Mo Tzu

Great Teacher Series @ Theosophy Trust


One must abolish the six depravities. When silent, one should deliberate; when talking, one should instruct; when in action, there should be accomplishment. He who employs these three alternatively must become a Sage. One must get rid of joy and anger, pleasure and sadness, love and hatred. When hands, feet, mouth, nose, ears and eyes are employed for righteousness, one will surely become a Sage.


Whoever criticizes others must have something to replace what he criticizes. . . . Therefore Mo Tzu said: partiality should be replaced by universality. But how? When everyone regards the states of others as he regards his own, who would attack the states of others? Others would be regarded like self. When everyone regards the capitals of others as he regards his own, who would seize the capitals of others? Others would be regarded like self. When everyone regards the houses of others as he regards his own, who would disturb the houses of others? Others would be regarded like self. . . .When we come to consider the source of benefits, how have they arisen? Have they arisen out of hate of others and injuring them? We must say not so. We should say that they have arisen out of love of others and benefitting others. . . . Now since universality is really the cause of the major benefits in the world, therefore Mo Tzu declares universality to be right.



Although the Chou dynasty ruled China from 1122 to 256 B.C.E., after the formative period initiated by King Wen, inaugurated by King Wu and firmly established by the Duke of Chou, regent for Wu's son King Ch'eng, the dynasty drifted increasingly into decay. Lao Tzu recognized the degeneracy which spread across the land, and Confucius dared to speak about it directly. He called for the entire social hierarchy to return to the methods and practices of the golden age model set, above all, by the Duke of Chou. For Confucius, reverting to this paradigm was not merely a nostalgic return to a romanticized past. It was an attempt to restore the ethical balance inherent in a social and political order in which everyone knew his place; for when each human being knew his station, everyone could naturally think and act ethically. When people were out of place – when chieftains called themselves "king" and lesser ranks expropriated privileges – no one, not even the common man, knew how to act correctly. Harmony was lost and the human order, ceasing to reflect the order of great Nature and of heaven, collapsed. A number of thinkers recognized the decay that troubled Confucius, and they all made suggestions regarding how civilization might be rectified and restored. One man, however, devised a method for actively altering the course of Chinese history by fusing a philosophical understanding of the problems involved with practical steps which altered society.

Reared on Confucian ideals, Mo Tzu maintained their purport whilst departing from some of the conceptions Confucians emphasized. Mo Tzu built an organization that was capable of putting his ideals into practice across China, and he was perhaps the most renowned social and political thinker for almost three centuries. But when his order of non-violent reformers eventually dissolved, he was forgotten by history, in which Confucian leaders and Taoist ascetics shared the stage. Then, in the early years of the twentieth century, thinkers and scholars rediscovered Mo Tzu, in part because his apparent utilitarianism seemed prescient and modern. But contemporary materialistic utilitarianism is a secular reflection of medieval spiritual materialism, in which virtues were cultivated, beliefs held and rituals performed to assure a place in a heaven of eternal happiness. Mo Tzu's practicality derived from his deep reverence for the will of heaven, which was universal, intelligent, magnanimous and economical, and was reflected in humanity and Nature as the compassionate yet strictly just and impartial law. His 'divine utilitarianism' was the conviction that harmony reigns throughout the universe only when selfless beneficence is the guideline for all.

Very little is known of Mo Tzu's life other than the facts that he was born in 479 B.C.E. (the year in which Confucius died) or a little later, and that he had died by 381. He was born Mo Ti, though some believe that Mo was not a family name but a name he took for himself and his school, since mo means a branded slave and, by extension, a humble person, rather as Ammonius took the significant surname Saccas, 'sack cloth', and Omar the epithet Khayyam, 'tent maker'. He was probably born in Lu, the birthplace of Confucius, and he certainly mastered those classics Confucius held in high esteem. When he was already honoured as a very learned man, he followed the example of Confucius and began to wander from kingdom to kingdom seeking those who would take his ideas to heart. Eventually, he was appointed to a high ministerial post in the state of Sung, where he was deeply impressed by the common citizenry. Throughout China the people of Sung were mocked for their dullness and naveté, but Mo Tzu found in them a refreshing simplicity and a strong tendency to seek to settle disputes non-violently. He saw in them people who naturally adhered to some of the principles he held most dear, and he served them with devotion.

Once Sung was threatened with attack from the state of Ch'u, in part because a great mechanical engineer had devised a new and deadly siege engine. Rather than merely negotiate through established diplomatic channels, Mo Tzu walked for ten days to the court of Ch'u and asked for a demonstration of the weapon. Upon receiving it, he showed how the siege could be repulsed and then announced that three hundred of his own trained followers were already garrisoning the capital of Sung. Realizing that attack would be useless, the ruler of Ch'u called off the engagement. This story illustrates Mo Tzu's approach to politics and indeed every aspect of life: practise non-violence, seek to dissuade war-mongers, and equip each state with a strong defensive force. Nothing less, he thought, would bring peace to an increasingly war-torn country.

Mo Tzu gathered about himself a large group of followers who were dedicated to his ideals and loyal to him. He taught them to live simply and frugally, educated them in his philosophy and trained them in the art of government. He created a unique class of ethical public servants who were both highly skilled and uncompromisingly principled. They were so well known for their abilities and their ethics that rulers from all across China sought their services. Mo Tzu reviewed each request for assistance, and where he thought a ruler deserved it, he assigned one of his disciples to the court. If, however, the ruler proved unable to use the wise counsel thus afforded him, Mo Tzu fearlessly recalled his disciple. When he sent Kao Shih Tzu to the state of Wei, his follower was invited to advise the whole court. After some time, Kao wrote to his teacher that he had appeared at court three times and given his counsel but that he had been ignored on all three occasions. Mo Tzu recalled him at once. Another disciple, Keng Chu Tzu, was dispatched to Ch'u. When some other followers visited him they were entertained very sparingly, and they returned to Mo Tzu and complained but Mo Tzu held his silence. A little later, Keng sent ten pounds of gold to Mo Tzu with a letter: "Your junior disciple, who is unworthy ever to die, sends this herewith, which he hopes the master will use." Mo Tzu was pleased.

Mo Tzu's followers were formed into an organized body with strict rules, the purport of which was that disciples should be indifferent to personal gain and loss and should seek to serve the whole of humanity. Those who constituted the unwavering core of this group eventually numbered one hundred and eighty men, and they regarded Mo Tzu as a Sage whose instructions reflected the will of heaven. After Mo Tzu's death, his appointed successor became chu tzu or leader, and he commanded the same loyalty and respect as the founder. Thus a succession was established which held firm for several generations, during which time the rules of the order were enforced impartially. For example, when Fu Tun was chu tzu, his son killed a man in the state of Ch'in. King Hui of Ch'in noted that Fu Tun was old and had only this one son, and so he gave orders that the son should not be punished. Fu Tun, however, insisted on applying the same laws to his own son that applied to the whole citizenry, and his son was executed for murder. Such a tightly bound order, dedicated to universal brotherhood in service and denying the validity of personal gain, was welcomed by many kings and barons – even those who were found unworthy to benefit from the Mohists – but ambitious scholars and knights were nonplussed by them. When the order grew smaller, they seized the opportunity to turn away from such exacting ideals, and the Mohists vanished from China, leaving a haunting legacy often ignored but impossible to forget.

Mo Tzu's ideas were preserved in a text known as the Mo Tzu, which originally consisted of fifteen chapters and seventy-one sections, eighteen of which have been lost over time. The heart of the book is the ethical and political philosophy of Mo Tzu, expounded under eleven heads. Each major subject is treated three times, each time in a slightly different way. Tradition suggests that after Mo Tzu's death his order divided into three distinct but associated groups, and the triple expression of Mo Tzu's teachings may reflect the differing emphases of these three groups. Whatever the history of the Mo Tzu, there is general agreement that it contains the essence of Mo Tzu's thought. Unlike Lao Tzu, who wrote brief poetic chapters which fused metaphor and meta physics, inviting meditation upon their meaning, and Confucius, who gave pithy answers to questions as they arose, Mo Tzu adopted a method of discursive reasoning and argumentation to expound his views.

Any theory or proposition, however lofty-sounding or practical-seeming, should be subjected to three tests of validity and truth. First of all, the origin of ideas and ideals must be traced, for they should be found in the practices of the Sage – Kings of the most ancient times. Mo Tzu objected to the Confucian use of the early Chou kings as the standard of right conduct, not because they were wanting in righteousness, but because state ceremonials had become so elaborate and expensive that they imposed a heavy and unnecessary economic and social burden upon the people. Mo Tzu once criticized a Confucian for following Chou and not the earlier Hsia dynasty. "Your antiquity does not go back far enough", he said. Rather than accept the historical Chou foundations – especially King Wen, King Wu and the Duke of Chou – as the standard because of their relative historical accessibility, Mo Tzu preferred to reach back to the legends and traditions of the more ancient Hsia dynasty, which exemplified a more modest way of life that remained closer to the people. Secondly, any theory or proposition should be tested against the evidence of the senses, taken in the fullest meaning of the idea. If true, what one is testing should be consonant with what one can observe of visible and invisible Nature and of society, not because the capricious senses should be exalted to the status of ontological determinants, but because one 's views should be relevant to the circumstances at hand. Thirdly, a theory should be applicable, and its applicability is tested by discerning whether it will benefit the state and the people as a whole. Mo Tzu was convinced that eternal values and the philosophia perennis are always relevant if one intuits formulations appropriate to the times and conditions in which one lives. Mo Tzu's three standards for validity are not as different from the three criteria for knowledge of Plotinus – experience, reason and illumination or intuition – as they might at first appear.

This Mohist triple criterion is as fundamental to human life as it is difficult to apply in specific instances. The first standard was rooted in the ubiquitous Chinese conviction that the ancient Sage-Kings did not just happen to arise in history. Rather, they took birth at critical junctions in human history to infuse the social order with those values and practices which elevate life from a mere struggle for existence to a spiritual level, which is then reflected in the social order as peace, prosperity and moral vigour (te). Mo Tzu believed that, despite the lack of detail about the distant past, careful and prolonged reflection upon the Sage – Kings could provide insights into what they did and why, thereby furnishing guidelines for sound policies and right action. Mo Tzu used his second criterion – evidence of the senses – more sparingly, even though it might seem the easiest to apply. What is garnered through the senses and from memory is inherently limited in range, continuity and accuracy, and therefore is useful only in conjunction with other standards for judgement. His third criterion, practicability, is best employed by those of broad responsibility, since what can seem practical in the short view may appear quite differently in a longer view. His three criteria, when properly used, require a great deal of serious thinking within the perspective of the welfare of all.

Mo Tzu is remembered best for his doctrine of universal love, chien ai. He did not establish his view on psychological foundations, however, and in fact he had little use for emotions because they obscured universal goals and attitudes by personalizing responses to collective conditions and tended to make those who experienced them partial. Rather, his conception of universal love arose out of thinking about humanity as a whole, a political standpoint rooted in ethics.

When we come to think about the cause of calamities, how have they arisen? Have they arisen out of love of others and benefitting others? We must say that it is not so. We should say that they have arisen out of hate of others and injuring others. Do we find those who hate and injure universal or partial in their love? They are partial. Since partiality is the cause of major calamities in the world, partiality is wrong.

Love, for Mo Tzu, is that attitude and orientation which impels one to seek the welfare of another. When love is partial, it appears to benefit others, but it can ignore or even undermine the welfare of one whilst supporting the weal of another. Humanity is in fact a seamless social whole, and if it is torn in any of its parts, the whole is damaged. Love, therefore, is as essential as it is dangerous when partial.

Love only exists when it has reached everybody. Love has disappeared the moment it fails to include all; when love is not pervasive, it cannot be called love.

By distinguishing love from a particular web of emotions, Mo Tzu showed that it is a regenerative force in society. When expropriated on behalf of some individual or local group, it ceases to be love because its function is severely damaged. Love is inherently and essentially inclusive, and when used in any exclusive context, its true nature is destroyed.

Mo Tzu's doctrine of universal love provided the foundation for practical action as well as for criticism and reform of tendencies and practices. Whilst he was convinced that one had to look back to the lives of the ancient Sage – Kings to discover the fundamentals of the best possible social order, he rejected any blind adherence to tradition as it had been passed down to subsequent generations. Universal love, taken as the engine of change and order coupled with the threefold criteria of truth, furnishes all that is needed to translate ideas into correct action. Rather than looking to the ancients for a catalogue of examples, Mo Tzu sought to discern in their words and deeds formulae of right conduct which could be applied in any situation. True civilization is not slavish imitation of the past: it is the invocation and use of the principles of the past within the changing conditions of the present. For example, Mo Tzu rejected the long-established custom of elaborate funerals and periods of mourning. The ceremonies were enormously expensive, and ritual mourning prevented participants from working for as much as three years. Both practices exhausted the treasury and curtailed productivity, and for the state as well as the family they weakened the welfare of the whole.

Mo Tzu sought to limit or even reject outright much that others took to be essential features of civilization, such as music, art, ornamentation and leisure. Consistent with universal love, he did not think they were evil, but only that they were afforded a false status within the human condition. Music, for example, gives pleasure to those few who hear it on any particular occasion, and the joy it brings them is good. But a musical performance does nothing for the larger world which is desperate for resources. A limited good is no good at all if it exists at the expense of a broader good which could benefit humanity. Similarly, rich clothing and jewellery, which enhance the appearance of their wearers, are not in themselves bad, but the economic resources which they usurp could be used for the weal of a larger community. Leisure can be used merely for relief from labour – and a fortiori a leisure class – is repugnant because wasteful. For Mo Tzu, universal love in a hierarchical society means that each individual should conscientiously perform the duties of his station with utmost circumspection. In civilization, a person does not exist for himself, but to aid the whole.

For the rulers, to go to court early and retire late, to listen to lawsuits and attend to government, is their duty. For the gentlemen, to exhaust the energy of their limbs and employ fully the wisdom of their minds, to attend to the court within and collect taxes with out. . .to fill up the granaries and the treasury, is their duty. For the farmers, to set out early and come back late, to sow seeds and plant trees, to produce soybeans and millet, is their duty.

If self has no place in the social order, being only a focus or agency whereby the whole is served, so states should just as fully practise self-abasement. Consequently, the tendencies of states to engage in offensive wars, whether for aggrandizement or out of fear of the growth of another state, is contrary to the spirit of universal love, the performance of duty and universal welfare. Because of his views and the nature of the organization of dedicated followers he founded, Mo Tzu was criticized in his time for this view more than for anything else. Critics pointed out that over seventeen hundred petty and poor chiefdoms had, over a century or so, been consolidated into a dozen powerful and relatively prosperous states. But Mo Tzu, accepting the facts, rejected the implications of this line of reasoning.

Although there be four or five states which may have reaped benefits, it is still not acting in accordance with the Way (tao). It is like the physician giving his drugs to his patients. If a physician should give all the sick in the world the same drug, among the ten thousand people who took it there might be four or five who would be benefitted. Still it is not to be said to be an efficacious medicine.

Reasoning from selected examples tends to generalize into principle what is only a specific and local instance. It ignores the broader consequences of action.

Suppose soldier hosts arise. . . . If it is in spring, it will take people away from sowing and planting, and if in fall, it will take them from reaping and harvesting. . . . Innumerable horses and oxen will start out fat and come back lean, or will die and never come back at all. And innumerable people will die because their food will be cut off.... Then the army will be lost in large numbers or in its entirety.

The benefits reaped by war for one group are negated by the losses suffered by the whole. Diplomacy, as Mo Tzu conceived of and practised it, is not a political tool for the advancement of states: it is the practice of universal love at the political level.

Because universal welfare is the fount of and justification for civilization, and universal love the means for achieving and maintaining it, politics for Mo Tzu was broadened as a concept. For the whole of society as for the individual, what is essential should precede what is enjoyable, so that every individual might share in the banquet of life.

One's food should always be sufficient before one seeks to have it fine tasting. One's clothing should always be warm before one tries to make it beautiful. One's dwelling should always be safe before one tries to make it pleasurable. To do what will endure and practise what may be long continued; to put what is fundamental first and external decoration secondary: this is what the Sage concerns himself with.


Absence of pride, absence of pretence, non-violence (ahimsa),
patience (kshanti), uprightness, obeisance to the Teacher, purity,
steadfastness and self-restraint;

Dispassion towards sense-objects, absence of egotism, and also
insight into the defects of birth, death, decay and disease;

Detachment, absence of cleaving to son, wife, home and such
like, and a constant similitude of consciousness in desirable and
undesirable situations;

Unswerving devotion to Me through the yoga of non-
separateness, resorting to a solitary place, and a lack of enjo-
ment in congregations of people;

Constancy of concern pertaining to the knowledge of the
Supreme Self
(adhyatmajnana), insight into the use of the
knowledge of reality
(tattvajnana) – thus is wisdom (jnana)
declared to be, and what is contrary to this is nescience

Bhagavad Gita XIII.7-11 SHRI KRISHNA