Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Legalist Doctrine of Han Feizi (3rd century B.C.)

The essence of legalist doctrine is the use of sovereign law to secure the authority of the ruler, to harness the talents of the ministers, to keep harmony among the people, and to protect the peace from enemies abroad. In short, the aim is to make the state strong and to keep it under control. In this emphasis on the strong state it conflicts with traditional Confucian values that put neighbours and family first.

The essential energy of the state is focused on the knowledge and practice of agriculture and warfare. Agriculture is practiced in times of peace to fill the granaries, and warfare in times of war to repel invaders, preserve alliances and crush enemies. These two activities keep men busy and keep the state strong.

Rewards are clear, penalties severe. Punishments include ministers. Rewards include commoners. With these two levers of authority, the sovereign keeps control of the state. If he should ever be foolish enough to give either power away, then he will lose authority.

Everything has its specific function, every person has his specific qualification. The ruler just assign names. When names and forms are in agreement, superior and inferior are in harmony. The calamity of the ruler originates in self-assertion because his function is solely to rule, not to interfere. When the name exceeds the form, this deserves punishment. When the form exceeds the name, this too may be punished because it signals an attempt to gain favour or it takes away another's responsibility. To speak without knowing, or to not speak when one knows, both deserve to be punished. When forms and names match each other, then this deserves reward. Chastisement and commendation are the two handles by which fear of punishment and greed for reward are exercised.

"Rules and measures" is the sovereign's treasure. "Allies and followers" is the minister's treasure. Thus, the sovereign uses rules and measures to divide up alliances that could threaten his authority. If the ruler's personal bias of like and dislike are concealed, then the ministers' true hearts will be revealed. If the ministers reveal their true hearts, then the ruler will never be deluded. With laws and numbers that are definite and impartial, the ruler will not be deceived. Ministers must never realise wishes that are outside the rule of law, nor bestow favours that are within the rule of law. 

When high and low are connected, everything will be in order.

So it was that "the early kings esteemed legalism".

Thus advised Han Feizi. And he was killed for his troubles.

Comments: So we see how even an enlightened kind of authoritarianism, just like capitalism today, is based on fear and greed. It is successful precisely because it utilizes human nature instead of trying to change human nature. And yet, though endowed with external strength, the authoritarian and the capitalist society are both internally conflicted. When we all go for the same aim, whether it be power or money, naturally there is conflict. The ruler and the state want to be strong because they are afraid of the dark days, the days of war and lack that leave their imprint on our memory, on our history, on our subconscious, but by being afraid of the dark days, we are always living in the dark days. The only way out is if we could switch from this reactive victim-mentality to the creator-mentality. This is what Nietzsche spoke of in his "Genealogy of Morals", a summary of which you can read at the link. Indeed, we must overcome our greed and fear, and with gentle reason heal our inner conflicts.


  1. Markets and Merchants in Early China
    (notes based on a talk by Prof. Roel Sterckx in 2012)

    It would be a mistake to think that capitalism and globalisation are new ideas in China today, or that they are imposed from the West. We can trace their antecedents in early Chinese history and thought, and it is worth investigating if Confucian ideas might shed some light on the problems of gross inequality which persist today. While in capitalist America, 5% own 60% of the wealth, the United Nations statistics reveal the wealth gap in China to be even more acute.

    Shang Yang in the 4th century B.C. was credited with introducing what was later termed Legalism. Early imperial China was based on a highly centralised form of power founded upon a bedrock of agriculture that envisaged a specific function for every individual in society, and reward and punishment as levers of the sovereign to ensure each performed exactly this function, doing nothing more nor less than this function required. Authority of the sovereign was absolute. The engines of the state were devoted to the promotion of farming in peacetime, and fighting in times of war, with the purpose of making the state strong both internally and externally. Shang Yang stripped the nobility of land rights, introduced harsh laws, encouraged the cultivation of unsettled lands, and made the state of Qin strong in the Warring States period. Though marking an end to feudal society, there was still no real land ownership, because there were no contracts. However, it was the ordering of the land, its irrigation, and shaping into grids, which is reflected according to some speculations in the grid-like shapes of many of the Chinese characters of words to do with land. Agriculture was favoured over commerce, and merchants had to be registered with the state.

    There is the idea of the farmer as a simple man, productive, law-fearing, domesticated, sedentary, manageable by the central authority and contributing to the welfare of the state. The merchant by contrast, especially the travelling merchant, is a peripheral figure of suspicion beyond central control, escaping from taxation, associated with forgery, fakery, cunning, marketing. The merchant is a wanderer. As one ancient text put it, "Merchants are no ordinary people. They claim no district as their home, nor adopt any prince as the object of their service. When selling they seek profit, and when buying it is not to acquire possessions."

    According to profession, there is a broad classification of men into four types which puts scholars at the top in a meritocratic government of scholar-officials, then farmers, then craftsmen and finally merchants. Scholars were considered the brains of society, and along with farmers as its roots, while merchants were merely its branches. In the I Ching, there is a much more positive image of the market as a place of coming-together and enhancing public good, of harmony, where people exchange their surpluses, what one had for what one needed. The state was only present to oversee affairs. Already in Mencius though, we see a speculation of the origin of taxes in the despicable trader. "In antiquity, the market was there for the exchange of what one had for what one lacked. The authorities merely supervised it. There was however this one despicable fellow who looked out for his own advantage and looked to secure an advantage in this market. And the beginning of taxation begins with this despicable fellow."

    1. (cont. notes based on a talk by Prof. Roel Sterckx in 2012)

      But this is the main point: the idea of China as a land of farmers and based on agriculture was only ever an ideal, a kind of self-imposed mythology, a self-imagining. Economy was always something that had its place in Chinese society, just there is a suspicion of it. The ancient Chinese city was arranged with the emperor in the South (yang) and the walled market in the North (yin). It was a public place but restricted, only accessible from some of the city gates to ensure that merchants were kept away from the southern quarters, hidden from the propriety of family and household, and also to enable the control and taxation of goods that passed through. The resident merchant does not face quite the same disapproval.

      Confucius does not deny that making profit is a good thing. There is a story that when one of his disciples asks if he should hide away a precious jade or sell it, he recommends to sell it, but only at the right price! Perhaps the stigma of the merchant is something which develops over time.

      In Chinese, the word for poverty means literally, "a lesser share". Treatises on economy always began with chapters on grain and land. Confucianism praised in particular equitable distribution, and yet we have in Sun-Tzu a recognition of inequality as being in harmony with the natural state of affairs. How does Confucianism envisage wealth creation? As with welfare, knowledge and virtue, so with possessions, it envisages it in terms of accumulation. The importance ethically is the intention of this accumulation, whether it be altruistic (as for grain collected for times of scarcity) or egotistic. So, while subject to suspicion, the market is not in itself immoral. Indeed, according to Chinese tradition, the creator of the market was none other than the god of agriculture!