The Confucian-Legalist synthesis (which is sometimes described as rubiao, fali—Confucianism on the surface, Legalism within) might also reveal something else, something disquieting to an admirer of Confucianism like myself: perhaps it illustrates the political weakness of Confucian thought. Historically, it seems, the thought of Confucius and Mencius could not stand alone as a political ideology. Both men never attained the kind of political influence and presence that each desired in his own time. In the latter Warring States period, Confucianism was overwhelmed by violent inter-state competition. Qin Shihuangdi quite literally buried it as a school of thought. And when it was resurrected by the Han, Confucianism survived, politically, only as a junior ideological partner to Legalism (I know, the “junior partner” thing seems contentious here, but I will argue it…).
I mentioned a similar issue when discussing Roderick Long’s take on Confucianism as a form of libertarianism:
Another unexplored avenue in the paper comes at the conclusion, where Long explains that while it looked like the Confucians finally triumphed in the early Han dynasty, in the end they were co-opted and a Legalist-Confucian hybrid theory displaced true Confucianism leading to more authoritarian government. From a modern point of view, this should be very scary to the libertarians, because it suggests that even if they ever do win, their victory will be short lived and in the end their ideas will be perverted into supporting statism. Arguably you can make the case that something like this has already happened to classical liberalism: it used to be a small government theory in the time of Mill, but it was “perverted” into modern liberalism and so a separate identity of “libertarian” had to be invented to continue to agitate for small government. But if libertarianism inevitably becomes liberalism, doesn’t that mean that libertarianism is an impossible ideal?…
There’s definitely a strong critique of the practicality of Confucianism to be made. After all, didn’t King Xuan march on Yan without listening to Mencius’ advice? But, I argue, that such complaints are too narrowly focused in time. That Confucius didn’t gain a high position in his lifetime didn’t make him a failure. It meant that he had another role to play: he’s been influencing the history of China and the world for over two millennia.
I have used Marthe Chandler’s “Mencius and Meno: Two Philosophical Dramas” in my Intro to Philosophy classes, and what I tell the students is that she’s right when she says, “The Mencius is a tragedy in a sense that the Meno is not,” but that’s not the end of the story. She earlier mentions the incident of Mencius visiting Teng:
Some time after the disaster at Qi, the Duke of Teng, a small state threatened by both Qi and Qu, consults Mencius. Mencius holds out no hope. The Duke can either defend the kingdom to the death or surrender it and save his people. “If a man does good deeds, then amongst his descendants in future generations there will rise one who will become a true King. All a gentleman can do in starting an enterprise is to leave behind a tradition which can be carried on. Heaven alone can grant success. What can you do about Qi? You can only try your best to do good” (Mencius 1B14).
“All a gentleman can do in starting an enterprise is to leave behind a tradition which can be carried on.”
Surely the Confucians did this? Even if China is not now nor never has been Confucian, their sages started an enterprise to leave behind a tradition which can be carried on.
The same can be said about the Founding Fathers of America. America has not ever lived up to her founding documents. She may never. But she has a tradition worth carrying on.
Via Western Confucian