The Confucian philosophers proclaimed religious skepticism, but they at least addressed Heaven and explained why readers should be skeptical, but respectful. The Legalist, Han Fei Tzu, approached spiritualism from the religious skepticism approach, too, but his version was drastically amplified. Han Fei Tzu and Xunzi both advocated authoritarian states, but Han Fei Tzu was the more extreme of the two. Xunzi called for an authoritarian state to enforce education on a population drawn to vice. Han Fei Tzu requested an authoritarian state for the purpose of enforcing law, maximizing military efficiency and allowing the state to survive long-term warfare. As such, Han Fei Tzu was willing to forego Heaven and spirituality if it interfered with the authority of the ruler.
Even if an authoritarian ruler held religious sentiment, Han Fei Tzu would have advised him not to be expressive of it. Han Fei Tzu wrote, “The ruler must not reveal his desires; for if he reveals his desires his ministers will put on the mask that pleases him” (1). Also, if expressing spiritualism, or respecting heaven created any leverage against the ruler, then Han Fei Tzu would immediately throw it out. He wrote, “The height of good government is to allow your subordinates no means of taking advantage of you” (2). Han Fei Tzu would not approve of any spirituality, or view of Heaven, that was brought about by Mozi or Confucius. His response to the theories of love written by Mozi and Confucius was, “how can it bring the people to order?” (3). In Han Fei Tzu’s philosophy, infallible law was the all-important key to a victorious state. In his ideal state, law would be valued over virtue and fact cherished above theory. Han Fei Tzu wrote that when a sage king rules a population, “they devote themselves not to virtue but to law” (4). The other philosophers tied Heaven and religion to virtue, but Han Fei Tzu severed this tether in favor of law. He continued to push away spirituality with his statement: “the enlightened ruler works with facts and discards useless theories” (5). Han Fei Tzu pressed on with his attack: “Subtle and mysterious words are no business of the people” (6). Religious skepticism and the acceptance of an unknowable Heaven would not be compatible with Han Fei Tzu’s system. Any written religious text would have to be illegally smuggled into the state, for, “in the state of an enlightened ruler there are no books written on bamboo slips; law supplies the only instruction” (7). Heaven, religion, or spirituality would only be allowed if it was written into law and had no disadvantages for the ruler. Han Fei Tzu gave no new definitions for Heaven and spirituality, other than indirectly inferring it to be a weakness.
Spiritualism in Ancient China
All of the ancient Chinese philosophers made some degree of a statement on the subject of Heaven and spirituality. Mozi and Han Fei Tzu were anomalies for opposite reasons. Mozi wrote of a Heaven more animated and active than any of the other philosophers. Han Fei Tzu was the most antagonistic towards Heaven, as it was mysterious and not beholden to law. Confucius and his school of philosophers stressed religious skepticism and respect for Heaven, but they mainly ignored spirituality in favor of commentary on social issues. The Daoists also recognized that Heaven was unknowable, but rather than be skeptical, they decided to emulate what little they could understand of the Dao and its non-action. The ancient Chinese philosophers did not agree on Heaven but they thought that it was something to be either respected, emulated, quarantined, or ignored completely.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
7. Han Fei Tzu. Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964. Pg.111.