The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi


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Under these new circumstances, moral norms are no longer relevant; contention is the rule, and it can be quelled only through coercion. The evolutionary view of history and especially the emphasis that economic conditions can alter moral values, distinguish the Legalists critically from proponents of alternative models of state formation Pines a. The Legalists imply that everything is changeable: When the affairs of the world change, the Way that is implemented alternates as well.

If radical restructuring of society was legitimate in the past, so it is in the present. The Book of Lord Shang but not Han Feizi allowed for the possibility that in the future the need for excessive reliance on coercion would end and a milder, morality-driven political structure would evolve, but these utopian digressions are of minor importance in the text Pines a. What matters is the bottom line: The second pillar of Legalist political philosophy is their view of human nature. Legalists eschew the discussion of whether or not human badness or goodness are inborn, or whether or not all humans possess fundamentally similar qualities.

Shang Yang explains how to attain this:. Yet they brave what they consider bitter and perform what they consider dangerous: The people covet wealth and fame; they are afraid of punishments: This disposition is not to be altered but to be properly understood and then manipulated: The entire sociopolitical system advocated by Shang Yang can be seen as the realization of this recommendation.

Yet in marked distinction from Xunzi and from other Confucian thinkers, the Legalists dismissed the possibility that the elite—rulers and ministers alike—would be able to overcome their selfishness. For the Legalists, it was equally axiomatic that this cannot be the case. Among the people, everybody acts for himself. If you [try to] alter them and cause them to act for you, then there will be none whom you can attain and employ. Employ the people for their own [interests], do not employ them for your sake: Shen Dao dismisses the possibility that the ministers will be driven by moral commitment; on the contrary, such exceptional individuals should not be employed at all.

This sentiment recurs in Han Feizi , a text that expresses with utmost clarity its belief that every member of the elite—like any member of society—pursues his own interests cf. Morally upright officials do exist, but these are exceptional individuals: Proper administrative system should not be based on trust and respect for ministers; rather they should be tightly controlled. A political system that presupposes human selfishness is the only viable political system. One of the in famous controversial dictums in the Book of Lord Shang states: Elsewhere, the text specifies:.

In the past, those who were able to regulate All-under-Heaven first had to regulate their people; those who were able to overcome the enemy first had to overcome their people. The root of overcoming the people is controlling the people as the metalworker does metal, and the potter clay. When the roots are not firm, the people will be like flying birds and running animals: The root of the people is law. Hence, those who excel at orderly rule bar the people with law; then they are able to attain fame and lands.

Shang jun shu The state should tightly control its subjects: Moreover, to overawe the people, the text advocates inflicting heavy punishments for even petty offenses, as only then will the people be sufficiently scared as to behave properly. Eventually, harsh punishments will eliminate the very need for punishments:. To prevent wrongdoing and stop transgressions, nothing is better than making punishments heavy.

When punishments are heavy and [criminals] are inevitably captured, then the people dare not try [to break the law]. Hence, there are no penalized people in the state. When there are no penalized people in the state, it is said, then: Due to above pronouncements, Shang Yang gained notoriety as an advocate of oppression; but actually his attitude toward the people is much more balanced than is often imagined.


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The people are not just the potential enemy of the ruler: Without their harsh labor in the fields or their bravery on the battlefield, the state is doomed. Yet the people will not embrace tilling and waging war just out of fear of coercion. A more complex system is needed: The disposition of the people is to have likes and dislikes; hence the people can be ruled. The ruler cannot but investigate likes and dislikes. Likes and dislikes are the root of awards and penalties. The disposition of the people is to like ranks and emoluments and dislike punishments and penalties.

Shang jun shu 9: This system became the cornerstone of social life in Qin. The lowest ranks were distributed for military achievements, particularly decapitating enemy soldiers, or could be purchased in exchange for extra grain yields; successful rank-holders could be incorporated into the military or civilian administration and thereafter be promoted up the social ladder. Each rank granted its holder economic, social, and legal privileges; and since the ranks were not fully inheritable, the system generated considerable social mobility see details in Loewe and ; Pines et al.

This latter concern is strongly pronounced throughout the Book of Lord Shang:. The means through which the sovereign encourages the people are offices and ranks; the means through which the state prospers are agriculture and warfare. Now, the people seek offices, but those are attainable not through agriculture and warfare but through crafty words and hollow ways: Shang jun shu 3: The text insists repeatedly that the only way to make agriculture and warfare attractive is to prevent any alternative route toward enrichment and empowerment.

Any group which tries to bypass engagement in agriculture and warfare—be these merchants who amass riches without tilling or talkative intellectuals who seek promotion without contributing to the state economically or militarily—should be suppressed or at least squeezed out of profits. Nothing—neither learning, nor commerce, nor even artisanship—should distract the people from farming and making war.

Hence, my teaching causes those among the people who seek benefits to gain them nowhere but through tilling; and those who want to evade disasters escape through no other means but war. Within the borders, everyone among the people first devotes himself to tilling and warfare, and only then obtains whatever pleases him. Hence, though the territory is small, grain is plenty, and though the people are few, the army is powerful. He who is able to implement the two of these within the borders will accomplish the way of Hegemon and Monarch. To rule and control the people effectively, the government should rely on an extensive bureaucracy; but this bureaucracy in turn should be properly staffed and tightly monitored.

Han Feizi: Basic Writings by Burton Watson

Their strongly pronounced suspicion of scheming ministers and selfish officials was conducive to the promulgation of impersonal means of recruitment, promotion, demotion, and performance control. One of the primary issues that the rulers of the Warring States faced was that of recruitment into government service. During the aristocratic Springs-and-Autumns period, the overwhelming majority of officials were scions of hereditary ministerial lineages; only exceptionally could outsiders join the government.

This widespread practice was deeply resented by the Legalists. When you hear [them] talking about him, you consider him able; when you ask his associates, they approve. Hence, one is ennobled before one has any merits; one is punished before one has committed a crime. Shen Dao further warns the ruler that if he decides on promotions and demotions on the basis of his personal impression, this will cause inflated expectations or excessive resentment among his servants:.

If this is the case, then even if rewards are appropriate, the expectations are insatiable; even if the punishments are appropriate, lenience is sought ceaselessly. If the ruler abandons the standard and relies on his heart to decide upon the degree [of awards and punishments], then identical merits will be rewarded differently, and identical crimes will be punished differently. It is from this that resentment arises. An alternative will be a set of clear impersonal rules that will regulate recruitment and promotion of officials.

For Shang Yang, recruitment will be based on the ranks of merit. Han Fei remains doubtful about these: Han Fei himself does not solve the problem of initial recruitment but develops ways to monitor subsequent promotion of an official:. Thus, as for the officials of an enlightened ruler: One who has merit should be awarded: When ranks and emoluments are great, while official responsibilities are dealt with in an orderly way—this is the Way of the Monarch.

This objective process of promotion according to measurable and objective merits became one of the hallmarks of the Chinese administrative system throughout the imperial era and beyond. Rewards and punishments primarily promotion and demotion are the major handles through which the ruler has to control his officials. But how to judge their performance? Performance and title refers to statements and tasks. The minister presents his statement; the ruler assigns him tasks according to his statement, and evaluates his merits exclusively according to the task. When the merit is in accordance with the task, and the task is in accordance with the statement, then [the minister] is awarded; when the merit is not in accordance with the task, and the task is not in accordance with the statement, then he is punished.

The advantages are clear: This latter point is of particular importance to the Legalists. Both terms are similar to fa but are narrower in their meaning, referring primarily to a variety of means through which the ruler controls his officials. This is what the ruler should hold. Yet amid the strong emphasis on the power of techniques, rules, laws, and regulations, we can discover the sober realization that even these are not always enough, and that a perfect administrative system simply cannot come into existence. Thus, in one of the later chapters of the Book of Lord Shang it is said:.

Nowadays, [the ruler] relies on many officials and numerous clerks; and to monitor them establishes assistants and supervisors. Assistants are placed and supervisors are established to prohibit [the officials] from pursuing [personal] profit; yet assistants and supervisors also seek profit, so how they will able to prohibit it? Insofar as techniques and rules are implemented by self-interested—or simply erring—human beings, the question remains: This evaluation should be qualified, though. Rather, their distinctiveness was in their pronounced anti-ministerial stance.

This stance is exemplified by the following saying of Shen Buhai:. Now the reason why a ruler builds lofty inner walls and outer walls, looks carefully to the barring of doors and gates, is [to prepare against] the coming of invaders and bandits. But one who murders the ruler and takes his state does not necessarily climb over difficult walls and batter in barred doors and gates.

This warning epitomizes what may be considered the major dividing line between Legalists and their opponents. Despite their pronounced belief in monarchic form of rule, most thinkers of the Warring States period insisted that the monarch would never succeed without a worthy aide. Their common desideratum was attaining harmonious relations between the ministers and the rulers; not coincidentally, the common simile of these relations was that of friends, i.

One of the most radical manifestations of this pro-ministerial mindset of the Warring States era was the idea of abdication, according to which a good ruler may consider yielding the throne to his meritorious aide Allan ; Pines For Legalists, in contrast, this very idea proved that the pro-ministerial discourse of their rivals was usurpation in disguise. Ministers should never be trusted: Legalists shared the conviction of most other political theorists of the Warring States period: They added a few new dimensions to this overarching monarchistic discourse.

As such, his power is conceived not as the means of personal enjoyment but as the common interest of his subjects. In antiquity, the Son of Heaven was established and esteemed not in order to benefit the single person. Hence the Son of Heaven is established for the sake of All under Heaven, it is not that All under Heaven is established for the sake of the Son of Heaven…. Even if the law is bad, it is better than absence of laws; thereby the hearts of the people are unified. Shen Dao presents his political credo with rare clarity. A ruler is crucial for the proper functioning of the political system; he is the real foundation of political order, not a beneficiary but rather a servant of humankind.

Significantly, the ruler attains these blessed results by the sheer fact of his existence and not due to his morality or intelligence. As Shen Dao clearly states, bad laws are better than a lawless situation, and we may infer that a bad ruler is better than anarchy. As long as the ruler preserves his power intact, i. Otherwise, turmoil is inevitable. When the Son of Heaven is established, he should not let the regional lords doubt [his position]; when a lord is established, he should not let nobles doubt [his position]; … Doubts bring commotion; doubleness [of the sources of authority] brings contention, intermingling brings mutual injury; harm is from sharing, not from singularity Shenzi , 47— Shen Buhai echoes Shen Dao: It is because by the sheer fact of his exclusive authority, the ruler is able to arbitrate conflicts among his ministers and to preserve the chain of command in his state, without which the state may collapse.

Similarly, the above mentioned dictum in Han Feizi to punish an over-performing minister may be understood in this context: The very fact that the monarch—unlike his officials—owes his position to pedigree alone means that this position will more often than not be occupied by a mediocrity. The intrinsic contradiction between an institutionally infallible and humanly erring sovereign is the major source of tension in the Han Feizi Pines b. Thinkers of different ideological inclinations shared the sober realization that a sovereign may be a mediocrity; yet for them this problem was easily resolvable.

Insofar as the ruler would be prudent enough to entrust everyday affairs to a meritorious aide, he would be able to continue enjoying absolute prestige, while practical matters would be decided by worthy ministers see, e. For Han Fei, though, this solution is unacceptable. Time and again he warns the ruler that nobody can be trusted: Every single person around the throne should be suspected; and minimal negligence can cost a ruler his life and his power. Han Fei compares them to hungry tigers ready to devour the sovereign whenever the opportunity arrives:.

The Yellow Emperor said: If the minister does not murder his ruler, it is because the cliques and cabals are not formed. This is an amazing saying: But going beyond this personal tragedy there is a more general question: But this supposedly neat solution is problematic. Second, it remains unclear how the ruler will gain access to reliable information if each of his close aides—as Han Fei reminds him—is a potential cheater Han Feizi 6: The monarch is the most revered individual, but also the weakest chain in the government apparatus.

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He can be duped by his underlings, is prone to misjudge them, and his actions may frequently endanger the very foundations of political order that he is supposed to safeguard. Hence, the thinker repeatedly urges the ruler to refrain from any personal activities, any reliance on personal knowledge, and any manifestation of personal likes and dislikes. The thinker summarizes his recommendations:. The ruler does not reveal his desires; should he do so, the minister will carve and embellish them.

He does not reveal his views; should he do so, the minister will use them to present his different [opinion]. When there is success, the ruler possesses a worthy [name]; when there is failure, the minister bears the responsibility. This is a curious recommendation: Yet this sovereign, who has neither desires nor observable views, becomes the ultimate slave of his office.

For the sake of self-preservation he must abolish his personality, being completely submerged by the system which he ostensibly runs. This paradox of an entrapped sovereign, who enjoys God-like omnipotence, but who is required to refrain from any activism in order to preserve this omnipotence is one of the most fascinating manifestations of the intrinsic contradiction of the authoritarian system. When it comes from a thinker who is often described as singularly authoritarian-minded, it deserves utmost attention.

Some of the aspects of the Legalist program—a powerful state that overwhelms society, rigid control over the populace and the administrative apparatus, harsh laws, and the like—seem to lend support to this equation. Yet when we move to the realm of thought control—a sine qua non for a true totalitarian polity—the results are somewhat equivocal.

While Shang Yang and Han Fei have much to say on matters of culture and learning, their message is predominantly negative: Shang Yang is particularly notorious for his comprehensive assault on traditional culture and on moral values. The Book of Lord Shang abounds with controversial and highly provocative statements like this one:.

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Jun 28, Caroline rated it really liked it Shelves: Han Feizi earnestly sent this advice to his king, the ruler of the small state of Han. It might not have mattered anyway, but Han ignored his advice and fell to the neighboring king of Qin, who became the first Emperor of a unified China in B. Han Feizi would have a state that has no place for commerce, the arts, religion, or anything other than agriculture and war.

One has to remember the threatening times in which he lived, but even so it is a ruthless prescription. He perfected the Legalist doctrines that would guarantee the strength of the state through the ruler retaining absolute power in his own hands. This power derived not through the ruler participating in the actual administration, but in giving his ministers and their subordinates no room for independent judgement or discretion.

They must fill an exactly defined role, and deviate not at all from any programs they proposed to carry out. In this way officials could not be susceptible to bribes for things such as being excused from military service, and they would have insufficient scope for cabals. Han Feizi has a very low opinion of the people, and dismisses any notion that the ruler needs to shape his policies to gain their trust. All this sounds insanely ruthless, but this book is a classic because the examples and reasoning he employs are very convincing.

Watson provides a concise and graceful introduction that provides the necessary historical and philosophical context for this work. Han Feizi has been read ever since the book was written about BC, and is well worth a look. Mar 31, Emily Carroll rated it really liked it Shelves: Han Feizi was the creator of the Legalist philosophy. Unlike many earlier philosophers, it is believed that he wrote the text primarily on his own.

I found this to be particularly interesting because Xunzi was a Confucian philosopher and there is a great rift between the two schools of thought. For example, like Xunzi, Han Feizi gives strict titles for actions and behaviors and makes it appear that you have no choice and can make no argument with what is ultimately his opinion on the matter.

I will demonstrate the similarities below with examples from the two text.

Page Unfortunately this is something I find to be very annoying because it gives me a sense of taking away free will and personal opinion. But this really makes sense with Han Feizi because legalism believes that people are naturally evil and will always try to avoid punishment while in the process of chasing gains. It supports a strict law and harsh punishments.

A lot of the book read like a guide book for rulers on the proper way to rule, as well as punish. Very much like The Prince, though perhaps a bit more extreme and harsh. Decent translation, straightforward and precise.


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The choice of chapters is bit confusing. This edition exclude Current affairs remind me of this book, as you start to see quotations of his appearing on social media condemning the deployment of THAAD.


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  7. The quoted chapter is not included in this English edition, title of which shall be translated as "signs of collapsing": Therefore this classic written that time is much more essential for understanding China's behavior pattern particularly in foreign relations than those of Confucius. You deal with claimants bilaterally, allying with one against some certain others.

    Apr 18, Brandon rated it it was amazing Shelves: I'd known about the Legalists since Day of the Dragon King: Magic Tree House Book 14, when the Qin emperor burned all those bamboo slips of rival schools. I thought they were the historical Bad Guys, advocating ruthless tyranny.

    Han Feizi: Basic Writings

    It turns out Han Fei's thought, as represented by the selections here, is not only much more nuanced, but even uncomfortably persuasive. He also has some surprisingly modern observations, like how it was easy for the ancients to be benevolent because there were fewer people and therefore less competition for resources, or how people are forced by necessity to certain crimes, which fact is neither good nor bad: In any case, it's always a pleasure to read ancient philosophy, especially examples as straightforward and digestible as these. Han Fei Tzu was a scholar who propounded Legalism - a strict adherance to the law by way of benefits and punishments to create and maintain an efficient state.

    The First Emperor of Ch'in admired his writings and appears to have taken some of his advice to heart - it was known for its brutal administration - and lasted but a short time. Much of the basics of proper administration are here and appear to be common sense. Yet his ideals lack humanity. He excoriates benevolence and mercy as being the Han Fei Tzu was a scholar who propounded Legalism - a strict adherance to the law by way of benefits and punishments to create and maintain an efficient state.

    He excoriates benevolence and mercy as being the seeds of evil. If we were mere machines, Han Fei Tzu's philosophy would be ideal. Fortunately, his ideals have been relegated to the dustbin of history. Legalist would work for third world countries for a while.

    Dec 15, Markus rated it really liked it Shelves: Gem of a book.

    The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi
    The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi
    The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi
    The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi
    The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi
    The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi The Legalistic Way: Lessons From Xun Zi and Han Fei Zi

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