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Legalism: Optimistic or Pessimistic
By Paul Farwell
2013-11-28 09:00:29

EDITOR’ NOTE: “Most Westerners see the world in absolutes, good and evil, which are two distinct things.  However, this is not how Daoism sees the world and this is why most Westerns fail to grasp Daoism and Legalism.  Westerns try to look at Daoism and Legalism using this dualist idea, where everything is separate.  However, in Daoism, everything is seen as one, not separate.” This comment by the author of the following article serves very well the purpose of the editor’s note.



            The reason for legalism’s lack of understanding lies in the fact that most Westerners tend to group Machiavelli (who Wrote The Prince) and Shang Yang (who wrote The Book of the Lord Shang) together.  As such, most Westerners label Lord Shang as a realist and an early example of totalitarian doctrine.  In addition, because Shang Yang is seen as a realist, it leads most to conclude that legalism is simply a pessimistic doctrine.  However, this is incorrect.  In fact, legalism is both pessimistic and optimistic, which shows the influence of the Yin Yang and Daoism, a fact most Westerners fail to understand.

                Before one can understand the concepts of pessimism and optimism, one must clearly define the two.  An optimist (Idealist) is someone who is hopeful for the future, whereas the pessimist (Realist) is someone who has a negative outlook on things.  In general, the glass analogy is used.  An optimist sees a glass as half full, whereas the pessimist sees the glass as half empty. Focus will be placed on these two notions to see where legalism lies.

                It is quite clear that legalism, on the surface and to most Westerners, is a pessimistic doctrine created by realists.  Take the legalist notion on righteousness, a legalist believes that the righteous cannot cause others to become righteous.  However, I would venture to argue that this is not really pessimism.  A legalist observes the world and finds certain patterns.  This notion on righteousness is one such pattern.  However, in the long-term, Shang Yang states that this can be corrected. I would therefore argue that the legalist is a pessimist on the surface and in the short-term.  However, because pessimism is not a constant, legalism is only one part pessimist, if one was forced to use such labels.

                Are legalists optimistic idealists?  Again, on the surface, it appears that legalism is not.  However, legalism is actually more optimistic than many optimists.  The righteous, by their very notions, believe that their being righteous will cause most others to become righteous.  This is because to them, there are those beyond saving.  How do we know this is true of the righteous?  Even if the righteous gain power, righteousness will forever be the exception, not the norm.  Simply look at history.   The existence of the death penalty is proof enough to conclude that even to those who rule through righteousness, some people are beyond saving.  However, by using the law, legalists are much more optimistic.  By having good law, a situation will develop in which there are no more punishments, no more unrighteous people as righteousness has become the norm. The logic is this.  A clear, simple and swift law will regulate people.  A regulated people can be consolidated and then concentrated.  This concentration leads to force, force leads to strength, strength leads to awe, and then awe leads to virtue.   When virtue has been attained, then righteousness is the norm.  Hence, the argument can be made that legalism is optimistic in the long-term.

                Therefore, I don’t think it is best to label legalism as either pessimistic or optimistic, as it is a little of both.Therefore, I would argue that legalism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but rather, pragmatic, combining both pessimism and optimism. Emptiness and fullness, pessimism and optimism, are two parts of the same thing and as such both are equal.  They are the Yin and Yang and together they form one thing.  They are merely different states of existence and neither is worse than the other. So the legalist sees the glass as neither empty nor full, but that it simply is as it is. Hence legalism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but at the same time, pessimistic and optimistic.  This is the fact that most Westerners fail to grasp and why legalism is largely dismissed.

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