Who is the intended audience for "Legalism" in the book Worlds of History by Kevin Reilly?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It looks like you may be referring to Han Fei's Legalism in the chapter on philosophers from China and Rome in Kevin Reilly's Worlds of History Volume I: To 1550: A Comparative Reader/ Edition 5.

As to who is the intended audience for Legalism, that would most likely be rulers in ancient China, specifically the King of Han, Han Fei's cousin. History tells us that Han Fei was a member of the royal family of Han, one of the states during the Warring States Period in China. As a learned man, he was continually frustrated by his one encompassing weakness: he stuttered. As a result, he was perceived as less intelligent and less wise than other statesmen in the Han kingdom.

During the Warring States Period, Han Fei tried unsuccessfully to advise his cousin in military and political matters. However, his advice fell on deaf ears; so, Han Fei took to writing down his thoughts. His words were so eloquent that today, he is known as the foremost proponent of the School of Law doctrine or Legalism. You can read his treatise on legalism in his book, Han Feizi, which contains fifty-five essays.

Although Han Fei's advice was ignored by his cousin, the King of Han, another ruler took his words to heart. He was none other than the King of Qin, Shi Huang Di, who became the first Emperor of a united China. In fact, the King of Qin was so impressed with Han Fei that he mulled over the idea of employing him in a political capacity in the new Qin dynasty. However, Li Si, his minister (and Han Fei's old nemesis) manipulated matters so that Shi Huang Di's mind turned against the Han statesman. Han Fei was then thrown into prison, and he eventually committed suicide by ingesting poison.

What is legalism? It is basically the law enshrined as the preeminent authority in any kingdom. Han Fei's legalist theories disavowed the Confucian 'government rule by virtue;' instead the rule by law constituted three main principles:

1)Fa: this is the law or abiding principle of any kingdom. The law is irrevocable and final in its authority.

2)Shu: this is the method or tactic of ruling. Legalist rulers maintained order through a draconian system of punishments and rewards. There are no exceptions to any rule.

3)Shi: this is the power or legitimacy to rule. It is the law, not moral authority, which confers the right to rule on a king.

As an example, let's look at Chapter Seven of Han Fei's book, where he mentions the two handles of 'chastisement and commendation.'

To inflict death or torture upon culprits, is called chastisement; to bestow encouragements or rewards on men of merit, is called commendation.

Thus, when an intelligent ruler keeps ministers in service, no minister is allowed either to override his post and get merits thereby nor to utter any word not equivalent to a fact. Whoever overrides his post is put to death; whoever makes a word not equivalent to a fact is punished. If everyone has to do his official duty, and if whatever he says has to be earnest, then the ministers cannot associate for treasonable purposes.

The above is an example of Legalism in terms of autocratic rule. In fact, if you were to read through all fifty-five essays, you will notice something very interesting. Many of Han Fei's thoughts are echoed in another political treatise centuries later; this would be The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, the 16th century Italian politician and statesman. He argued that the need for strong leadership is necessary to keep government ministers faithful even when they change their minds. Compare the words of Han Fei and Machiavelli below:

For this reason, every sovereign is molested, murdered, deluded, or deceived, because he had lost the handles of chastisement and commendation and let the ministers use them, inviting danger and ruin accordingly. (Han Feizi Chapter VII: The Two Handles).

Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force. (The Prince: Chapter VI — Concerning New Principalities Which Are Acquired By One's Own Arms And Ability).

To read Han Fei's work, please refer to Legalism.

 

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