Jia Yi, Power, and The Virtue vs. Law Debate in Early Han

Things have been a bit slow here recently, as I’ve been pretty busy.  Now I’ve got a little more time freed up to post some more–so expect a bunch of new book reviews soon and some other random thoughts on early Han ethics and political philosophy–this is what I’ve been most into lately, along with some issues in contemporary ethics (mainly surrounding “relativism”).

Anyway–I’ve been interested in the debate between Legalists and Confucians on effective government, which maps relatively well onto the debate between modernists and reformists in the Western Han.  There was a very interesting discussion at the APA Pacific in San Francisco last year surrounding Han Feizi’s criticisms of the Confucian conception of government based in virtue and imitation of the sages, and to what extent Han Fei’s criticisms were successful against the Confucian.  I suggested that Wang Chong supplies a partial response to Han Fei’s objections in his essay Fei Han (Against Han Feizi), but the response Wang develops there builds on an assumption drawn from earlier philosophical work, mainly in the Western Han.  I didn’t go into this stuff in my presentation at the APA, but it might be even more interesting and useful than the Wang Chong bit, as it concerns this debate.

Specifically, Jia Yi (201-169 BCE) dealt with this question of the foundation of legitimacy of government, and took a position similar to what we see much later in Wang Chong, against the legalist view–that both law and virtue are necessary to maintain a government.  There have been some recent scholars (just read Charles Sanft’s dissertation which argues along these lines, as does Michael Loewe in his chapter on the Western Han in the first volume of the Cambridge History of China) who argue that Jia Yi should not be considered as having Confucian motives in his focus on the necessity of virtue in the state.  Rather, they maintain, Jia’s primary interest was in power and the ruler’s ability to retain control, and for Jia virtue was considered a means to power, rather than an end in itself, or as a means for some moral end.

I think this misunderstands both Jia Yi and the early Confucians, to claim that Jia’s focus on maintaining the control of the ruler is inconsistent with a moral focus on virtue.  I read Jia’s views as pretty strongly in line with those of the early Confucians.  Jia focuses on the ordering aspect of virtue.  He speaks of the “people as root” (minben 民本), maintaining that it is only with the support of the people that a ruler ultimately finds success and maintains control.  The way Jia discusses this concept of minben is certainly focused on control, but it is important to understand that this does not minimize the moral aspects of the theory.  In order to maintain control, according to Jia, it is not enough to simply give the people what they want–rather, taking the “people as root” goes deeper than this.  The ruler who truly understands that the people are the key to power will develop the concern with the people proper to a good ruler–which is just what the early Confucians hold that the ruler ought to do.  In the case of the Mencius, as we see in the Book I discussions with King Xuan, Mencius explains that through the ruler’s benevolence toward the people, he ensures they are cared for, and this consolidates the ruler’s power.  As Mencius says, how could anyone stop a benevolent king from eventually holding power over all the world?  The idea here is that the motivation of the ruler is relevant–it is not enough to simply provide for one’s people, because if one does this out of non-benevolent motivations, this will certainly be revealed, and the people will understand the ruler does not have their best interests at heart, but only does what he does to maintain power, and will abandon them and take the easier path to power whenever it becomes available.  Such people will not be committed to their ruler.  The level of commitment from the people a ruler can expect (and thus the amount of power over the people a ruler has) will be directly proportionate to the level of commitment a ruler has to the people.

Jia Yi focuses on minben in its aspect of ensuring control, but this, then, is not inconsistent with a moral concern for the people.  Given that Jia Yi was advising the Han emperor Wen, we should expect that his angle would be one of ensuring control.  Indeed, Mencius used this same tactic in his discussions with King Xuan!  In Jia Yi’s essay Guo Qin 過秦 (The Mistakes of Qin), he claims that what the Qin lacked that led to its downfall was humanity (ren) and righteousness (yi).  But we have to remember that having ren is inconsistent with having selfish motivations such as retaining power–a ruler who provided for the people in order to retain power would not be a person with ren!  Even though there are some differences in how the concept is understood in different Confucian thinkers, they are all clear that having or being ren is not merely a matter of behaving in certain ways, but particular motivations are also involved.

More to come on this–I’ll be presenting on similar issues in Jia Yi at the Central APA in March.  So between now and then I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say on this debate–stay tuned!

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