The Legalist School

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The Legalist School

The Legalist School was originated by a realist named Shang Yang who wanted to turn the state of Qin from a precarious state to a strong and powerful state that could take over the other six states and create a powerful China. Legalism,which is the act of following all laws, emerged in the Warring States during the Spring and Autumn Periods between 770 to 221 B.C. and is one of the earliest known forms of totalitarian ideologies, which led to the eventual rise and fall of the Qin Empire.

Some of the most influential leaders and contributors in the School of Legalism include Li Si, a political leader of China, who’s form of legalism became a totalitarian ideology in China. Shang Yang, one of the most influential and prestigious Leglist reformers who praised farming, awarding military achievements and stressing the law, which all helped lay the foundation of the Qin dynasty. And Han Fei Tzu, who was compared to the works of Machiavelli and Kautilya, was one of more famous contributors that emphasized that rulers should govern their subjects within the Legalist Doctrine of Fa (law), Shu (strategy), and Shih (power).

Theory of Knowledge:
The Legalist School, which translates to the School of Law, was a “school of thought which stressed the enforcement of law” (A Brief Account of the Legalist School in the Pre-Qin Period section, para. 1). The laws were proposed to help support the king and his or her troops. Legalist believed that everything should be regulated through law, which was the main idea of Legalism. Anyone, including the emporer, who was caught disobeying these laws were severly punished. These laws were set up to punish the bad and reward the good, which were the “two handles” applied to government. Han Fei Tzu called these two handles reward and punishment.

In addition to stressing the enforcement of law, there were other basic features of the Legalist School (from Advocating social reform and opposing old conventions. Most of the scholars from the Legalist schools acted as the pioneers that helped the social stability of their time. Developing the agriculture and develop a strong and potent army to make the country prosperous. Regulating strict laws and inflicting punishment by rewarding the good and discipline the bad. “Uphold the centralizatoin of state power but oppose the enfeoffment and hereditary systems” (Hooker 1996). Legalist did not agree with the old systems of feifdom and hereditary, which they thought would lead to the rise of warlords. Legalist, instead, proposed a strong centralized state power where rulers should combine the three doctrines of Fa, Shih, and Shu to govern and control the people.

In an exert from the Sources of Chinese Tradition Han Fei Tzu states “rewards should be rich and certain so that the people will be attracted by them; punishments should be severe and definite so that the people will fear them; and laws should be uniform and steadfast so that the people will be familiar with them. Consequently, the sovereign should show no wavering in bestowing rewards and grant no pardon in administering punishments, and he should add honor to rewards and disgrace to punishments--when this is done, then both the worthy and the unworthy will want to exert themselves”. Ideas of Human Nature:

Legalist believe that the idea of human nature is greedy and fundamentally evil and that individuals will only behave in a well manner if it is to benefit the state, rewarded, or to avoid punishment. Hooker (1996, Economics section, para. 3) writes that “Legalists also believed that the fundamental purpose of human life was productivity and any human unproductive activity was fundamentally to be discouraged”.

Han Fei Tzu, who was influenced by his teacher, Xunzi, preached that the “Man is born evil” and the the psychological and physiological aspects were man’s inborn nature. It is also in the nature of man to...
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