Law and Morality in Ancient China: The Silk Manuscripts of Huang-Lao

By R. P. Peerenboom | Go to book overview
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VI. The Daoist Ways of
Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi

In Chapters II and III, I examined Huang-Lao philosophy as presented in the Boshu. I then began to support my reading by expanding the scope, demonstrating how Huang-Lao interpreted as foundational naturalism fits the broader intellectual context. I did so by first comparing it to one of the leading ideologies of the time, Confucianism. I argued that Confucius influenced Huang-Lao in a positive sense through his emphasis on a moral government of virtuous rulers who serve the interests of the people. Confucius's greatest influence, however, is negative. Huang-Lao rejects as inadequate Confucius's philosophical pragmatism, politics of harmony, ethical coherence theory, and jurisprudential rule of man. Rather than pragmatism, Huang-Lao favors foundational naturalism; to offset the inability of Confucius's politics of harmony and ethical coherence systems to provide univocal, universally acceptable solutions to conflicts, Huang-Lao opts for a moral order grounded in a predetermined natural order; to curtail the discretionary latitude of and potential for abuse of power by sage‐ judges in Confucius's legal system, Huang-Lao sides with Legalists such as Han Fei in advancing a law-based rule.

However, as argued in the last chapter, Huang-Lao's rule of law differs in fundamental ways from Han Fei's rule by law. Huang-Lao takes exception to the sweeping powers ceded the Legalist sovereign. As a result, the author rejects Han Fei's legal positivism in favor of a natural law system that acts as a theoretical constraint on the ruler. Law is not what the ruler says it is. Rather, it is discovered in and determined by the Way. Whereas Legalist centralism challenges hereditary powers of the aristrocrats, Huang-Lao foundational naturalism serves to curtail both aristocratic and imperial powers by subjugating everyone to an objective natural standard.

In this chapter, I examine the relation between Huang-Lao and the classical Daoism of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi. Many have noted that there are


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