The writings of Han Feizi (c. 280-233 BCE) include fifty-five treatises which are collected into twenty books and which are mainly concerned with what the ruler of a state should do in order to acquire and maintain political power. The treatises describe the strategies which a ruler may employ in order to maintain control over the legislative functions of government. The treatises also describe the actions which a ruler may take in order to prevent usurpation of power by other government officials, and discuss the tactics which a ruler may employ in order to maintain supreme authority.
Legalism as defined by the writings of Han Feizi is a philosophy which claims that social order may be best preserved by the enforcement of severe penalties for disobedience to civil laws, and which claims that social stability may be best maintained by the administration of harsh punishments to any individuals who fail to comply with civil authority. Han Feizi argues that human nature is basically selfish and deceitful, and that the best way to motivate subjects to be loyal to a ruler is to reward them for loyalty and to punish them for disloyalty. This ethically pessimistic viewpoint was influenced by the moral philosophy of his teacher Xunzi (HsŁn Tzu, c.298-c.238 BCE), who argued that human nature is basically evil and that moral goodness can only be acqured through conscious effort or training.
Han Feizi argues that a ruler should never trust his ministers or subjects to be loyal. The ministers who are appointed by a ruler may try to gain power in order to pursue their own personal aims. A wise ruler must therefore enact laws to ensure that the ministers fulfill their duties and to ensure that all ministers comply with the rulerís authority.
Han Feizi also argues that in order for a ruler to govern effectively, the ruler must reward those ministers who are loyal and must punish those ministers who are disloyal. The "two handles" of reward and punishment are the means by which a ruler may encourage ministers to be loyal and may discourage them from being disloyal. If a ruler does not reward those ministers who are loyal or does not punish those who are disloyal, then that ruler will lose the loyalty of his ministers and will not be able to govern effectively.
According to Han Feizi, the more effectively that a ruler can reward those ministers who fulfill their duties faithfully, and the more effectively that a ruler can punish those ministers who do not fulfill their duties faithfully, the greater the faithfulness and loyalty that the ruler will be able to obtain from his ministers and the more effectively that the ruler will be able to govern. The more effectively that the ruler is able to govern, the greater the power that the ruler may be able to attain. The power (shih) of a ruler consists of his ability to reward his ministers for serving faithfully, or of his ability to punish his ministers for not serving faithfully. If a ruler loses his ability to reward his ministers for serving faithfully, or loses his ability to punish his ministers for not serving faithfully, then he will lose his power.
Han Feizi explains that the relative power of various rulers may be partly determined by the relative effectiveness with which they are able to reward ministers or subjects who comply with their authority. The relative power of various rulers may also be partly determined by the relative effectiveness with which they are able to punish ministers or subjects who do not comply their authority. Thus, a ruler who promotes the development of an effective and properly administered legal system may be better equipped to maintain sovereign power than a ruler who does not promote the development of an effective and properly administered legal system.
Han Feizi argues that individuals should be appointed as ministers of government only if they are deserving of being given positions of authority in government and only if they must be employed to perform some particular function. Individuals should not be rewarded with positions of authority in government merely because they are friends or family members of the ruler. If a ruler rewards undeserving individuals, then he will not be able to reward deserving individuals as effectively.
Han Feizi also argues that each minister should perform the specific function for which he has been appointed and should neither exceed nor fail to perform this specific function. The form (xing) or actual nature of each ministerís duties should correspond to the name (ming) or description of the tasks which that minister has been appointed to perform. If the description of a ministerís duties does not correspond to the actual nature of the tasks which that minister has been appointed to perform, then that ministerís duties will not be properly defined and will not properly contribute to the fulfillment of the duties of other ministers.
Han Feizi explains that a wise and enlightened ruler will rectify names so that they correspond to the forms or actual nature of things. Thus, a wise and enlightened ruler will rectify the name of each ministerís duties so that it corresponds to the actual nature of the tasks which that minister is expected to perform. A wise and enlightened ruler will therefore be able to properly reward those ministers who fulfill their duties, and will be able to properly punish those ministers who do not fulfill their duties. By rectifying the names which are given to the responsibilities and duties of government, a wise ruler will be able to properly determine the best means of promoting social order and stability.
Han Feizi also explains that a wise and prudent ruler will rectify laws so that they clearly specify the penalties which are to be imposed on individuals who disobey the rulerís commands and on individuals who do not comply with the ruler's authority. A wise and enlightened ruler will establish laws which are fair and just, and which promote the well-being of all individuals. A wise ruler will establish laws which enable all individuals to live together in peace and harmony.
In opposition to Kongfuzi (Confucius, 551-479 BCE), who teaches that a ruler should act benevolently and righteously, Han Feizi argues that a ruler should not be too kind or forgiving, because moral discipline is necessary in order to maintain social order and stability. A ruler should never fail to punish any individuals who disobey his commands and should never fail to discipline any ministers who do not fulfill their duties. If ministers and subjects know that any acts of disobedience will be severely punished, then they will be less likely to disobey the ruler.
Han Feizi maintains that penalties for disobedience to civil laws should always be strictly enforced, and that punishments for disobedience to civil laws should never be reduced or rescinded. Remission of punishment for any acts of disobedience to civil law will only encourage further acts of disobedience. According to Han Feizi, benevolence and righteousness are less important for the attainment of social justice and harmony than obedience to civil law and compliance with civil authority. Han Feizi admits that if a ruler is benevolent, then that ruler will try to promote social justice and harmony. If a ruler is righteous, then that ruler will administer rewards and punishments to ministers and subjects fairly and impartially. However, Han Feizi argues that the best method of promoting social justice and harmony is not to act benevolently and righteously but is to rectify the legal system and strictly enforce all civil laws.
Han Feizi explains that if a ruler does not sufficiently reward ministers and subjects for being faithful or does not sufficiently punish them for being unfaithful, then that ruler may lose the faithfulness and loyalty of his ministers and subjects. On the other hand, if a ruler rewards his ministers and subjects too generously for being loyal and faithful, or if he punishes them too severely for being disloyal or unfaithful, then he may also lose their loyalty and faithfulness. Rewards and punishments must be rectified so that they correspond to the nature of the actual conduct which they are intended to encourage or discourage.
Han Feizi emphasizes that a ruler should not administer undeserved rewards or punishments to ministers and subjects if he wants to retain their faithfulness and loyalty. If a ruler has established an effective and properly administered legal system, then rewards and punishments will be correctly administered according to civil law and no further intervention by the ruler will be required in order for society to be peaceful and orderly.
Han Feizi also explains that if a ruler has promised to reward a minister or subject, then he must keep this promise in order to retain the loyalty and faithfulness of the minister or subject. In a well-ordered society, rewards are bestowed on individuals who deserve them, and are not bestowed on individuals who do not deserve them. In a well-ordered society, punishments are inflicted on individuals who deserve them, and are not inflicted on individuals who do not deserve them. The rectification of the legal system requires that rewards and punishments be administered to individuals who deserve them, and that they not be administered to individuals who do not deserve them.
Han Feizi argues that in order for rewards and punishments to be correctly administered, the ruler must be able to correctly identify those individuals who deserve to be rewarded or punished. In order for punishment to sufficiently discourage disobedience to the rulerís commands, those individuals who disobey the ruler must be caught and must be forced to submit to punishment. If individuals who disobey the ruler are not caught and are not forced to submit to punishment, then they may commit further offenses. Moreover, if punishments are not sufficiently severe, then those individuals who are caught and punished for disobeying the ruler may not be sufficiently discouraged from committing further acts of disobedience.
Han Feiziís explanation of the applications of civil authority and of the uses of political power may be criticized for attempting to justify authoritarianism and totalitarianism. For example, Han Feizi argues that a ruler should practice deception in order to determine whether any ministers or subjects may be disloyal. Han Feizi also argues that a ruler should conceal his own intentions from his ministers in order to prevent them from becoming too familiar with his method of statecraft (shu). Han Feizi claims that a wise and prudent ruler should be devoted to secrecy in order to prevent any ministers from being able to hinder his plans.
According to Han Feizi, a ruler should not reward ministers or subjects collectively for the loyal actions of a single individual, because some ministers or subjects may thus be undeservedly rewarded. However, a ruler may in some cases punish ministers or subjects collectively for the disloyal actions of a single individual, if collective punishment does not cause too much resentment and if it enforces compliance with the rulerís authority. Han Feizi also argues that ministers and subjects should be rewarded for denouncing each otherís faults, and that they should be punished for not denouncing each otherís faults. Thus, the power of the ruler becomes absolute, and the ruler gains total authority over all ministers and subjects.
Han Fei Tzu. The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu. Translated by W.K. Liao. Volumes I and II. London: Arthur Probsthain, 1939.
Han Feizi. Han Feizi: Basic Writings. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia Universit Press, 2003.
Lee, Wing-Chiat. "Han Fei," in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. Edited by Ian P. McGreal. New York: HarperCollins, (1995), pp. 44-8.
Zia, Nai Z. "Han Fei Tzu," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Paul Edwards. New York: Crowell, Collier & MacMillan, (1967), p. 412.