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Emmarlone Salva Ravago Oriental Philosophy (Ancient Chinese Philosophy) Han Fei Zi and the Legalist School

September 20, 2010 Rev. Fr. Richard Ang, OP

Feudalistic society of the early Chou dynasty operated according to two principles: 1) Li (rituals, ceremonies, rules of conduct) which formed the unwritten code of honor governing the conduct of the aristocrats (chun tzu). 2) Hsing (penalties and punishments) which applied only to the common men, shu ren (common men or hsiao ren (small men). According to the Li Ching (The Book of Rites), “the Li does not go down to the common people; the hsing do not go up to the ministers.” Social Background of the Legalists The structure of Chinese feudalistic society was comparatively simple. Kings, princes and feudal lords were all related to each other either by blood or by marriage. Nobles (princes and feudal lords) regarded their rights as existing independently from their superiors (kings). They were semi-independent. Hence, they did not have a centralized government at that time. The kings and princes at the top had no direct dealings with the common people. They left such matters to the lesser feudal lords. The disintegration of this type of society in the later centuries of the Chou dynasty brought with it farreaching social and political changes: 1) Breakdown of social classes – princely men lost their properties to common people while common people became nobles. 2) Governments became more complex as territories of larger states became even larger. 3) New situations brought with them new problems – larger territories mean bigger population and lesser resources, this was their main problem. Legalists believed that proposed solutions of other schools were not realistic enough to be practical. What the rulers needed were not idealistic programs for doing good to their people, but realistic methods for dealing with the new situations faced by the government. Legalists were referred to as fang shu chih shih or “men of method.” They were so called because they developed methods for governing large areas; method which left a high concentration of power in the person of the ruler. They advocated the centralization of the government and absolutism. Rulers need not be a sage; even a man of average intelligence can govern well as long as he faithfully applies their proposed methods. Han Fei Zi, the Synthesizer of the Legalist School Han Fei Zi (280-233 BC) was one of the princes of the ruling house of the state of Han. Studied under the great scholar Xun Zi and was the classmate of Li Si. When the state of Han began to weaken, he wrote his book, Han Fei Zi, (guide in government) and offered counsel to the king. However, the king of Han did not heed his counsel. Meanwhile his works were introduced to the state of Qin, the state more than any other applied his principles and thus conquered other sates. Li Si grew jealous of the growing favor accorded by the king of the sate of Qin to Han Fei Zi. He convinced the king to pass sentence to Han Fei Zi. He sent men to bring poison to Han Fei Zi and ordered him to commit suicide. Later, the king of Qin took back his decision, but it was too late, Hand Fei Zi already died.

If he merely possesses Shu. Once the laws are promulgated.” (Book of Lord Shang. Because he possesses Shi (authority). they mean the individuals who hold government office. Han Fei Zi believed that new problems can only be solved by new measures. while by “names. he can punish those who violate laws and reward those who obey it. the art of handling men. chapter 43).) Lord Shang already said the same thing: “When guiding principles of the people become unsuited to the circumstances. “…therefore affairs go according to their time. “Holding the actualities responsible for their name” (Han Fei Zi. and preparations are made in accordance with affairs.. this means holding the individuals who occupy certain offices responsible for carrying out what should be ideally accomplished in their offices as indicated by their names (old doctrine of the rectification of names).. II. and promulgated among the people” (Han Fei Zi. their standards of value must change. But nowadays there are many people but few supplies. 7) Way of Government To meet new political problems. chapter 49) Because of these completely new circumstances. who held that Shi (power or authority) was the most important factor in politics and government.. Previous philosophies were idealistic due to their material circumstances. because he has the art of handling men. And he has the authority or power to enforce his orders. Han Fei Zi considered all three alike as indispensible. This is the function of Shu (statecraft).. This is the function of Shih (power or authority). Three groups that came first before Han Fei Zi: 1) Leader: Shen Dao. a contemporary of Mencius. he can then get the right men to do everything for him. not traditional ones. and that one has to work hard for a meager return.” (Ibid. different principles are practiced.Last and greatest theorizer of the legalist school. The intelligent ruler is like Heaven because he acts in accordance with the law (Fa) fairly and impartially. 3) Shang Yang or Lord Shang emphasized Fa (law or regulation) as the measure of effective government. the more reliable) Legalistic philosophers understood the changing needs of the time and viewed them realistically. so that men are handled without knowing how they are handled. . the Legalists proposed new ways of government. therefore the people did not quarrel. the ruler must keep sharp watch on the conduct of the people. “There were few people and plenty of supplies. By “actualities”. “A law is that which is recorded on the registers.” (Han Fei Zi. so the people fall to quarrelling. Like a divine being. First step was to set up laws. It is with law and authority that the ruler rules his people rather than virtue (this is his Shu). Legalist Philosophy of History (The older the source. 2) Shen Bu Hai who stressed that Shu (method of conducting affairs and handling men or “statecraft”) was the most important factor. set up in the government offices. chapter 38). Through these laws the people are told what they should and should not do. As condition in the world change.” they mean the titles of the offices they hold. But the ruler need not do all these things himself. Hence.

Instead of elevating the common people to a higher standard of conduct. Legalism and Daoism “Doing nothing yet there is nothing that is not done. Their way of government. however they were also revolutionary. they claim. social status was not necessarily inherited. If the work is done. He should do nothing himself but should merely let others (his ministers/subjects) do everything for him. in the sense that they no longer upheld social distinctions (social classes. They were traditional and conservative. The ruler need only retain the authority of rewards and punishments in his own hands. the one great virtue required of a ruler is that he follows the course of nonaction. men are. they lowered the nobles to a lower standard. Even if he fails only a few times to do this. Hence. moreover it is also a Legalist idea. discarding Li and putting sole reliance on rewards and punishments for all. chapter 48). She functions pertaining to his office have already been defined by law and are indicated by the name given to it. In the legalist thought. therefore a sage is needed. incompetent people will no longer dare to take office even if it is offered to them (because of fear of punishment). If the ruler is strict in his rewards and punishments. He will rule by “doing nothing. . yet there is nothing that is not done. is foolproof. Legalism and Confucianism Confucianists maintained that the people should be governed by Li and morality. the ruler rewards them. noble and common people). How will the ruler know which man is best for a certain office? It can be known thru Shu (statecraft). that man is completely evil. They demanded for a higher standard of conduct (Li) from the people (both noble and common). The Taoist stood for absolute individual freedom. Thus all incompetents are eliminated. there were no class distinctions too.” This is based from the fact that men by nature seek profit and avoid harm (seek ease and avoid toil). if not. the ruler need not and should not bother about the methods used to carry out his work. on the other hand. so long as the work is done. he punishes them (the two handles of the ruler) (Han Fei Zi. the whole mechanism (of government) breaks down. leaving government positions only to those who can successfully fill them.” This is the Daoist idea of wei wu wei. the Legalists for absolute social control. especially in giving rewards and punishments. Such requirements are too much for a man of average intelligence. evil.The rulers’ duty then is to confer a given office upon a given person. by nature. According to the Legalists. not by law and punishment. Social distinction now depended upon the moral worth of the individual. Criticism of the Taoists against the Legalists: the legalist way of government requires unselfishness and impartiality on the part of the ruler. Daoism maintained than man is completely innocent. The legalist. Moreover. Everyone was equal before the law and the ruler. they need to be suppressed by laws rather than convert them to good. the only one who can really fulfill them.

Appendix A Kings Princes Feudal Lords .