Reading assignment: Naturalist Schools of Thought in the Late Classical Period, Xunzi, Legalism
Confucianism faced a series of challenges during the Warring States period, and the great early Confucian followers whose writings we have today, Mencius and Xunzi, were men who responded effectively to these challenges, and broadened the shape of Confucianism as they did so. Mohism and Daoism were the chief challenges faced by Mencius, whom we studied briefly last week. Xunzi, the leading Confucian master at the Jixia Academy, responded further to Mohist and Daoist doctrines, but also responded - brilliantly - to the challenges offered by a variety of intellectuals whom we group together under the general term "Naturalist thinkers."
Naturalist texts show a wide differences in interests and approaches. Some focused on "yin-yang" theories, others on qi, others on a set of ideas associated with what were known as "the five forces" of nature (water, fire, earth, wood, metal). Your readings on the Naturalist Zou Yan, and of two short Naturalist treatises, will illustrate this variety. What they all shared, however, was a belief that man should look to Nature as a standard by which to order their lives and judge values of good and bad, right and wrong. This is a powerful approach, and one that Daoism -- most particularly the Dao de jing -- also shared. Naturalism was the rising intellectual trend of third century China, and for this reason, the Xunzi, in its attempt to defend the Confucian vision that moral authority and value standards should derive from sage history and ritual culture, was taking on a tough and popular intellectual opponent. The chapter we'll read, Xunzi's "Treatise on Tian" (which could be translated, in this context, as the "Treatise on Nature," rather than the "Treatise on Heaven"), was Xunzi's most eloquent effort to make the point that man, not Tian or Nature, is the starting point of human value.
Legalist "philosophy" was a confluence of the thoughts of several thinkers, as described in your reading. The writer whose name is most closely associated with this is Han Feizi, a patrician from Han who studied at Jixia with Xunzi. Han Feizi adapted the writings of others, and incorporated into his rich Legalist mix a large admixture of Daoist thought as well. His book, the Han Feizi (or the portions he wrote -- there are many late additions in it), is the purest expression of Legalism as an intellectual system. However the practical basis for Legalism really lies with the achievements of Shang Yang in the state of China a century earlier, and Legalist thought also was enriched by several other thinkers and political figures.
Legalism was, of course, the "winner" of the debates of the Hundred Schools, in the sense that the Qin state which reunited China took Legalist doctrine as the basis of its political approach. Legalism's ultimate triumph relied heavily on a courtier named Li Si, later the Prime Minister of the Qin Dynasty court. Ironically, both Han Feizi and Li SI were pupils of Xunzi, whose many rich veins of thoughts turned out to provide material for Confucianism's temporary eclipse.