The Nature of the Legalism and Its Significance

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In contrary to its contemporary antagonist philosophical schools, who advocate the practices of humanness and the rightness and set ideal of the past, the Legalists, in their complete rejection of the traditional ethics, embraces the efficacy of political power and uphold a society of laws and punishments. As the old feudal states decayed and the smoke of endemic warfare suffused, the need for a more rational government that can afford greater centralized power so as to strengthen a state against its rival increased substantially among the Warring States. Such a rising urge necessitated the emergence of the Legalists and further predetermined the Legalists' inherent nature – realistic, totalitarian and problem-solving – which, with the realization of its significance and duty in the stream of history, finds its hegemonic character as well. In function, the Legalist is more of a powerful and influential government consultative committee than a philosophical school. In practice, they openly advocate war as a means of state expansion and transforming people into more submissive and loyal or inversely, a way for its people to server the state; they conceive a political structure where all government apparatus and social institutions reside under an absolute monarch, who has the ultimate power and set his foundation in an elaborately self-contained, austerely impartial and severely coercive legal machinery; the state would also find no existence of the earlier schools of thoughts if not their total annihilation; loyalty to their emperor and "weakened" minds among people would prevail, bringing about social stability enabling intensive and efficient farming. It is thus rational for us to question the validity of preconditions upon which these ideas were acquired and the legitimacy of the ideas; and later but more importantly, how did the Legalists become the only classical thoughts had its teaching adopted as the sole official doctrine of a regime ruling all China and bring about the unification of China; and lastly, the association of the all-too-soon collapse of the ephemeral Qin Dynasty and the Legalists thoughts. As for the precondition of the Legalists' thoughts, there are a few fundamental premises or judgments that we can find from the texts. As an independent school of thoughts in order to distinguish itself among all Hundreds of Schools and set aside all past ideals and standards, the Legalists, first of all, believed in the inevitability of a constant change in society. As noted by Han Fei (d. 233 B.C.E.), "past and present have different customs"(101); at a "critical age" of the chaotic Warring States, "to try to use the ways of a generous and lenient government to rule the people," is like trying to "drive a runaway horse without using reins or whip" (101). As a public defiance of the past, this fundamental believe in a changing world clearly draw the boarder between the Legalists and other schools headed by Confucianism, which was confirmed by Han Fei: "it is obvious that humaneness cannot be used to achieve order in the state" (102). It is not clear at this point whether it is rational for the Legalists to conclude that Confucianism is of no use to be applied in the current society. However, we should be able to say, as has been proven throughout the history, that Legalists were correct on their firm believe in change-to-fit. More importantly, those ideas had opened up the space for the Legalists to apply further reforms. It is the ultimate goal for every regime to build up a strong nation both economically and politically. But problems arise whenever resources are not meeting the demand of social developments, which became increasingly obvious in the late Warring States time due an increase in population, consumption and the spread of war. Another fundamental precondition of the Legalists' thoughts, which in this case is rather a pessimistic interpretation of human nature, was gained in their studying of...
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