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Legalism and Chinese Philosophy

In contrast to Taoism's intuitive anarchy, and Confucianism's benevolence, Legalism is a Classical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes the need for order above all other human concerns. The political doctrine developed during the brutal years of the Fourth Century BCE (Schafer 83). The Legalists believed that government could only become a science if rulers were not deceived by pious, impossible ideals such as "tradition" and "humanity." In the view of the Legalists, attempts to improve the human situation by noble example, education, and ethical precepts were useless. Instead, the people needed a strong government and a carefully devised code of law, along with a policing force that would stringently and impartially enforce these rules and punish harshly even the most minor infractions. The Ch'in founder based his rule on these totalitarian principles, and had strong hopes that his government would endure forever.

The founder of the Legalistic school was Hsün Tzu or Hsün-tzu. The most important principle in his thinking was that humans are inherently evil and inclined toward criminal and selfish behavior. Thus, if humans are allowed to engage in their natural proclivities, the result will be conflict and social disorder. As a solution to this problem, the ancient sage-kings invented morality. Since morality does not exist in nature, the only way of making humans behave morally is through habituation and harsh punishment (Lau 120). Hsün Tzu, much like the Italian political philosopher Machiavelli, draws a clear distinction between what pertains to heaven and what pertains to man. Later Legalist thinking influenced Chinese political theorists like Tung Chung-shu, who believed in a rigid mathematical proportion in social arrangements.

Even though both Confucianism and Legalism called for governmental hierarchy and adherence to tradition, the difference between the two schools is that Confucianism advocated ruling benevolently by example. It possessed an optimistic view of human potential. (Mencius is often held up as a contrasting example of a Confucian philosopher in opposition to the legalistic doctrine of Hsün-tzu). The difference also appears starkly in the imagery of each philosophy's writings. The dominant imagery in Legalism's writings is of forcefully straightening or unbending twisted tree limbs so that they grow perfectly straight, or using hot irons to burn the tree limbs so that they will grow in the desired direction.

Works Consulted:

Lau, D. C. "Glossary." Lao-Tzu: The Tao Te Ching. NY: Penguin Books, 1963.

Schafer, Edward H. Ancient China. Great Ages of Man: A History of the World's Cultures. NY: Time Life Books, 1967.




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