The eternal Chinese philosophical debate: Confucius or Han Fei Tzu, Confucianism or Legalism? How can one choose and what is the appropriate Tao or way for a good life? I, for one, think that there is no specific way one can choose between the philosophies of the two great Chinese thinkers Confucius and Han Fei Tzu. Confucius' philosophy was developed as a response to and under the influence of several factors while Han Fei Tzu's was developed under a set of totally different factors.
Confucius tried to find a solution to stop the chaos that had engulfed China for more than 200 years. He had lived through abject poverty and hence his philosophy would obviously be from the point of view of the peasants and common people. To bring peace and order to a scarred and weary land, the people had to be taught how to lead a correct life. Since the basic unit of society was and still is the family, Confucius focused on forming a happy and content family. If the family was happy, the people would be happy and consequently, the king would find it easy to rule with a gentle hand. Thus, Counfucius' focal point was humanity and human goodness. Han Fei Tzu on the other hand focused on more basic ground rules and reality. Han Fei Tzu was a prince, born into a noble family. He rejected Confucius' peaceful and high-minded idea as even centuries after his death, China was still in the warring states period. Clearly, Confucius' philosophy hadn't helped. Subsequently, Han Fei Tzu developed his own Machiavellian philosophy that was from the point of view of the ruler. The ruler would rule with an iron hand.
To know their philosophies better we first need to learn who they were. It appears from the Analects that Confucius was a private person who trained the sons of gentlemen in the virtues proper of the ruling classes. It is clear, however, that he was not content with this position and longed for a public one, either in his own state of Lu or in some other, which would give him the opportunity to put into practice the Way which he regarded as that of the Former Kings, the Way of Goodness, long ago discarded by the rulers of the world in favor of a way of violence and aggression. Thus he had two objectives. 'One was to enter government service. The other was to study and learn.1 There is not the slightest indication though that he ever obtained such a position. Discontented with the slow progress of his doctrines on the land of Lu, Confucius traveled from state to state seeking for a ruler who would give the Way its chance. The only disciples actually mentioned as accompanying him are Jan Ch'iu, Tzu-Lu and his favorite disciple Yen Hui2. Several of his disciples were in the service of Chi K'ang-tzu, the dictator of Lu; and it may have been owing to their good offices that Confucius was at last encouraged to return to his native state. His task, then, was to be the trainer of sun-tzu (gentlemen's sons) and to inculcate moral principles, form character, hand down unaltered and intact a great tradition of the past.3
Confucius puts great emphasis on ren (humanity) and li (ritual and decorum). Through these two basic qualities and ideals, he believed, a good and ordered society can be maintained. He laid great stress on the fact that in society, everybody had specific, ordered roles. One should never deviate from his role. A prince should behave as befits a prince, a prime minister as befits a prime minister, and if this fails to happen, society would fall apart for people would not know what to do.4 And it is through due consideration of his people, through ren, that the monarch must rule.
This brings us to Han Fei Tzu, the propagator of Legalism. Although Legalism is among the last of the classical Chinese school of thought, and comparatively late in developing its theoretical position, this school had unquestionably the greatest of influence of any upon the political life of its time. Typically its exponents were practicing politicians (little wonder since Han Fei Tzu was a prince himself), more concerned with immediate problems and specific mechanisms of control ' more Machiavellian or in the footsteps of the legendary Chanakya than Confucian, peaceful or Gandhian ' than with the underlying principles of government. Indeed there is a strong anti-intellectualism among them and an especial hostility toward the vain talk of the philosophers. The Book of Lord Shang, though not authentic in all probability, set forth the principles that Shang Yang5 utilized, but it is Han Fei Tzu who has left us an authentic statement of the theoretical basis of the Legalist school of thought. 'Legalism in its earliest form was probably the outgrowth of a need for more rational organization of society and its resources so as to strengthen the state against its rivals.6 Political institutions affording greater centralized control and power being concentrated in the hands of a single ruler were the major features of Legalism. The 'Two Handles' 7 of Han Fei Tzu is an excellent example of how this could be achieved. A simple methodology of rewarding good deeds and condemning the wrong with extremely harsh punishment would ensure that people would fear doing wrong and would strive towards doing good. If the people feared acting wrongly, then the ruler immediately became more powerful for who would decide whether an act was right or wrong but the king? The 'Five Vermin' is another excellent example of pragmatic dictatorial rule. Han Fei Tzu's sage (who would also be the ruler, quite like Plato's Philosopher King) would reject tradition and legends of antiquity since those were outdated and would not fit into the modern scheme of things. The sage would have to react to changing circumstances using his own wise judgment, not that which had been followed for centuries since those had been the traditions of those ancient times, not of the modern Chin China. Again, by rejecting ancient traditions, the ruler could ensure that the people wouldn't know how he would react to a particular situation, only the ruler would. Again, it emphasized and increased his power. It was a simple matter of keeping one's cards very close to oneself. As a final example of Legalist thought I would like to draw attention to Han Fei Tzu's 'The Way of the Ruler.8 Here Han Fei Tzu puts great stress on how cautious a ruler should be and how he should guard himself against everyone at all times and take great care to hide all his decisions until the last moment. 'Traitors will arise' if he did not do so.
Personally, I feel Legalism is a great way to bring order to a disturbed society in turmoil. But it would definitely not suffice nor last in an ordered and peaceful society as Legalism condemns the arts and the pursuit of anything other than agriculture. A peaceful, free society needs the arts to flourish otherwise stagnation and frustration sets in and eventually leads to rebellion. Legalism was precisely what China needed as a unifying force. The Chin dynasty did not last for too long and was succeeded by the Han dynasty. The rulers of the Han dynasty had first hand experience of the horrors of the Legalist doctrine and immediately proceeded to ban its more offensive laws while keeping the political machinery in place. 'Under their leadership the new regime of the Han was marked by plebian heartiness and vigor, simplicity and frugality in government, and abhorrence of the Legalist doctrines of the hated Chin.9
Ideally Legalism acts as a uniting force in a disunited country and then, once the people have been brought together, Confucianism leads to a flourishing society. A society where the arts, rituals and traditions are respected and appreciated; a society where the family is respected and upheld, leading to harmony among the citizens. I don't think the two doctrines can be separated and if we really look around us today, we find that it is a mixture of these two that creates a good government. The Founding Fathers setup a bicameral legislature, topped by one President and separated the Executive from the Legislature to make sure that the government was strong and could not be toppled by the whims and fancies of a few people. Yet this strong government does not stop its people from pursuing their own interests. Interestingly both the 'greatest' and the largest (America and India respectively) democracies were founded on the same principles that the Founding Fathers laid down. Perhaps the answer to maintaining peace and order is democracy. But the again, countless cases can be cited of failed democracies in Africa through constant military coups as in Pakistan and in Bangladesh (though Bangladesh has finally recovered and seems headed towards a strong democratic government for quite some time). What then is the answer? At least the largest and greatest democracies as we know it today have survived without any coups. Perhaps democracy is the answer to good government. Democracy as we know it today is a new concept; true American democracy (one that does not discriminate on color and allows women to vote) is only 40 to 50 years old, Indian democracy is 50 years old too. Will democracy stand the test of time? Only time shall tell.