Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Lord Shang Unleashed

Last time I gave some selected highlights from the Book of Lord Shang, picking out the bits I think no reasonable person could possibly disagree with. I also said that he was a massive dick. So how could someone who advocated for fairness, equality, a respect for facts, honesty, leadership by example and an end to corruption, possibly be an evil despot that you wouldn't shed any tears for if they got crushed by a falling house ? Well, I shall tell you.

Why Lord Shang should be in pantomime

The law as a pure deterrent

Unfortunately, the single quote about everyone living together despite their differences is a rare exception from the general flow of Lord Shang's Big Book Of Being A Dick. He utterly ignored the idea that people could learn from their mistakes. His approach to legislation was much simpler than Plato's reform-based model : the goal was to create order almost exclusively by scaring the shit out of people, not by making people nicer but by rendering them incapable of acting against the law. He didn't care what people thought as long as they were obedient; order was the singular goal - anything which contributed to that was good, and anything which detracted from it was bad.

Of course, there are different sorts of pantomime villains. Lord Shang was (probably) not the kind who would go around strangling puppies or gobbling down a bowl of kittens because he enjoyed it. Actually, he'd have been completely satisfied if he never had to kill anyone at all :
He who attains supremacy succeeds in regulating those things which are most essential for the people, and therefore, even without the need of rewards and gifts, the people will love their ruler and follow their avocations; without the need of punishments, the people will do their duty to the death.
He often says that he wants to "abolish punishments by means of punishments" :
If one understands rewards, there should be no expense; if one understands punishments, there should be no death penalty; if one understands education, there should be no changes. 
The climax of the understanding of punishments is to bring about a condition of having no punishments.
He doesn't mean that the law should not have the death penalty or other punishments. Rather, he means that if the deterrent is sufficient, no-one will dare to commit any crimes so the punishments will never actually be used. To that end, the punishments he proposed were extreme. Like, way worse than merely killing all the criminals. For example in the military :
In battle five men are organised into a squad; if one of them is killed, the other four are beheaded. 
If in a battle, if it comes so far that the general is killed, his 4,000 swordsmen are beheaded. 
For every one man that cannot fight to the death, ten are torn to pieces by chariots.
The idea being to create a military structure so terrifying that no enemy the soldiers could face would ever be as intimidating as their own leaders : even in the face of overwhelming odds, they'd have more chance of success in fighting to the death than daring to return unsuccessfully. This style of thinking wasn't limited to battle either.
If amongst the officials who have to maintain the law and to uphold and office, there are those who do not carry out the king's law, they are guilty of death and should not be pardoned, but their punishment should be extended to their family for three generations.
Bearing in mind that Lord Shang emphasised that punishments should be strictly applied, this is a man perfectly comfortable with executing entirely innocent people for the sake of creating a deterrent. He might not especially want to do it, he might have some greater purpose in mind, but that makes it even worse. This is someone willing to slaughter his own soldiers by the thousand and exterminate whole families for the sake of "order", whatever "order" is supposed to mean in a system where the government massacres it own people. Lord Shang appears to believe that if education is possible at all, it's basically an irrelevant distraction.

A government of the people, by the people, and for the people : the perverse version

Given that Lord Shang actively encourages the idea of a brutally oppressive government that should crush dissent and control absolutely everything, how could anyone possibly say this is a government of the people ? Well, that depends on what you think of people. Lord Shang's estimation of them was... not good.

Plato and other Western philosophers thought that rule should be given to the elite intelligentsia, that education should be used to discover and mould those with the capability of ruling well. Herodotus thought that the sense of ownership bestowed by democracy made both the citizens and the state stronger together. Lord Shang, on the other hand, thought that all people were total dickheads and only law backed by force could keep them in check. Those in charge were no exception, so they had to rule by fear and force.
A weak people means a strong state, and a strong state means a weak people. Therefore, a country which has the right way is concerned with weakening the people. Being weak, they are law-abiding. 
If the government takes such measures as the people hate, the people are made weak; and if it takes such measures as the people like, they are made strong. By strengthening the people one becomes doubly weak and perishes; by weakening the people ones becomes doubly strong and attains supremacy. 
If the people live in humiliation, they value rank; if they are weak, they honour office; and if they are poor, they prize rewards.
People, to Lord Shang, are merely pawns to be controlled and intimidated by force. In fact the state must place a heavy burden on its subjects not so much because it needs their resources, but simply as a means to controlling them.
If the state makes few demands from the people, then the people will make many evasions from those demands. Therefore, a sage's way of administering a country is to prohibit much, in order to limit the people's capacity, and to rely on force in order to render trickeries powerless.
Or in other words, give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile.
That through which the country is important and that through which the ruler is honoured is force.
There is absolutely no point in the ruler seeking the affection of his people. Unlike Machiavelli, he openly prefers the ruler to be both feared and hated - if you hit people hard enough, he thinks, they won't fight back.


Lord Shang believed in absolute state control over as many aspects as its citizens lives as possible, that they should view the state as the only legitimate authority in all things.
If the profit leaks out through only one outlet [i.e. the government], the state will have many products, but if it leaks out through ten outlets, the state will have few products. Orderly government brings strength, but disorder brings weakness.
The people, seeing that the highest benefit comes only through one opening, will strive for concentration, and will not be negligent in their occupation.
So much for the free market. But the role of the government is not, as in other ideologies, to nurture and support the people, but the opposite - it's designed to brutally crush and control them. You can't very well do that if they're off doing they're own thing, making their own money and suchlike. Hence although he believed in absolute state control, he also believed in small government :
If the law is crooked, order turns into disorder; if reliance is placed on virtue, there is much talking; if government measures are numerous, the state is in disorder; and if there is much talking, the army is weak. But if the law is clear, if government measures are limited, then the country enjoys orderly administration; if reliance is placed on force, talking ceases and the army is strong.
But then there was nothing much to regulate. You don't need a huge organisation to administer your subjects if all they do is farm and fight. All you need to do is keep 'em scared and stupid. The government must be small but absolutely ruthless.

Keep 'em stupid

Such a degree of control means eliminating as many distractions as possible. You can't completely avoid the need for traders and craftsmen, but you can make their lives difficult. And even for the ordinary people, if you want them to dedicate their lives to fighting and farming, the last thing you want them doing is getting clever ideas. The basic principle is easy :
When people are stupid, they are easy to govern.
Bearing in mind that they will also be powerless and intimidated.
If the people do not prize learning, they will be stupid, and being stupid, they will have no interest in outside things... the country will exert itself in agriculture and will be peaceful and free from peril.
It's quite interesting to see peace occasionally depicted as desirable when he so often advocates for war. Was the ultimate objective of war also to abolish war, as in the case of rewards and punishments ? It's unclear. In any case, it wasn't just the ordinary people who needed to be kept stupid : even officials should avoid much learning. For funzies, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Now, in the most charitable interpretation, it might be that intelligent people aren't so much undesirable as they are unnecessary :
The way to administer a country well, is for the law for the officials to be clear; therefore one does not rely on intelligent and thoughtful men.
Not relying on intelligence is quite different from destroying it, but even this is quite clearly leaning heavily towards tyranny by law. If there are no wise people around, there's no-one capable of changing the law, so the law itself becomes despotic :
Should anyone dare to tamper with the text of the law, to erase or add one single character, or more, he shall be condemned to death without pardon.
And the overall context makes it clear that actually reducing intelligence is somehow a good thing and should be encouraged. After all, learning leads to discussions which lead to confusion, change, and disorder, and we can't very well have any of that, thankyouverymuch.
If the ministers of state and the great officers are not allowed to occupy themselves with extensive learning, brilliant discussions and idle living, and if they are not allowed to reside, or to travel about, in the various districts, then the farmers will have no opportunity to hear of changes or see different places. This being so, clever farmers will have no opportunities to discard old ways, and stupid farmers will not become clever, nor will they be fond of study... they will apply themselves energetically to agriculture.
While Plato pointed out at length that it was more important to be correct than convincing, he didn't think that being a skilled rhetorician was in itself a bad thing. Lord Shang disagreed. Even the power of persuasion was something to be avoided : why even try to win over the people ? They're all just arseholes, so crush them.
Both stupid and wise alike try to acquire that power of eloquence, and if scholars study with those eloquent speakers, then people will lose touch with reality and will recite empty phrases... their strength will decrease and wrongdoing will increase. Therefore an intelligent ruler... should conquer and destroy cabals, control and abolish eloquence, and relying on the law, the country will enjoy order.
So it seems pretty clear that Lord Shang proposes a deliberate policy of keeping people stupid in order to keep them pliant and obedient. It's not merely that the law should be so perfect that there's no need for intelligent citizens, it's that intelligent citizens actively contribute to disorder. Whereas Plato had the law acting for the common good, Lord Shang twisted it into an absolute tyranny of unalterable diktat.
By talking, their persons are cultivated, but their success is small. So scholars, full of empty talks about the Odes and the Book of History, are held in high esteem, so that people become restless and think lightly of their prince. What are called depraved doctrines ? They are when sophistry and knowledge are valued, when itinerant politicians receive office, and when scholarship and private reputations are in evidence.
Which therefore means that when he says...
The system of good government is to neglect the virtuous and to abolish the wise.
... we should take him at his word. Total nutcase.

Who gets to be king ?

Lord Shang's answer to who should rule is arguably where he comes closest to being a pantomime villain. If you want a government that rules by force, intimidation and fear... well, it takes a certain kind of person to do that :
Loving one's relatives means making selfishness one's guiding principle, but the idea of equity and justice is to prevent selfishness from holding the field.  
If virtuous people are employed, then people will love their own relatives, but if wicked officials are employed, the people will love the statutes.
I suppose loving one's relatives can lead to favouritism, but instead of enacting legislation to prevent this from happening, Lord Shang prefers to abolish it. Virtuous people, who love their relatives, are weak and soft and cannot produce orderly government because the criminal element is absolutely inevitable, and nice people don't know how to inflict the necessary cruelties to keep it in check. Crime can be prevented but criminals cannot be reformed.
If a country practises virtue, criminals are many. If the virtuous are placed in positions of evidence, transgressions will remain hidden; but if the wicked are employed, crimes will be punished. 
A country where the virtuous govern the wicked will suffer from disorder, so that it will be dismembered; but a country where the wicked govern the virtuous will be orderly, so that it will become strong.
He doesn't specify a definition of "wicked" and "virtuous", but from the context it would seem the meanings are the everyday ones : he really wants harsh oppressors to beat people into stupidity and scare them into submission. Not only does that mean incredibly extreme punishments, as we've seen, but it also means heavy punishments for minor crimes. Again, if Lord Shang had a single maxim, it would probably have been, "give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile".
If, in the application of punishments, serious offences are regarded as serious, and light offences as light, light offences will not cease, and in consequence there will be no means of stopping the serious ones. If light offences are regarded as serious, punishments will be abolished [rendered unnecessary], affairs will succeed and the country will be strong. 
Plato advocated the use of force but found it undesirable. Lord Shang, on the other hand, actually thought of force and violence as being a fundamentally good thing :
Punishment produces force, force produces strength, strength produces awe, awe produces kindness. Kindness has its origin in force.
If you govern by punishment, the people will fear. Being fearful, they will not commit villainies; there being no villainies, people will be happy in what they enjoy.
Riiiight. The guy clearly wasn't a total idiot, but he was unarguably a villain, possibly prone to maniacal cackling. He did say something more interesting regarding force though :
When people are stupid, they think force easy, but cleverness difficult; but if the world is clever, then it thinks knowledge easy, but force difficult.
And that bit is certainly true. Everyone tends to estimate everyone else's attributes very badly; we think policies cannot be enacted because everyone else will not understand them, or we arbitrarily excuse avoiding the implementation of sensible laws when we think people will not accept them - but with scant justification as to why they won't accept some laws but are fine with others. Law should have a force to it and override those who disagree with it. The whole edifice of science is built on the premise that we can establish knowledge with a degree of confidence high enough to take action. The legislative system of Western government is built on a similar premise, e.g. that just because a murderer wants to kill people, the rest of us don't have to suffer their insanities. Yet sometimes we often seem paralysed with fear that people will rise up in open rebellion if we infringe their freedoms in any sort of trivial way. We lack a unifying principle with which we can justify restricting freedoms, and similarly we lack a principle by which we can decide when laws will be generally accepted or not.

Okay, rant over. The only thing left is what life would have been like for Shang's everyday farmer-soldiers. As you can probably guess, the answer is, "not nice".

Pity the fools

Words like "kindness" and "happiness" are very rare in Lord Shang, and tend to be peculiar outliers in a work seemingly dedicated to deliberately making everyone's life a complete misery.

Lord Shang's goal was to create a state capable of defeating its rivals and nothing else. This meant that it had to dedicate itself only to farming and war. All activities were to be permitted only insofar as they helped further those two aims. He didn't give a flying rat's arse if his state was a nice place to live or not. So music, fine clothing, servants, and hotels would all have been completely banned, along with high taxes on "luxuries" like wine and meat.

Not that there would have been any need for hotels, mind you, because although the empire was to be pro-immigration (more people = more soldiers), it was to be dead against the idea that people could just move around however they liked. Instead, they had to be made to feel attached to their homes, so that they'd fight better when defending them.
If people are not allowed to change abode unauthorisedly, then stupid and irregular farmers will have no means of subsistence and will certainly turn to agriculture. If the minds of stupid people, full of turbulent desires, have been concentrated, then it is certain farmers will be quiet... being single minded, opportunities of deceit will be few, and they will attach importance to their homes.
We've already seen how he preferred state control over the free market because improving citizen's lives was something to be actively avoided. And God forbid anyone should get ideas above their station :
If the people strive for gain, then they lose the rules of polite behaviour; if they strive for fame, then they lose the eternal principles of human nature.
Which is not entirely wrong, but in the context of a such a brutal, absolutist system is just another tool of the oppressor. That people could have useful individual skills that could, with proper regulation, be used for the advantage of the state and the common good, is something he would probably have spat on in disgust. This leads to another strong contender for, "most pantomime villain moment" :
If, in a country, there are the following ten things : odes and history, rites and music, virtue and the cultivation thereof, benevolence and integrity, sophistry and intelligence, then the ruler has no-one whom we can employ for defence and warfare. If a country is governed by means of these ten things, it will be dismembered as soon as an enemy approaches, and even if no enemy approaches it will be poor.
An alternative list elsewhere in the text includes history, moral culture, filial piety, and brotherly duty. Elsewhere certain traits are described as "parasites" :
If these six parasites of care for old age, living on others, beauty, love, ambition and virtuous conduct, find an attachment, there will be dismemberment.... [and elsewhere] rites and music, odes and history, moral culture and virtue, filial piety and brotherly love, sincerity and faith, chastity and integrity, benevolence and righteousness, criticism of the army and being ashamed of fighting.
Basic human decency ? Nope nope nope.
If the able-bodied men and women intermingle with the army of the old and feeble, then the old will arouse the compassion of the able-bodied, and the feeble the pity of the strong. Compassion and pity in the heart cause brave people to be more anxious and fearful people not to fight.
Which is all exemplified in a particularly nasty passage :
Sophistry and cleverness are an aid to lawlessness; rites and music are symptoms of dissipations and license, kindness and benevolence are the foster-mother of transgression; employment and promotions are opportunities for the rapacity of the wicked. If lawlessness is aided, it becomes current; if there are symptoms of dissipation and license, they will become practise; if there is a foster-mother for transgressions, they will arise; if there are opportunities for transgressions, they will never cease. If these eight things comes together, the people will be stronger than the government; but if these eight things are non-existent in a state, the government will be stronger than the people. If the people are stronger than the government, the state is weak; if the government is stronger than the people, the army is strong.
Thanks Lord Shang. Thanks so much.


The main one is obvious, but deserves to be stated repeatedly :
  • Lord Shang was a massive dick who would not seem out of place if cast as a pantomime or Bond villain.
Which means his book is really fun to read because it's just so darn strange. His world view is similar enough to modern attitudes that his ideas can be easily grasped (unlike, say, the Upanishads) but alien enough to make them interesting. He clearly wasn't stupid, but at the same time, he was clearly very stupid indeed. I could do a lengthy deconstruction of what I mean by that, but I won't.

Lord Shang deserves to be more widely read. One should always consider opposing viewpoints and give them a fair hearing, if for no other reason than to be prepared to deal with such views if they're encountered in anger. As a guide to what not to do, this is well worth a read, and perhaps useful to spot when modern politicians are acting in bad faith. And let's not forget that he says some things which are absolutely correct.

It's also worth bearing in mind that this brutal, ruthless system is nowhere near the worst that humans have devised. Lord Shang may not have had a problem with massacring his own citizens and soldiers, but at least he didn't have their hearts ripped out to feed the gods. He may have deliberately tried to reduce the state to farming and fighting, but at least he thought farming was important (unlike certain modern rogue states). He was (probably) not the sort of chap who would relax in the evenings by punching old ladies or raping pigeons or anything, nor did he have anywhere near Machiavelli's level of deviousness. He was, in the end, a very honest villain who deserved to have a stunningly successful career acting in pantomimes to scare little children.

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