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Lord Shang, one of the principal philosophers of Legalism.
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The six parasites are:rites and music, odes and history, cultivation and goodness, filial devotion

and brotherly love, sincerity and trustworthiness, uprightness and integrity, humaneness and

rightness,criticism of the army and being ashamed of fighting.
—The Book of Lord Shang. And you thought Thomas Hobbes was bad...[1]

Legalism is a Chinese political philosophy that arose during the Warring States periodWikipedia's W.svg(475-221 BCE). It is characterized by advocacy for a strong government, ruled over by an equally powerful ruler. Its most notorious advocates were Lord Shang Yang (390 BCE-338 BCE) and Han Fei (279 BCE-233 BCE).


In contrast to Confucianism, Legalism is an inherently misanthropic ideology, holding that humans need a strong ruler without mercy or compassion, lest the masses prove evil. Similarly to Confucianism, Legalism was built to repair the damage done by the civil wars that had rocked China ever since the fall of the Zhou Dynsaty. Legalism was a darker solution to problems that both Confucius and Shang Yang, among others, attempted to solve. While Confucius placed emphasis on harmony through social hierarchies based on mutual respect and obligations, Shang placed emphasis on order through the power of the state based on unquestioning obedience.[2]

Because of Shang's role as a minister in the kingdom of Qin, his philosophy (or at least parts of it) became the dominant form of government of China when Qin Shi Hunagdi made himself China's first Emperor. Ultimately, the harsh system created by the philosophy proved unsustainable, and it collapsed in 207 B.C.E. [3] Since then Legalism has become a largely discredited philosophy, but elements of it were incorporated into later Chinese political philosophies such as the Neo-Confucianist meritocracy.


Legalism's advocacy of strong monarchy is not unique for Warring States China. What does make it unique is that it advocates caution towards ministers in a government. In keeping with Legalism's generally misanthropic and cynical worldview, most members of that school of thought held ministers not as friends or teachers to a ruler (a common assertion of many other philosophies from Warring States China), but rather people aiming to seize the throne for themselves. As such, it advised keeping the advisers as far from the ruler's trust as possible. What is truly ironic is that most Legalists were members of the minesterial ranks of China's petty kingdoms.[4]

See Also[edit]

  • Thomas Hobbes: An English philosopher with a similar background and worldview as most Legalists.
  • Confucius: The philosopher Legalists attempted to discredit.

External links[edit]


  1. Selection From the Book of Lord Shang, Columbia University