CHING FENG: Journal on Christianity and Chinese Religion and Culture


VOLUME 38, No. 4.


December 1995




Dr. Stephen T. Chan




Lee H. Yearley. Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1990.


                                The comparison of two formidable past thinkers of Eastern and Western civilizations seems to be an arduous project that is of interest only to the idiosyncratic academics. But contrary to what one might think of the work, it is in fact motivated by a real and urgent cause of the author. As the emergence of the global village increasingly resembles a return to a new era of cultural and ethnic tribal war, Yearley believes that in order for us to thrive and survive the pluralistic post-modern world, we must develop those virtues that will enable us to appreciate each other's differences and diversity. In spite of the success, or failure, of his efforts, the author should be commended for his noble vision and courage in undertaking this difficult task of cross-cultural and comparative studies.

                                At the end of the book, Lee Yearley states that his work has achieved three related but different results. First, it has enhanced our understanding of the two thinkers and the possible relationship between them. Second, the book itself is a constructive study of virtue theory and analyses of particular virtues. Third, it has demonstrated that comparative study, especially that which is cross-cultural and inter-religious, is so unique and valuable that it can and should be pursued as a separate discipline on its own worth.

                                In order to discover the "similarities within differences and differences within similarities"(p.3) between Mencius and Aquinas and achieved these three goals, Yearley has derived a sophisticated scheme of methods to chart the way through the dangerous water of comparative studies.

                                The first theoretical construction is the differentiation of three forms of practical reason (adapted from the anthropological insight of Robin Horton; cf: pp. 6ff; 175ff). According to Yearley, the first kind of reason of comparative philosophy of religion is the primary theories which enable people of any culture to explain and predict natural and human phenomenon. Hence primary theories are basically universal and true in different places and cultures. While primary theories deals with normal phenomenon, secondary theories cope with extraordinary and abnormal events. Secondary theories, such as Mencius' ch'i and Aquinas' gratia, are cultural specific and aim "to explain distinctive, peculiar, or distressing occurrences."(p.176) In between these two forms of reasoning are the practical theories whose function is to become the guiding principle of human ethical actions. Practical theories seek "to explain human activities[,] to guide people's practices, and therefore lead them to a more complete flourishing."(p.177) Because of their regulative and reflective nature, practical theories correspond to what we call ethics.

                                Yearley's second theoretical construction is to divide the ethical world into three realms of operations. "The first area contains injunctions, universal commands and prohibitions. The second contains a list of virtues arranged in some hierarchical order. The third contains ways of forms of life that are protected by the injunctions and picked out by the virtues." (p.8) Yearley, then, further argues that virtue theory seems to be the best candidate that can balance and connect the universality of injunctions and the specificity of cultural ethos.

                                Through this point we enter into the major thesis of the book that center on the theory of virtue as the guiding principle of comparative religious ethics. According to Alasdair MacIntyre, the arch-champion of virtue theory in modern philosophy, virtues are to be understood as:

"those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good." (MacIntyre, After Virtue, p.219)



Virtue, thus understood, is not only a personal and internal disposition "to act, desire, and feel that involves the exercise of judgement," but it also "leads to a recognizable human excellence or instance of human flourishing."(p.13) The concern for personal duty and common good in a virtuous act thus manifests both deontological and teleological, or Kantian and Aristotelian, ethics. It is partly because of the mediatory and embrasive power of virtue theory that leads to the modern resurgence of virtue philosophy and the employment of virtue theory by Yearley in the present work.

                                Religious flourishing and human flourishing are two special terms coined by the author to express idea of self-cultivation and fulfillment. Yearley emphasizes that these two terms are used "interchangeably as these two thinkers (and I) assume each involves the other." (p.205, n.1) The idea of religious and human flourishing can be ultimately found in the thought of Mencius and Aquinas and this work of comparative religious ethics can also be called "a comparative philosophy of human flourishing." (p.173)

                                The breadth and complexity of this work are bound to generate dispute. The major difficulty of this work is its attempt to combine and compare systematic thinkers, such as Mencius and Aquinas, who even cannot be exhausted by separate volume of studies. But this work is motivated by a higher cause as the author declared at the very end of the book: "My whole inquiry rests, then, on the belief that we need a particular set of intellectual skills and virtues to do the comparative philosophy of human flourishing and that acquiring them is critical if we are to meet the personal and social challenges we all face."(p.203) The vision to search for integrative understanding and virtues that can bridge our cultural gaps and hiatus is commendable and in need for the world today.

                                In order to selectively interpret and contrast these two inexhaustible thinkers, Yearley has to rely on several heuristic devices. The major functions of these heuristic concepts

are to bring out the distinctions between Mencius and Aquinas, and set the stage for the final comparison and conclusion. The first heuristic device is the distinction between open and locative religion. "In open religions, such as Aquinas's Christianity, fulfillment occurs when people transcend any particular culture and reach a higher realm...... [while] in locative religions,...... fulfillment occurs when people locate themselves within a complex social order." (p.42) The second heuristic notion is the distinction between development and discovery model of human nature. Yearley holds that "both Mencius and Aquinas utilize a development model ...... Mencius's model is developmental because capacities produce proper dispositions and actions only if they are nurtured...... In a discovery model, however, human nature exists as a permanent set of disposition that are obscured but they can be contacted or discovered." (p.60)

                                These sets of distinctions, perhaps, are in need of further clarification. For example, isn't it equally valid to say that open religion is in contrast to "close" religion, while locative is in contrast to universal? And the notions of discovery and development are not mutually exclusive. One certainly can find incremental elements in the process of discovery, while the process of development can be said to consist of a series of discoveries. But these technical flaws do not loom large in view of the clear vision and cogent message of the book as a whole.

                                Finally, this book belongs to the SUNY series of "Toward a Comparative Philosophy and Religions" co-edited by Frank Reynolds and David Tracy of the University of Chicago. Those who are interested in the comparative studies of Hinduism can consult another volume of this series, Theology After Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology, written by Francis X. Clooney of Boston College.

Stephen T. Chan

Chicago, U.S.A.

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