Confucian Legalism

Is Han Feizi’s legalism really an “amoral” political system, designed with simply control and order of the state in mind? Or is a sophisticated form of a particular strand of Confucianism? More and more I am coming to think the latter. If one takes my earlier claims seriously, that the benefit of the state is the goal of the Confucian moral system, the “end in itself”, then it looks like the details of Confucius’s own program (as given in the Analects) are perhaps less important to Confucianism than the goal itself.

So there are a few questions we could ask of the Analects. Is ren necessary for the existence of the thriving society? Is li necessary? Or are these simply ways to bring about the thriving society from where Confucius himself sits? One might think that ren and li are sufficient to bring about the thriving society–Confucius may have thought they were sufficient to bring this about from his vantagepoint, but this does not mean that he held that ren and li were necessary conditions of a thriving society. Could he have thought that given a different vantagepoint, some other methods of achieving the thriving society might work better? That is, is Confucius really as rigid as daoists often made him out to be? Perhaps not. I suspect that Han Feizi’s legalism is not ruled out by Confucius, and that if Confucius was truly after the thriving society, as I argue, then he may have taken legalism to be a way of bringing this about. But I’m not sure of this, and at this stage, it’s mostly just speculation. I have yet to find evidence in the texts. But I’ll be looking, and if I find anything interesting, I’ll be sure to post it here.

The first question may be the simplest one: is there anything in either the Analects or in Han Feizi’s legalism that rules the other out?

Also: as the semester is finally over, and I’ve got some time now to really dig into this stuff, I’m going to be posting some commentary on the Analects, as well as translation. I’ve been wanting to get started on this project for some time, but things always kept coming up. What will follow is my translation of a passage of the Analects and commentary of it for each passage (or the ones I’m most interested in, at least), as well as some comparison with western political philosophy (which I’m also reading this summer).

Hope to hear what you think!

2 responses to “Confucian Legalism

  1. Stephen C. Walker

    Hey! I look forward to reading more and commenting more. It’s good to find a kindred spirit.

    I think there are both theoretical and extra-theoretical ways to approach the Confucianism-vs.-Legalism question. I’ll take them in that order.

    On the theoretical level, Confucians and Legalists reflectively disagree on the most effective ways to bring about, as you say, a thriving society. Right here it’s appropriate to note, of course, that “Confucian” and “Legalist” are retrospective labels, and that large texts like the Xunzi and Han Feizi in all likelihood are editorial rather than authorial creations, representing collations of many texts that somebody, somewhere, thought coherent enough to group under one attributed author. The many chapters of the Han Feizi can be read as advising subtly different solutions to the problem of government, including different institutional permutations. But something they all have in common is a heavy institutional focus, as against the more personal focus typical of Confucian texts. (I say “typical” because the Xunzi talks about institutions at great length, and only the rare statecraft author thinks they can be dispensed with entirely.) As such, perhaps the most philosophically useful polarity here is not “Confucian vs. Legalist” or “Han Feizi vs. X”, but “institutional vs. personal”. The way I read the early HFZ chapters, there is supposed to be as little personal decision-making as possible–HFZ tries to minimize the “free variables” in government by making consequences and procedures crystal-clear for everyone, so the system can work as though of its own accord. The idea that personal character, let alone poems or ritual, should play a role in politics HFZ finds dangerous and counter-productive, to the extent of (in some places) banning its expression. Before one balks at such measures one should consider, at great length, to what extent HFZ’s justifications for them might actually hold–at least in the environment of 3rd-cent. China.

    But enough about that. On the non-theoretical level, HFZ and the Confucian texts were produced by very different groups with different interests. The HFZ, Guanzi, and Shangjun Shu authors probably represent the archetype of the “statesmen for hire” who made a living advising princes on effective government. Since the interests of the ruling class are their goal, and since (as every early text recognizes) the fortunes of the ruling and of the ruled are inextricably intertwined, these authors are very much interested in creating a “thriving society”, within varying constraints. The Confucians, meanwhile, form a distinctive trans-regional cultural entity with its own rules, expectations, and traditions–they are as much cultural as political, and as much concerned with personal excellence as with governmental success. Thus one would expect their texts to provide a richer palette of topics, as indeed they do.

    On the political plane, Confucians vs. Legalists should be amenable to empirical inquiry–what system of state measures actually does lead to the kind of ordered, prosperous society they both want? This will rest on economic and psychological/sociological theory. On the personal plane, Legalism of course has nothing to offer…

  2. Alexus McLeod

    Hi Stephen–thanks for your comments. You make many good points. You’re certainly right about the “retropective” nature of the texts and schools. My main motivation for the “Confucian Legalism” project is a creeping suspicion that some of what we take as the “rujia” influenced the legalist strain of thought (such as that represented in Hanfeizi) in profound ways. I just finished reading an interesting article by Benjamin Schwartz (from the early 1950s, no less), where he discusses various later interpretations of the Confucian classics. One interesting point he makes is that interpretations tend to emphasize one or the other side of what he takes to be what he takes to be a polarity inherent in the Confucian texts–the focus on the individual vs. the focus on the social.

    I suppose I’m one of those interpreters who falls on the side of emphasizing the social elements in Confucianism (Schwartz mentions Wang Anshi as in this vein). Of course, the personal elements are there as well on Confucianism, and as you point out, they are missing in legalism. However, the question of whether legalism was informed by Confucianism turns on how the legalists understood Confucian teachings. I suspect (though again, I can’t back this up with anything substantial because I haven’t yet fully jumped into this project) that the extraction of personal consideration from legalism is motivated by Confucianism, inasmuch as the most important goal for the Confucian was the attaining of the thriving society. There are certainly some disagreements between, say, the Hanfeizi and the Mencian strain of Confucianism about the best way to bring about the thriving society (though probably not quite as much disagreement with Xunzi Confucianism), but I think an argument might be made that the Hanfeizi picks up on much of the essence of the Confucian classics (most especially the Analects) that was missed by either Mencius or Xunzi. Thus, I think the legalist tradition (loosely defined as “Hanfeizi-like” authoritarianism) may be a “third” strand of Confucianism. Maybe… I’m not quite comfortable with committing to this yet.

    Also–you mention in your comments that the Hanfeizi represents a “class” of wandering statesmen-for-hire (like Han Feizi himself or Li Si), whereas the Confucians were a seperate, more coherent social entity. I think that after the Han this is certainly true. But Pre-Qin, the Confucians were on the same footing as the other “wandering scholars”. The Mengzi, after all, is made up of stories of Mencius traveling around “door-to-door” trying to persuade various rulers to accept his advice. In the Han, some form of Confucianism was institutionalized, but before then, the “ru” was probably a hodgepodge of Confucians, legalists, and a bunch of other scholars all who likely influenced each other (to varying degrees). By the way, an excellent book on this question of the makeup of the “ru” in Pre-Qin and early Han is Nicholas Zufferey’s “To The Origins of Confucianism”. He also did some work on Wang Chong.

    This is part of my reason for thinking that the legalist strain of thought is Confucian (in some respects). It looks very different from other strains of Confucianism, which is probably one reason it eventually became referred to under a different name, the “fajia” rather than “rujia.” But the legalist strain of thought is, I think, on the whole much closer to Confucianism than is, say, Daoism. If legalism isn’t a more politically savvy form of Confucianism (or pure Confucian statecraft, divested of its focus on individuals), then I think it’s at least a bratty child of Confucianism.

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