|dc.description.abstract||This study is a comparative analysis of the political philosophies of the ancient Chinese thinker Han Fei (ca. 280-233 BC) and the Western Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli (AD 1469-1527). In the thought of these pioneers of strategic political thought – both notorious for their hardheaded and “realist” approach to political life – the special problems of power maintenance and political stability are focused.
The strong focus on these issues in the two thinkers must be seen in the light of their respective historical contexts. The political conditions in Italy and China in Machiavelli and Han Fei’s times were highly unstable, dominated as they were by constant warfare and ruthless power struggles. As centrally situated observers of the violence and faithlessness of their times, Machiavelli and Han Fei both concluded that man’s most dominant trait of character is selfishness. Thus, in opposition to thinkers with an “idealist” view of man and society, the two thinkers both came to conceive of, and analyse, politics in terms of conflict rather than harmony. As they both saw it, the political arena easily degenerates to a state of primitive struggle between particular interests - with devastating consequences to both political agents and society at large.
To both Machiavelli and Han Fei, concentration of power in the hands of an all-powerful agent is the only way out of the destructive conditions of their times. As political theorists and advisors, they therefore both saw it as a basic challenge to provide the ruler with a reliable political strategy for securing power and strengthening the state against external and internal enemies.
A central assumption in this thesis is that both Han Fei and Machiavelli were influenced by military thinking in the development of their ideas on political strategy. A comparison of the two thinkers’ conception of “the political art” with a typically military mode of thinking reveals interesting parallels. Indeed, there is a strong tendency in the two thinkers to describe and consider politics as strategic interaction between agents with few interests in common and as something similar to battles between two enemy armies, where the immediate aim is to control, subdue or defeat the foe, and where violence and deception play a central and inevitable part.
In the Han Fei Zi and in Machiavelli’s Prince one finds a notion of political leadership that departs rather radically from traditional notions of political leadership as depicted by thinkers of an “idealist” or “moralist” persuasion. In the political struggle, Machiavelli and Han Fei maintain, the ruler cannot afford to act in accordance with traditional principles of moral behaviour. As they saw it, the ruler who seeks to obtain a reputation for moral virtue in a corrupt world populated by selfish people is heading straight for ruin. Like the military commander, the political “commander” should base his actions not on moral ideals but on what he stands to gain or lose by following this or that course of action. To Han Fei and Machiavelli, political leadership is a matter of careful and rational contemplation on the inevitable intermixture of gain and loss, of greater and lesser evils.
The analysis of the two thinkers’ conceptions of political leadership reveals not only significant similarities but also important differences. Han Fei is regarded as the great synthesiser of the of the so-called “Legalist” strand of thought in the Chinese tradition. One of the main purposes of Han Fei’s Legalist system is to reduce the political system’s dependence on the personal capabilities of the ruler. By setting up an “automatic” system of control through a strict legal system and impersonal bureaucratic devices, Han Fei claims, the ruler can wield absolute power without possessing any extraordinary talents or capabilities of his own. In contrast, Machiavelli has no intention of reducing the prince to his position. He keeps insisting that the power and impact of the prince depends ultimately on his personal talents and capabilities; his virtù. Thus, whereas Han Fei believed in the possibility of assessing and controlling the behaviour of the ruler’s ministers and advisors through impersonal mechanisms of control, Machiavelli maintains that such control depends heavily on the prince’s personal strength, talents and skills.
Even more fundamental differences are discovered between the two thinkers when Machiavelli’s Discourses is taken into account. According to Machiavelli, “princes are superior” when it comes to instituting, organising and re-organising the laws and institutions of the state. However, although Machiavelli agrees with Han Fei that autocracy is the only kind of rule that can stabilise the political conditions in a corrupt world, he also firmly believed that the strongest and most stable form of government is the republic. In this mixed form of government, each of the constituent parts (i.e. principality, aristocracy and democracy) will make sure that none of the others will encroach on their powers and prerogatives. The key to political stability is the built-in balance of power engendered by the republic’s well-balanced compound of the three “pure” forms of government. In consequence, a key concept to Machiavelli is that of freedom. The republican form of government presupposes that the people are free to participate in decision-making processes on behalf of the community.
To Han Fei, on the other hand, there exists no alternative to autocratic rule. To him, the idea that the people should be free to take part in political decision-making processes is completely alien. This fundamental difference between Han Fei and Machiavelli is not simply an expression of mere difference of opinion. The idea that the people should be free to take part or participate in decision-making processes presupposes both that one has a concept of “freedom” as well as a notion and recognition of the people as a political agent. The Chinese had neither. Indeed, the Chinese never challenged or questioned the principle of autocratic rule until modern times.
Despite these fundamental differences between Machiavelli and Han Fei, the focus on political stability remains a significant point of convergence in the two thinkers’ work. They both firmly believe that no state can be maintained unless it is capable of mobilising the strength and capabilities of the people in its service. Given man’s problematic nature, the basic challenge to them both is how this can be achieved. Men, or most men, do not recognise that their own long-term interests are best served when others are so to. Sectarian interests are thus always liable to undermine public interests.
According to Han Fei and Machiavelli, the solution to this basic challenge is to organise the state in a way that leaves no room for sectarian interests to grow while simultaneously inducing the people to serve public interests. This can be done, they maintain, by instituting universal, rational laws and institutions that provide sufficient incentive to pursue self-interest in a way conducive to public interests. By means of such external pressure, the subjects or citizens will realise that they have much to lose, but very little to gain, by following their egoistic inclinations in a way contrary to the laws.
Machiavelli and Han Fei are therefore not only theorists of power management, but also of political stability. The task of Machiavelli’s prince and Han Fei’s Legalist ruler is not only to secure power as such, but also to use this power in order to create the foundation for lasting stability and civil peace. The enlightened and competent ruler, Machiavelli and Han Fei believe, will realise that his own long-term interests are inextricably tied to the realisation of a political system that also serves the interests of his subjects or fellow citizens.
It has been asserted that Machiavelli and Han Fei were out to liberate politics from considerations of morality. It is indeed true that both thinkers recommended political means commonly regarded as cruel or immoral. A final assessment of the relation between politics and morality in the two thinkers, however, must also take into account their sincere commitment to political stability and civil peace.||nor