Han Fei Tzu has one aspiration in his basic writings. His sole intent is to keep the ruler in power. We must keep this in mind as we read his views, because many of his beliefs, which may sound strange and illogical, are all centered upon this single idea. His version of legalism, which is also the most influential version in Chinese culture, is also meant primarily for the ruling class and to some extent for their ministers. There are no morals in his beliefs, no concern for religion (religion is actually looked down upon), and no enlightenment meant for the common man. Even more surprising, there is no attempt to preserve any Chinese tradition or culture in his basic writings.
In these writings, the Han Feizi criticizes the Confucian schools as well as the Mo-ist schools; on the contrary, he actually incorporates some Taoist beliefs into his accounts. The school of the Han Feizi is also deeply compared to the school of the Italian philosopher Machiavelli, which were written two thousand years later. However, the Han Feizi does encounter many questions of uncertainty. With the sole purpose of Han Fei Tzu's philosophy being the intent of the ruler to remain in power, he disregards the values of human social harmony and the more rapid advancement of society. First of all, Han Feizi believes that a ruler's ministers should have absolutely no freedom. He states in Wielding Power (section 8), "Let no one (minister) do as he pleases," giving the ruler total authority over the command of his state.
However, a few paragraphs earlier, he declares, "He (the ruler) does not try to tell others what to do, but leaves them to do things by themselves." This creates a tension in not only depriving the ministers of any independence in their actions, but there is also no ruler supervision in their duties. How, in fact is a minister supposed to handle his job The ministers are not allowed to please the ruler; the slightest action will result in a minister over stepping his bounds and will lead to severe punishment. Take the tale of the two ministers, the keeper of the royal hat and the keeper of the royal robe. One acted and was severely punished. The other did not act and was also punished. Is it their fault the ruler blundered Or does the ruler have to be perfect Furthermore, why should the ministers even care for the ruler if they are to be punished This segment of the legalist view creates lose-lose situations, proving an imperfection in this philosophy, unless it is crucial to punish all ministers.
The absence of any social harmony between the ruler and his ministers seems to be imperative to Han Feizi's theories of legalism. This is a consequence of an offensive political philosophy; it is ignored, remember, in order to keep the ruler in power. Mencius says that human social harmony is essential to the well being of a state. He believes that the ruler must be virtuous in order to satisfy the common people, and in turn the common people will live their normal lives without revolt and without fear. This will keep the ruler in power; this will keep his Mandate of Heaven. The relationship between the ruler and his ministers should behave in the same way.
While the Han Feizi agrees that the ruler should be righteous, he completely disagrees with anything stated by Mencius, including the definition of a righteous ruler. While it is not good for the ruler to be hated, it is essential for the ruler to be feared. Another basic belief that the Han Feizi holds is that people are naturally evil. That is why he demands that the ruler should "trust no one," and should refrain from joy and friendships. Societies most rapidly advance when its individuals perform to the greatest extent of their respective potentials and abilities. In The Two Handles (section 7), Han Fei Tzu says, "Hence, if one of the ministers come forward with big words but produces only small accomplishments, the ruler punishes him, not because the accomplishments are small, but because they do not match the name that was given to the undertaking.
Likewise, if one of the ministers comes forward with small words but produces great accomplishments, he too is punished, not because the ruler is displeased at great accomplishments, but because he considers the discrepancy in the name given to the undertaking to be a fault too serious to be out weighed by great accomplishments." The Han Feizi believes that a minister can only perform to the extent that he states he will perform in the beginning. This statement is weak in many ways. First of all, this encourages the ministers to be lazy, for what is easier for a tax collector to say he will collect two yen the entire year and then collect two yen the first day of the year and rest for the final three hundred and sixty four days. It is a waste of the ruler's, the minister's, and the common people's time, as well as inhibiting the forward movement of society, for time is money. Also, for the ministers out to perform their best and support the nation, how is one to know how far they can actually go with their deeds. There are so many outside factors that contribute to the increase as well as decrease in an individual's personal production.
No minister will over guess his abilities when predicting his name, and again this leads to less production because it is much easier to keep your neck intact if you under guess. When a minister reaches his name, he will be forced to stop working. In a utopia, all individuals will work their hardest to achieve the most possible, do their best, and therefore best advance society socially and technologically. Again ministers cannot overstep their offices even slightly, because this is a threat to the ruler's intent to stay in power. The Han Feizi believes that the ruler must show absolutely no favoritism. However, the nature of The Two Handles (rewards and punishments) is inherently favoritism.
If you reward one minister and punish another, you are in hand showing favoritism. This causes a tension between two of Han Fei Tzu's basic teachings. The only way I can see it to not be like this is if the only punishment is death and replacement. But then again, seniority is the most fundamental characteristic of any idea of rank (which leads to favoritism), and this punishment would be a waste of good men, the most scarce commodity on this planet. Han Fei Tzu also says that, "He (the ruler) does not tell others what to do, but leaves them to do things by themselves." Is it not the ruler's first priority to keep his ministers in check If they are out doing whatever they please how does the ruler know they are not forming a revolution How does the ruler know that they are not overstepping their bounds In Reading about the World it states, "The legalists considered military service and agriculture as the only occupations beneficial to the welfare of the state and discouraged all scholarship." If military service and agriculture are the only occupations beneficial to the welfare of the state, how is society supposed to advance at all In time nations of superior technology will easily conquer agricultural states, as we all have witnessed in this century and historically.
Han Fei Tzu and the legalists ignored all of this in order to keep the ruler the ruler. Furthermore, if you discourage all scholarship, you destroy your own culture, you inhibit education, and you certainly will not advance your society. Finally, what is the nation to do if the ruler can't handle his duties An incompetent ruler would certainly lead his nation to doom, and if no one can overthrow him, an enemy state would certainly take over. With this, comes the question of succession.
Who is to lead the empire when the ruler perishes Han Fei Tzu offers no explanation of any system of succession. It may be possible to assume the Han Feizi assumed that the office of the ruler is hereditary, but that still does not answer the question. The legalist view offered by Han Fei Tzu relies on the basic fact that all humans are naturally evil. Otherwise there would be no need for the ruler to act in all the ways he is supposed to act (according to legalist philosophy). However, in all the ways that the legalist ruler must govern his country, there are many contradictions and imperfections. The greater of these discrepancies result from the fact that the Han Feizi only wishes for the ruler to not be overthrown.
It may be because of the fact that Han Fei Tzu came from a higher class than Confucius, Mencius, and other great ancient Chinese philosophers. It would therefore be his natural mindset to have no care for the common people and in addition be in total loyalty to the ruler. At times, it seems like Han Fei Tzu's ideal state is a state much like those realms of the enemies in young children's animated programs where the ruler is mysterious and dictatorial, and his underlings are dumb and helpless. Nevertheless, the Han Feizi answers many somewhat rhetorical questions and holds much more wisdom than you or I, and is still one of the most premium human thinkers in history. However to run an empire in the legalist manner would be to send a snake of a hundred li against an owl of a thousand pounds. Bibliography: Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings, Burton Watson, tr.
Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Galley, Douglas Hughes, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan; American Heritage Custom Books.