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 5 is 法古, fa gu, which can be interpreted as perpetuity of law

Verse 250, Quote: 學古入官, 議事以制, 政乃弗迷。

English interpretation:To form new systems of laws, one must follow the old laws and understand the past. To understand history means one can learn from old mistakes and prevent future failures.

Application:This serves as a reminder, not only for law but for politics, that we must consistently look to the past for wisdom and clues about what to do in the present. If we neglect the lessons of the past, perhaps we might forget about the mistakes made and what changes we can make to our strategies, or what similarities can be made to predict success. One example is in foreign policy, power dynamics and geopolitics are always different, along with the ideologies and capabilities of the actors. However, we can still use lessons from previous conflicts to understand better how to deal with the conflicts of the present. We can learn much from the conflict with Iraq about what to do regarding Iran: destabilizing the country too much could cause unforeseen risks for the entire region. Or North Korea, how a regime that has made empty promises of denuclearization for nearly three decades would play games with the leader of the US in order to stall and buy time to further development, increasing their leverage, or evidencing how little the DPRK cares about international trade, and how the leverage gained by the US by instituting international sanctions has had little to no effect on their political behavior. Using the past to inform the present, just as practiced by this very series, is an invaluable source of insight.

The second is 綱紀, gang ji, which means law and order

Verse 239, Quote: 治國有四:一曰尚德,二曰考能,三曰賞功,四曰罰罪。 四者明則國治矣。夫論士不以其德,而以其舊,考能不以其才,而以其久,而求下之貴上,不可得也。賞可以勢求,罰可以力避,而求下之無姦,不可得也。

English interpretation:There are four main points to ruling a country: the first is having a moral compass in one’s government, the second is finding qualified administrators, the third is a proper system of reward for merit, and the fourth is a system for punishment of malfeasance. When the state is impartial in its administration of its rules, there will be peace. If the system is no longer based on merit, and nepotism, personalized government, and mediocrity flourish, the future is bleak. When officials use their privilege to receive undue advantages, or use their position to escape responsibility for their transgressions, the hierarchy of trust and competence in government crumbles.

Application:The impartiality and equal distribution of justice is crucial in the stability of a state. When laws are selectively forced, it delegitimizes not only the state, the legal system, law enforcement, and sometimes even democracy itself. This is an extremely dangerous road, and governments should take careful steps to not only avoid inconsistent application of the law, but the appearance of any conflict of interest.

The third is from Montesquieu, on the separation of powers

“Les trois pouvoirs y étoient distribués de maniere que le peuple y avoit la puissance législative; & le roi, la puissance exécutrice, avec la puissance de juger : au-lieu que, dans les monarchies que nous connoissons, le prince a la puissance exécutrice & la législative, ou du moins une partie de la législative ; mais il ne juge pas.

Dans le gouvernement des rois des temps héroïques, les trois pouvoirs étoient mal distribués. Ces monarchies ne pouvoient subsister : car, dès que le peuple avoit la législation, il pouvoit, au moindre caprice, anéantir la royauté, comme il fit par-tout.

Chez un peuple libre, & qui avoit le pouvoir législatif, chez un peuple renfermé dans une ville, où tout ce qu’il y a d’odieux devient plus odieux encore, le chef-d’œuvre de la législation est de sçavoir bien placer la puissance de juger. Mais elle ne le pouvoit être plus mal que dans les mains de celui qui avoit déja la puissance exécutrice. Dès ce moment, le monarque devenoit terrible. Mais en ce même-temps, comme il n’avoit pas la législation, il ne pouvoit pas se défendre contre la législation ; il avoit trop de pouvoir, & il n’en avoit pas assez.

On n’avoit pas encore découvert que la vraie fonction du prince étoit d’établir des juges, & non pas de juger lui-même. La politique contraire rendit le gouvernement d’un seul insupportable. Tous ces rois furent chassés. Les Grecs n’imaginerent point la vraie distribution des trois pouvoirs dans le gouvernement d’un seul ; ils ne l’imaginerent que dans le gouvernement de plusieurs, & ils appellerent cette sorte de constitution, police.” De l’Esprit des Loix, XI

English interpretation:In the best situation, the three powers of governance will have separate and powerful purposes. In ancient times, the separation was weak, and when one branch overpowered the other, the system crumbled into anarchy.

Application:The stability and wisdom of the American constitution, deliberately constructed around the idea of separating the branches of government into three equal branches of power have left a powerful and lasting effect on the political development of the world. The construction of Taiwan’s constitution, one of the world’s oldest still living, a modified version of the original Republic of China constitution instituted after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, is deeply reflective of this, with separation of powers becoming more and more embedded. Taiwan’s government is split up into five yuans, deeply reflective of the American model, the legislative, executive, judicial, exam, and control yuans. The judicial branch, a la Marbury vs. Madison, cemented its role as the authority on constitutional power, and in Taiwan too overruled violations, such as when at one point the Vice President of Taiwan was also serving as premier of the Legislative Yuan, they found the role constitutionally inappropriate (Interpretation 419. He subsequently resigned without court compulsion. The notion here is that these separations must exist to preserve the independence, ossification of power, and reduce the urge and tendency of humans to abuse power. They are not there for when the government works, the separations exist for when the government fails, and in a state of conflict, the institutions are strong enough to hold the house up so that it doesn’t crumble under the weight of internal pressure.

Staff writer: Ari B