What Does the Philosophy of Legalism Mean in China?


Quick Answer

According to legalist philosophers, individuals were considered to be selfishly motivated by envy of the riches and fame of others, and cannot be expected to behave morally on their own. With this view of human nature in mind, legalist thinkers claimed that social harmony could only be achieved by the formation of a wealthy and powerful state with strictly applied laws.

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Legalism gained importance in China during the chaotic period of the Warring states (475-221 B.C.), and it later provided the ideological basis for China's first imperial dynasty, the Qin (221-207 B.C.). However, it wasn't until the subsequent Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) that it was consciously considered its own school of thought.

As a highly practical philosophy, the main goal of legalism was to create a wealthy state and a powerful army. Because of this, rather than delving into philosophical speculations on why this goal should be attained, legalist philosophers mostly focused on how to attain it.

Legalism contrasted starkly with the other major Chinese philosophies, such as the intuitive anarchy proposed by Taoism and the principle of benevolence followed by Confucianism. It rejected the view that rulers of a successful government could be motivated by pious ideals such as tradition and humanity. Instead of envisioning a society that could be motivated by ethical conduct and education, legalists thought that the only way to achieve a successful state was through the strict enforcement of laws with severe punishment for even the most minor infractions.

The principal ideas of legalism are similar to totalitarianism and the political philosophy of Machiavelli.

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