Two Important Ideas of the Age: Confucianism and Legalism

During the Classical Era, many ideas revealed how societies beliefs differed regarding important issues that confront humanity in this world. Two specific contrasting ideas that were both significant throughout Eurasia were Confucianism and Legalism. Both of these ideas reflect opposing beliefs about human nature and how the societies should run. Philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, demonstrated his views and beliefs throughout his essays, “Treatise on the Commonwealth” and “Treatise on the Laws”, which also explains which idea he thinks is more beneficial.

One influential idea during this time was Confucianism. The beliefs of these people were very distinct and revolved around relationships and community. Along with this, it also highly valued the past and several traditional ideas. A main concept of this idea was that everyone affected everyone and nothing was really individual. It is based entirely on morals and respect for one another.

These people believed that their community would thrive and do amazing if people could interact good with each other, and then this would also impact the society as a whole in a positive way. Confucianists thought that if people were forced and restricted to do certain things, then it would bring chaos to the community. This being said, they believed that trust and compassion was the only way to provide a stable and virtuous society. Additionally, since they valued the past traditions, they would rely on this way of living to establish a sense of solidarity and shared ethics.

On the other hand, another major idea of this era was Legalism. All of these beliefs are based around the thought that people were too incompetent to be in control of themselves and that they would be better off having someone or something control them. They thought that people were egocentric and were prone to do more good than bad. Legalists believed that people should rely on someone higher up to control what they can and can not do. Furthermore, if the higher power believed that they should not be doing something, then as a result of doing it, they can be punished. These laws were put in place to prohibit people from doing certain things and force them to do things that they wanted. This idea had strict guidelines for what is right and wrong and nothing in between existed. The punishments for breaking these laws were very severe and sometimes not moral.

Confucianism and Legalism were clearly very different from each other in a variety of ways. The most obvious distinction between the two is how confucianists trusted the people to make their own decisions and legalists thought that was an awful idea. The two simply could not tolerate each other and opposed everything the other believed in. Legalism was a huge threat to confucianism because it began to dominate even though some of the ideas of legalism seemed more extreme than those of confucianism. In addition, legalists did not care about respecting others while confucianism cared about loving and respecting one another. Going along with this, family always came first to those who supported confucianism and family came second to the law of those who supported legalism.

There are several primary sources that express similar ideas and thoughts of people during this time. Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of many philosophers who wrote about one of these specific ideas and how influential it was in keeping a well grounded society. Throughout his essays, “Treaties on the Commonwealth” and “Treaties on the Laws”, he revealed how he preferred moral excellence over a controlling government. He wanted to protect the people and believed that people had a right to stand up for what they believed in, even if higher powers did not agree. When talking about government, Cicero stated, “contained in themselves from the first, the faults and defects I have mentioned, but they have still more dangerous vices, for there is not one of these three forms of government, which has not a precipitous and slippery passage down to some proximate abuse”. This shows how he believes that government and the law may be more threatening and precarious than we know.

As mentioned several times in the essays, he had a strong opinion about how people have rights that the government cannot take away. As already mentioned, a major factor of confucianism was that individuals were able to help each other and work together in order to get things done. Cicero argues that “nature made us just that we might participate our goods with each other, and supply each others’ wants”. This helps prove that Cicero would support confucianism over legalism because he thinks that people can do good and be selfless, which are things that legalism does not think is possible. These examples continue to demonstrate Cicero’s beliefs and how many of them are similar to those of confucianism and how they differ from those of legalism.

In conclusion, there were two very distinct ideas during this era that were exposed to society that affected it in many different ways. Evidently, confucianism and legalism both held their own firm beliefs about human nature and how people should live in the community. Along with this, there are also primary sources that share similar beliefs to those in early Eurasia.