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“A ruler had to create a body of laws which would direct people’s natural inclination of self-interest toward the good of the state.”

The adherence to law and legal obligation are the essentials for any legal system to function, moreover to exist in the first place. In this regard, the subject contains various theories and theologies that provide vital perspectives that are both fascinating and fanatic. Legalism is a theory that can be accounted for under the latter. The theory assesses the common tendency of humans to adhere to wrongdoings and thus emphasizes a strict formation, formulation, and following of laws to prevent those wrongs.


Legalism is a famous philosophy developed in China during the 4th century BC, under the notable Qin and Han dynasties. The major assumption then was that humans were naturally evil and can be brought in to correct direction by harsh laws and punishments. Today, legalism is defined as strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spirit. The term legalism also has a relevant place in Christianity religion; however, it is not a subject of this content.


Although there is no exact data, the origin can be derived from inspecting the remaining literature on legalism. It was said to be founded by the philosopher Han Feizi (l. c. 280-233 BCE) of the Qin state, a pupil of the Confucian reformer. While many schools of thoughts made their attempts, the legalist perspective was considered more practical and efficient enough. Legalist thinkers, most notably Shang Yang, were the leading reformers of their age.


Legalism originated as a Chinese philosophy to rule over the people by regulating the volatile and impulsive behavior of individuals through strict and stringent laws.  The main assumptions provided here are:

  • Humans are naturally attracted to doing wrongs over right.
  • They do so because they are driven by impulses and selfish interests.
  • Thus, there exist stringent and strict laws that must be followed.
  • These laws and principles are supreme.
  • Any violation of these laws will attract severe punishments.
  • The fear of punishment will make them obey the laws.
  • Obedience to the law guides people towards the right.


Legalism, as a school of thought, emerged as a current of intellectual interpretation. Originally legalism, as an idea, belongs to the warring period in China (453–221 BCE). For 200 years China experienced war and chaos in their daily life. The rise for interest in political issues and the systematic crisis further paved the way for thousands of schools of thoughts as wars became bloodier and more devastating, and without adequate diplomatic means to resolve the conflicts insight, most of the thinkers came to understand that the unity of people was the only means of achieving peace and stability and the question regarding how to achieve became the central theme addressed by various thinkers. This was when the legalists came to rescue with their appealing idea of central control.

Gradually the existing aristocracy and other loose end exploitative systems of nobles and middlemen were replaced with a systematic and centralized mechanism. At the administration level, a strict bureaucratism was introduced, while there were revolutions and reforms throughout from the economy to the military. The changes gave rise to new needs of ethical and moral considerations; to get over the old truths and reconsider them.

Angus C. Graham (1989: 269) notices that Legalists are the first political philosophers in China “to start not from how society ought to be but how it is.”

Philosophically, the legalist put forth two contestations upon past facts and beliefs. That is

  • The old truths and beliefs were not uniform and systematic.
  • The evolution and changes occurring over time make the past obsolete.

Taken the historical perspective, legalist base their support upon the socio-economic factor, that is; initially, people were few and resources were less and thus their needs were basic such as food and clothes, which were easily available. So, people were controlled by moral facts. However later, with evolution and rise in population, the resources became less, thus leading to war, greed, and fight.  The main contestation here is that economic conditions can induce a change in the perception of moral values, and thus, moral values become ineffective.

when the affairs of the world change, one should implement a different Way. Therefore, it is said: “When the people are ignorant, one can become monarch through knowledge; when the generation is knowledgeable, one can become monarch through force” (Shang jun shu 7: 53; Book of Lord Shang 7.1–7.2).

Legalists shared the conviction of most other Warring States era political theorists: only under an omnipotent ruler can peace and orderly rule in either the individual state or “All-Under-Heaven” be achieved. They also added a few new facets to this overall monarchist korero. (The Chinese philosopher used the term All-under-heaven as an ideal state with peace and prosperity)


The modern elements of legalism can be found in the concept of the rule of law, however, there are certain differences. The rule of law generally means that no man is above the law and also that every person is subject to the jurisdiction of ordinary courts of law irrespective of their position and rank. This gives positive support to abide by the law. While on the other hand, legalism as a concept is upon the written law and how it is expected to be applied by the ruler/ruling class. As in politics, the call is complex, to keep things orderly. Maintaining order in all things is the ultimate aim. While we can say the rule of law has people as its focus, legalism keeps the monarch as the center. The Chinese legalism is upon the belief that a state is stronger when its people are weaker or below it, and to make people weaker is to make laws strict and stringent which places the ruler as the ultimate power and the state.


Currently, the concept of legalism is not in practice. Legalism can be said as a philosophy that facilitates the achievement of power and prosperity in the short run. It emerged in the course of history and can be said that it has ended in history, however, some of its aspects such as absolute control over people and a centralized administration can be observed in the current politics of China, though it’s not explicit. Like any other aspect, this philosophy also had its pros and cons, schools, and supporters; it’s a very grounded element. While it provided control in short-run notions such as misuse of power and the force usage criteria were debatable. However, taking a neutral perception, the notion that laws are supreme is seen in modern democracies and is an effective consideration.

Mirudhula A (School of Excellence in Law, TNDALU, Chennai)

Sindhanaa Andavan (School of Excellence in Law, TNDALU, Chennai)







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