In this short series, lessons will be gathered from classical works on politics, and the parallels between ancient and medieval political texts and their modern contexts will be analyzed. The text is thousands of years old, and the meanings are not always clear, but the closest relevant meaning in English will be gleaned for application.

This will focus on the text, 群書治要, a collection of political wisdom compiled by political advisors in China for the emperors. A handful of quotes will be selected.

The first chapter of Part 3 is 愛民, ai min, which means loving ones people

Verse 232, Quote: 子路問政。子曰:「先之,勞之。」。 請益。曰:「毋倦。」

English interpretation:It was once asked of Confucius, what is the best way to rule. He replied, use morals to guide your behavior, but you must also lead by example, to teach the people about sacrifice and hard work. When asked for more details, he said there were none; there are no shortcuts, one must act as above.

Application:This has two meanings in my interpretation. The first surface meaning is obvious and true, a leader who presides over a people instead of working alongside a people, a hypocrite not living up to the standards set for the citizens will preside over chaos. This can be seen clearly in corrupt states with the insidious deterioration of the bureaucratic class, security services, and public servants as the titular head sends mixed signals about right and wrong. One can too observe the chaos in the United States as Donald Trump pays attention the limits of the law alone, caring nothing for decorum, respect for office and people, morality, right or even country, and his cabinet are more and more beginning to resemble him in their administration of the law.

The second meaning is in the reply, that there are no shortcuts, particular in this interpretation. When asked for more details, and Kongzi (Confucius) gave no clarification, it implied that this itself was the answer, it is a leader’s responsibility too to think for oneself, to consider his or her moral outlook. As such, when the leader must make the effort to be introspective and consider morality and their own actions, with their example, the action too will be passed to each bureaucrat, each official, each citizen who too will consider their own actions and how they control their own domain of life, promoting mindfulness amongst all citizens.

The second is 賞罰, shang fa, which means reward and punishment

Verse 270, Quote: 昔者魯周公,使衛康叔 往守於殷,戒之曰:「與殺不辜,寧失有罪。無有無罪而見誅, 無有有功而不賞。戒之, 封,誅賞之慎焉。」

English interpretation:It was once said to a minister, the systems of reward and punishment, criminal justice and social fairness matter greatly. When the innocent and righteous are executed and the guilty are seen to go free, the system of incentives fold.

Application:The closest direct parallel to this line of thought is anarchy, a lord of flies paradigm where society’s ordering is weak and institutions infirm. In this circumstance, when the system of justice is seen to be unfair, when those who are free of sin get punished while the wicked get rewarded, those in society with weaker morals may change their ways in disgust or to take advantage of the opportunities around them. Even the best amongst us may be caught up in this social collapse, reminiscent of the mob mentalities in looting, even by normally law abiding citizens (think London riots), when government is seen to have collapsed. This message too applies to our modern government too.

Living in Kaohsiung, whose traffic system bears the closest resemblance to this of any highly modern city I’ve seen, it is clear how quickly the social fabric and expectations of punishment and reward can cause habits to decay. The further one goes from the central train station, where enforcement is strong, there is increasing disregard for traffic regulations, speed limits, helmet laws, even traffic lights. The enforcement doesn’t exist in many areas, and enforcement drives often instead blanket target drivers for arcane traffic laws instead of trying to enforce red light rules, creating a feeling of chaos where there is no way to win, and one might as well maximize ones transgressions since we all must pay anyways. How is this to be solved?

Wise thinking, new methods of enforcement, and changing habits and culture. A hotline to report dangerous and illegal behavior, 24 hour CCTV monitoring of all roads, automatic, impersonal enforcement of these laws may have some effect. The inconsistent enforcement, though, exacerbates this severely, and makes people more likely to break the law in order to maximize their gain, because in their thinking, they may be targeted at some point anyways, and after seeing the majority break the rules with impunity, I might as well help myself to the pool.

The third  is 法律, fa lu, which means law

Verse 271 Quote: 人之性有仁義之資,非聖王為之法度,不可使向方也。因其所惡以禁姦,故刑罰不用,威行如神矣。因其性,即天下聽從;咈其性,即法度張而不用。

English interpretation:Even though humans are by their nature good and cooperative, they have no natural tendency to create order, nor follow it. To create this order, a system with consequences must be put into place to contrain this behavior, though it need not be cruel, it needs to be credible and universal, like it were instituted by the heavens. Because it is opposed to human nature and desire, law can be difficult to institute, imperfect, and can be painful to enforce, but this is the nature of law.

Application:In global politics, the hottest issues of late are abortion, capital punishment, and the rights of animals to life. The abortion bill passed in the US, capital and corporal punishment cases in Indonesia for crimes other than murder, and a spate of cases in the US and UK recently where healthy animals were euthanized so that they could be interred in their owners graves have opened up questions about the role of law in sanctifying life in different circumstances. These are not easy questions to answer, but there are certainly inconsistencies in both the left and right’s viewpoints. How can an unborn fetus’ life be precious, but a repentant criminals life be a burden to be ended by the state? How can one say animals have a right to be free from harm, yet say that the suffering of death is a punishment that can be capriciously inflicted on any animal as if those rights were never absolute.

Rights must be universal and consistent to be legitimate. There are different conceptions about the value of different animals lives, human lives, lives of the unborn, but the values must be reconciled, lest the entire order and value of human life itself collapse. If all lives are precious and god given, as the religiously conservative half of the world population believes, then they must justify their convictions in their support of contradictory policies. Lethal injection has cruelly masked the horror and finality of death, murder an irreversible and the darkest of acts. Punishment and legal systems sometimes require harshness, but need not be abhorrent. When religious justification is used on one hand for some punishments in obeyance of some medieval line of scripture, they those who call for those punishments neglect other rules out of convenience, they themselves are hypocrites. The old testament may have called for the death penalty for murder in ancient Israel, but they also called for adulterers to be stoned to death as well, and that includes the very president of the United States.

When the law becomes a tool to express one’s beliefs instead of a tool for justice, it is corrupted, and the entire nature of our order, what keeps up from following our most basal instincts, too, threatens to be extinguished. Chaos is not far. This should be remembered.

Staff writer: Ari B


2 thoughts on “Political Lessons from the Past : 群書治要 Part 3”

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