the fact that today we do not pay attention to our neighbor, we use weapons and poison, water and fire to hurt and kill each other. Here are so many universal calamities. […]. If one wants to determine (fen ming 分名) [the principle by which] everywhere in the world one hates and harms one’s neighbor, will it be inclusion (jian 兼)? Or partiality (bie)? We must answer: partiality. Now, why does treating each other with partiality always result in great calamities? It is because partiality is [in itself] negation (fei)” (Mozi, Jian’ai III, 1).

Is partiality itself negative? Our translation seems to obscure an expression that, given the range of meanings of fei 非, could be translated simply: “partiality is a mistake.” But this would not be doing full justice to the text. Mozi’s idea is that, if one denies the active attachment – the bearer of “benefits” – that one manifests for one’s own father, country or friend to the Other, one denies them a right that, objectively, is as absolute for them as it is for those to whom one’s affections are directed. Partiality inserts denials into a reality of self that is fully marked by affirmation. In contrast, the inclusive (impartial) attitude is very positive: “I do unto others as I do unto myself (wei bi wei bi wei you wei ji ye 為彼猶為己也)” (Mozi, Jian’ai III, 2).

The religious dimension of this attitude is confirmed by other passages of Mozi. An enemy of rituals – and in particular of the expenses they entail – Mozi nevertheless preaches the worship of spirits and above all the search for the pure will of Heaven, the ultimate source of the radically inclusive attitude with which “utility” and “universality” can be reconciled. Recalling the wise emperors of legendary times, he writes: “The will of Heaven (tian yi 天意) proclaimed, ‘Everyone whom I love, they also love. To all those to whom I bring benefits, they too bring benefits. They who love men, they act for all. The benefit they bring them is tangible. Thus they received the honor of being Sons of Heaven and received the Empire as a dowry’” (Mozi, Tianzhe I, 4).

The complexity of the Mozi text has struck a chord in the imagination of sinologists who practice the historical-critical method,[4] particularly the fact that the 10 theses (shi lun 十論), which are generally set forth as the core of the doctrine, appear in three different versions.[5] It is possible to subdivide the Mozi according to the hypothesis of a drafting done by three groups of disciples (A. C. Graham); or according to the way the corpus has continuously responded to changing political circumstances (E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks); or according to the laws of an essentially linguistic evolution, without one being able to distinguish clearly between different communities or doctrines (T. Watanabe and K. Desmet).[6] All these approaches are legitimate. The problem arises when a scholar adopts an “incremental” logic, assuming that, starting from a necessarily modest beginning, the text would progressively gather more and more sophisticated content. This is what Carine Defoort argues. She writes: “It is very likely that Mohism began with a controversy, not properly judicial, about caring for others (ai ren 愛人), which gradually developed into the more demanding ideal of ‘care for all’ or ‘inclusive care.’”[7]

The fact that a text has a history and that it is handed down to us in a certain state or states that depend both on its internal history and on historical circumstances is unquestionable; but this does not at all mean that the same text cannot come from an intuition, from a spark that led it to materialize. Such a spark could be, for example, the “discovery” made by Mozi that love brings real benefits only if it refrains from discriminating, from creating a hierarchy. We can assume that such a reversal was at the origin of Mozi’s fascination rather than considering it a “natural” development from an initial call for simple benevolence. In Mozi’s research there is a “prophetic” dimension that must be recognized.

Chinese classics: a current reading

In the course of the Han dynasty, Mozi became a marginal figure in Chinese intellectual debate. But, as Confucian thinkers pointed out, making distinctions and creating hierarchies is a distinctive trait of humankind. Thus, for Xunzi (ca. 310 – ca. 235 B.C.), the establishment and implementation of moral rules are inseparable from the fact of dividing reality through the names that are assigned to its various aspects (ming fen 名分): the fact of naming, and therefore of distinguishing – between various types of family and social relationships, between duty and interest, between glory and shame, between the individual and the community – traces the only possible way to establish rules of moral conduct and to make the social order stable. Ritual, the privileged manifestation of the distinctions thus made, then becomes the channel through which what was at first the order of nature (xing 性) is transformed into “artifice” (wei 偽). This term should be given an eminently positive meaning: Xunzi consciously posits artifice as the basis for structuring social conduct. The ritual anchoring of all distinctions is both a social and a moral operation, making possible the existence and continuity of the social body. “Dividing” and “civilizing” (jiaohua 教化) are related processes.

Certainly, Mozi can be criticized for his logical systematizing, based on an idea of “social utility.” But his desire to bring about a more just society, rejecting any kind of division that could burden interpersonal relationships, was undoubtedly sincere and inspired by a clear idea of what Heaven wanted for humanity.

Equally interesting for us are the criticisms of his thought. They testify to the extraordinary relevance of the Chinese classics. The questions raised by these texts are also ours: What is human nature? Does it possess inalienable properties? On what basis can we establish a just social order? Should we form moral behavior through education or through fear of punishment? What role should be assigned to religious rituals in politics?

The intellectual debate that took place in China from the 7th to the 3rd century B.C. was one of the activities where the moral and political consciousness of all humanity was being formed. Integrating these classics into the resources that animate our contemporary thinking is a means of progressing toward a fraternity without borders.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 3 art. 12, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0321.12

[1] These traditional dates would place Mozi exactly between Confucius and Mencius.

[2] The Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.) worked to get rid of all ancient writings that could be read as a criticism of its power.

[3] Li 利: advantage, benefit, profit. The ideogram consists of a sharp instrument (a scythe) carried among ears of corn. Here we prefer to stay as close to the text as possible, even though the expression is somewhat ambiguous.

[4] Cf. C. Defoort – N. Standaert, The Mozi as an Evolving Text. Different Voices in Early Chinese Thought, Leiden, Brill, 2013.

[5] The 10 theses are found in what are often considered to be the central chapters of the Mozi, which originally numbered 30, of which 23 now remain. Despite strong textual clues, the division of Mozi doctrine into 10 theses and their summary in 10 character pairs is somewhat arbitrary. We will not cite these 10 lexical pairs, whose conciseness gives rise to misunderstandings and misconceptions, but, by way of example, here are three: Mozi preaches “moderation of expenditure” (jie yong 節用), “against [ritual] music” (fei yue 非樂) and “against fatalism” (fei ming 非命).

[6] On the evolution of linguistic structures in the Mozi, see K. Desmet, “The Growth of Compounds in the Core Chapters of the Mozi”, in Oriens Extremus 45(6) (2005) 99-118.

[7] C. Defoort, “Do the ten Mohist theses represent Mozi’s thought? Reading the masters with a focus on mottos”, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 77 (2014) 350.