Though some of the Legalists borrowed certain ideas from the Daoists,
they used Daoist ideas for completely different purposes, and the two
philosophies were generally in conflict with one another. Most of the
famous Legalists of ancient China were advisers to rulers who were bent
on organizing society on a rational basis and finding means to strengthen
their states agriculturally and militarily. Instead of being devoted
to conformity to the processes of nature, the Legalists were interested
in the deconformity which could be imposed through government institutions.
They devised elaborate means for controlling people's lives and actions
through laws and punishments.
The advice these Legalists gave tended in the direction of regulating
every aspect of people's lives so that they would have the discipline
to work hard in the fields and fight hard on the battlefields. Many of
the laws they recommended were extremely harsh. In the state of Qin,
where Legalist advisers were most influential, rewards might be generous,
but death and mutilation wee often the order of the day.
You will read in other sections about the monumental achievements of
the Qin dynasty in unifying China for the first time and extending
its military influence over an enormous geographical area. When it comes
to the influence of Legalist thinking, the striking thing is that the
Chinese until recent times drew one historical lesson from the rise and
fall of the Qin: the limits of force. It was widely recognized that
force was necessary to unify the state and to mobilize society. Yet many
people were convinced that the brutality of Qin rule was what undermined
it in the end. Many of the Legalists presented law as an alternative
to morality — a more reliable means of ensuring a disciplined and
cohesive society. It was this resort to law as distinct from morality
that aroused widespread misgivings in later times. As they reflected
on the harshness of Qin rule and the bleakness of Legalist ideas about
human nature, many Chinese were convinced that it is easier to make laws
to compel people to behave in certain ways than to inspire them to behave
morally but that, over the long run, law without morality is a weak basis
for a stable society. Largely because of this experience in their early
history, the relation between force and persuasion, between law and morality,
has been for centuries a problem of intense interest to the Chinese people.
It remains a central problem right down to the present day.
The Legalist tradition in ancient China culminated in the thought of
Han Fei, who lived in the third century B.C. Han Fei served for a time
at the Qin court but was put to death in 233 B.C. in a plot instigated
by his one-time friend, Li Si, a chief minister to the first emperor
of the Qin.
Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was
Dr. Irene Bloom, a specialist in Chinese intellectual history.