March 02, 2008

Chapter 41 (The Shore in Twilight)

The Sankou, or Three Ministers: Minister of the Left, Minister of the Right, and the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. More here.

The koseki (戸籍) census record system is still used in Japan. More here.

At the end of this chapter, Gyokuyou succinctly sums up the political philosophy of legalism that became a powerful political force in China two millenia ago. In contrast to absolute monarchy, legalism shares with modern constitutional democracy the concept of the rule of law. However, the implementation of the law is diametrically opposite.

The philosophy of constitutional democracy is perhaps best summed up in the Tenth Amendment, which states that the powers of the federal government are limited only to those granted in the Constitution. That is, the government can do only what the law says it can, while the people may do everything except what the law says they can't.

Legalism turns that on its head. It essentially says that nobody can do anything unless it's defined by law, and the government is empowered to use any and all means to enforce this totally embracing reach of the civil and criminal code. The letter of the law becomes all important.

The only way to check human selfishness and depravity was to establish laws that bountifully rewarded actions that benefited others and the state, and ruthlessly punish all actions that harmed others or the state.

Legalism was promulgated as a check on human folly and ambition. Unfortunately, as Lord Acton put it, absolute power corrupts absolutely. "All disagreement with the government was made a capital crime; all alternative ways of thinking, which the Legalists saw as encouraging the natural fractiousness of humanity, were banned."

So it quickly degraded into totalitarianism and despotism. Maoism can accurately be described as less a communist revolution than a resurrection of Qin Dynasty legalism. The legalistic impulse can also be recognized in various implementations of the Mosaic Law and Sharia.

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