Philosophical Outlook of Ancient China

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 November 2016

Philosophical Outlook of Ancient China

The Hundred Schools of Thought was an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China that lasted from 770 to 222 BCE. In around 500 BCE, after the Zhou state weakened and China moved in to the period of warring states, the classic period of Chinese philosophy, known as the Golden Age, began. This period saw the rise of numerous Chinese philosophers and academics. Many of the great Chinese texts have intensely enriched Chinese lifestyles and social awareness up to the present day.

However, of the many schools founded at this time and during the subsequent Warring States Period, the three most influential ones were Legalism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Legalism, the political philosophy concerned with the most effective way of governing society, is exemplified in the style, attitude, and philosophical outlook of the passage. Legalists portray humans as inherently evil and inclined toward criminal and selfish behavior. Thus, if humans are allowed to engage in their natural proclivities, the result will be conflict and social disorder. They must be shaped and guided.

If humans are not “straightened and bent” like the wood in the passage, which must be changed to be useful, they will not fit the proper description and always be essentially bad or ineffectual. Legalists have said, “ Those who show capacity for their work… [will be] promised and rewarded, those who show incapacity… [will be] punished ” (Waley 178- 179) . The manipulation of the wood through its shaping may be compared to the rewards and punishments given to the people in a legalist society to maintain order in the community. The idea of depending on the law is also imperative throughout the passage.

The passage reveals that “laws of the state must not be neglected”, indicating their importance and necessity. It may be simply stated, “ [the legalist] does not prize morality, he prizes the law” ( Waley, 155). This shows that there is an attitude of placing the law above all in this society. Thus, the passage indicates for the mentioned reasons above that it belongs to the legalist school of thought. As a result of these legalist beliefs there was a great emphasis placed on controlling human behavior through written law rather than through ritual, custom or ethics.

Another school of thought was based on a system of ethics. This school of thought was known as Confucianism. These teachings placed a high value on learning and devotion to family, as well as a display of peace and justice. The passage does not represent Confucianism because this school of thought emphasizes the goodness of all people. Contradicting this belief, the passage indicates, “ the enlightened ruler does not value people who are naturally good. ” Waley reveals a conversation between the King of Wei and Mencius. Mencius concerns himself with providing the king with something of profit.

In reply the King says to him, “ All that I have to say to you is concerned with goodness and right, and nothing else at all” (90). This indicates that there is a strong base of integrity and goodness that creates the foundation of Confucianism, and the main attitude toward others were that they were filled with righteousness. The attitude of being “ naturally good” can also be seen as “people… [cultivate] condition[s] of liberty” (Waley, 87). This means that it is human nature, which is responsible for nurturing and promoting the growth.

It is the character of all human beings to do the right thing that is essentially full of decency and honesty. In this way, Confucianism was primarily a system of ethical precepts for the proper management of society. The last school of thought is characterized by inaction, the uselessness of knowledge, spirituality, and the guidance by nature and instinct. This school of thought is known as Taoism. The passage does not share any of the above-motioned characteristics of being “middle of the road”. In fact, the passage contradicts this particular philosophy quite clearly.

It states, “the ruler who has the technique does not follow the good that happens by chance. ” In a Taoist society people believe in inaction as seen in the story of the man who spent every moment in life caring for his horse. “One day,” the story goes, “ a fly attached itself to the animal, and this man scotched it”. He took an action, and as a result of taking an action the horse taken by surprise, it became severely injured and “tore its breast” and “bruised its head” (Waley, 77). This proves, according to Taoism that you should not seek to take things into your hands.

If the care giver of the horse never would have made an effort to help the horse it would have been no better off or worse off than it was before, it would just “be”. This philosophy is also seen in another part of Waley in which it is said that, “ You will stumble, you will stagger, you will topple and expire” (76). The way of the Taoist is to achieve happiness is by learning to “go with the flow. ” Instead of trying to get things done the hard way, people should take the time to figure out the natural, or easy way to do things, and then everything would get done more simply.

This shows the beliefs of Taoism, that not acting, but just functioning and being, by seeking a higher reality within one’s self, is enough. In conclusion, after considering all the schools of thought, it can be said that the passage is firmly believed to belong to the Legalist school of thought. Legalism portrays humans as obtuse, useless individuals that are inherently bad. The emphasis on laws, punishment and reward are shown by the “straitening and bending” of society to fit a particular, useful “mold”.

The reasoning for the passage not belonging to either the Taoist or Confucian schools of thought are because there is no emphasis on goodness as seen in Confucianism. However, it does show how people as being inherently bad. It also shows how people should act and take matters into their own hands, which derives from the Taoist philosophy of staying neutral. Therefore, the style, attitude, and philosophical outlook of the passage would be legalism because it is clearly portrayed by the values, attitude and the teachings illustrated in the passage.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 November 2016

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