All early Chinese philosophical schools were concerned with political problems, and their systems were more in the nature of political formulas than they were pure metaphysical speculations. Even so, it is still startling to read a work such as Han Feizi in which ethics is totally absent and morality is completely ignored. The Legalists (fa jia, or the advocates of rule by law) of ancient China were unique in their undisguised Machiavellian attitudes toward political realities.
The steadily deteriorating political and social situation that existed during the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.) must have contributed to a hardening realism in the intellectual climate of the time, but this climate alone did not give rise to the Legalist school. Han Feizi, to whom this book is attributed, studied with the great Confucian master Xunzi. From his teacher, Han Feizi acquired one basic concept about human nature that was to serve as the bedrock of the Legalists’ theories.
Xunzi distinguished himself by challenging Mencius’s idealistic view of human nature. According to Xunzi, human nature is like the young craboak tree: Without restraining influence, the tree will grow crooked. Although Xunzi never lost sight of a moralistic ideal in advocating the need for education, his disciple Han Feizi carried this view one step further to assert that nothing interests people except material profit. The hired hand works hard only because of a promised reward, says Han Feizi, and even parents do not raise their children for love but for their own future security. If this is not the case, asks Han Feizi, then why do people value their baby boys so much that they drown their baby girls? (Presumably this practice was still observed in Han Feizi’s time.)
Han Feizi did not deny that there were ancient sages, a common belief shared by most people in China at that time. However, he believed that good people are the exception rather than the rule. Furthermore, those who are good by nature are of little value to an orderly society and a prosperous state. If a ruler relies upon the few good people to run the country, Han Feizi argues, it would be like the archer who counts on the few naturally straight branches with which to make arrows. The archer would not have many arrows to shoot. A few good people do not make an orderly society—for orderliness to exist, everyone must observe the interests of society. Therefore, the only thing that counts is a set of laws. The person who obeys the law is good. This is the only necessary standard of good and bad or right and wrong.
Environment offers an explanation for the existence of the Sage Kings in China’s golden past. In high antiquity, material supplies were abundant and people few. No one needed to steal for a living. However, as the population grew and the land became more crowded, the struggle for existence made manifest the true nature of humankind, which is profit-centered and selfish. Therefore, although in the golden past, as the Confucians explain in their teachings, a moral life was possible, the same material conditions no longer exist. Han Feizi applied this theory to explain the behavior of the legendary kings who abdicated their thrones without regret. Legend says that the Sage Kings worked harder than the common peasant and enjoyed less comfort, so why should they have regrets about giving up their “burdens”? However, times had changed, and the throne had become a coveted position that bestowed comfort, power, glory, and material rewards on its holder. It is small wonder, says Han Feizi, that people all aspire to be a ruler.
In many chapters and through various analogies, Han Feizi attempts to prove his theory of economic determinism. He cites the relative value of water on high mountains and near the river shore to show that generosity with...
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