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Why Confucianism Trumps Legalism Essay

1428 words - 6 pages

Li Ma, in his paper “A Comparison of the Legitimacy of Power Between Confucianist and Legalist Philosophies", argues that while Confucianism is less fragile than Legalism, it [Confucianism] is the more oppressive political system. From a glance one cannot see why this argument is coherent, much less legitimate, after all is not Legalism the political system which forces restriction upon its subjects, thus limiting the free actions available to its citizens or oppressing them? With respect to the prior statement a realization that Legalism, rather than Confucianism, is the more oppressive system can be concluded. While Li Ma argues that Legalism is the less oppressive system due to Confucianism supposedly limiting the amount of choice the states denizens are allowed, it is in fact the corruption of the Legalist system which is the true source of suppression. Because of the fact that Legalism imposed harsh laws severely limiting the free will of men, and that Legalism's unjust distribution of power created an unbalanced frail society, Li Ma is incorrect in his assertion that Confucianism is the more despotic political system. Rather Confucianism is not only the less fragile government method, but also the more enlightened political scheme, and as such Legalism is the true oppressive system.
The Legalist system appeared near the end of the Warring States period of Chinese history. Unlike Confucianism which thought of laws as unnecessary, Legalism saw order through regulations as the preferred method to rule a nation. In the Legalist system subjects only had to follow the law, not necessarily believe in it, "Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble, but will have no sense of shame" (Confucius 28), as such a subject under Legalism did not care why the law was the law, he only cared that he did not break it, which then limited his choice of actions. Confucianism on the other hand sought to teach the common why something was moral or not, "Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves." (Confucius 28), as such one understood why he should act accordingly, not just out of fear for punishment. While Li Ma argues that rites are oppressive due to Confucianism pounding them into subjects heads, thus leaving no room for self thought, this is quite the contrary, "The Master said, 'What can a man do with the rites who is not benevolent?'" (Confucius 24), thus stating that one must understand the rites before adhering to them. On the other hand within the Legalist system one does not need to understand the law, merely he must obey without a second thought, thoroughly oppressed by it.
While Legalism did impose laws, because the law was only a restriction upon what one could not do, it had no say in the extent of what one could do. With this in mind Li Ma argued that Confucianism with its use of rites in regulating...

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