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Ancient China Legalism

Han Feizi

Han Feizi, the last and most sophisticated of the Warring States' Legalist thinkers, is credited with synthesizing Shang Yang's and Shen Buhai's achievements. He furthermore based his philosophy of law on solid metaphysical foundations, borrowing ideas from the Daoist classic the Laozi (or Dao de jing). The monistic transcendent power of Dao ("Tao," the Way) is embodied in the ruler, whose authority is hence limitless and unquestionable. The principles (li) of Dao are manifested in the law, which thus becomes the constant and unshakable foundation of human society. Social hierarchy also reflects cosmic principles and so is similarly unassailable.

Philosophical sophistication notwithstanding, Han Feizi's fame derives from his astute and cynical analyses of political and social laws and practices. Politics are a battlefield in which deceit and treachery are common, and mutual trust and morality are an anomaly. The ruler should trust neither the people nor his aides, neither his kin nor his closest friends. This candor is revealing because, being a minister himself, Han Feizi actually claimed that he also cannot be trusted. This contradiction between Han Feizi's ideas and his personal aspirations ultimately led to a personal tragedy: after he arrived at the state of Qin, Han Feizi was imprisoned and executed as a potential spy for his Han homeland. Later the king of Qin reportedly admired Han Feizi's teachings and regretted his decision. Han Feizi thus did not witness the ultimate triumph of his ideology, which came shortly after his death with the imperial unification of 221 B.C.E.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationAncient China Legalism - Shang Yang, Shen Buhai, Han Feizi, Later Legalism, Bibliography