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Comparing and Contrasting Confucianism and Legalism Essay

Confucius once said, “The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large. ” Amidst the chaos of political instability and constant warring of the Zhou era, many philosophers arose that impacted China in the fields of politics, religion, and philosophy. Two of these philosophers were Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 B. C. E. , and Han Feizi, who lived around 233 B. C. E. These two created the Confucianism and Legalism that significantly changed the society is still in use in modern China.

Confucianism became the dominant way of thinking and the later philosophy of Legalism gained immense recognition as well. Each party had their own proposals for creating a better, harmonious society through the leaders, government, and individual lives of the people. Both approaches were very distinct but at the same time, they contained similarities as well. Confucianism resulted from a Chinese philosopher named Kongfuzi (551-479 B. C. E), also known as Confucius, becoming disheartened with the way the government ignored his ideas of how to create a just, harmonious society.

His teachings, which he had passed on to his followers/students, include the Analects. It is within this document that he tried to teach men how to be gentlemen. If a man were able to follow the steps to becoming a gentleman and complete the duties of his status, that gentleman could influence others in society to be honorable, hard working, honest, and just. However, within Confucianism, class and gender was a huge factor. Women were often considered less important as were lower class peoples. Only the well off male members of society could receive the required education required to be a gentleman.

An example of this is: “The Master said, A gentleman who is widely versed in letters and at the same time knows how to submit his learning the restraints of ritual is not likely, I think, to go far wrong. ” The Legalism school emphasizes the usage of incentives and formal institutions. Under the Legalism, the ruler provides strong incentives to local officials which may lead to side effects because some activities are noncontractible. The cold-blood image of the Legalism may alien citizens. 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. A third underlying premise, which is probably the most essential in setting the flash-and-burn nature of the Legalists, is an all-too-confident trust in the ruler’s ability and virtue as well as an almost cultic, absolute believe his monarchal power, or in a term that might win favor in front of the emperor, deity – “The sage ruler, by his governing of men is certain to win their hearts; consequently he is able to exert strength.

Strength produces force; force produces prestige; prestige produces virtue. Virtue has its origin in strength. The sage ruler alone possesses it, and therefore he is able to transmit humaneness and rightness to all-under-heaven…” (Shang 259). However, I believe this is not quite concisely what the Legalists hold a firm believe in; such rhetoric might only represent the idea from an angle that the ruler could accept at ease.

Being a political institution and a critical part of the regime, the Legalists have concerns for themselves and may therefore seek personal and power advancement as well in their assisting the state. With such a thought, the third premise can be better stated as: all individuals, authorities and government apparatus will never run into interest conflicts with, and will always reside under, the centralized administration headed by a tiny minority of people who have the ultimate supremacy and power.

Noteworthily, such a precondition has an immediate accord with the social need at that time as mentioned earlier, in which a rational government can afford greater centralized power so as to strengthen a state against its rival states. It also represents a significant role in making possible Qin’s later command and conquests as well as a self-destructive effect over the internal government structure.


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