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:: Transhumanism - East/West Philosophies

Installment Two from Ancient Lessons for Modern Futurists which contains selections from well known and deeply impacting writers from both Ancient China, representative of an Eastern philosophical tradition, as well as works by famous Western thinkers, such as Aristotle, Plato, and Thomas Aquinas, among others. In addition to their basic contents, introductions and commentary had been included to clarify points, making this a very valuable and informative resource for all curious readers.

:: On Punishment
    by Sima Qian (d. 90 BC)

Translation, Selection, and Original Editing by Dun J. Li
From his book "The Essence of Chinese Civilization"
Minor Editing, Introduction, and Commentary by Jesse Chen


Sima Qian came from a respected family of literati and government service during the Han dynasty, which followed the failed dynasty of Qin. An imperial minister who specialized in history and astronomy, he traveled extensively during much of his life, and was able to collect detailed accounts of past and present events and issues. Renowned for his analytical abilities, Sima Qian attempted to find patterns from historical events, and worked to present them to his readers so that future generations can learn from the past.

Being an official of the Han court, he subscribed to the standard Han political philosophy that is largely based upon traditional Confucianism, as opposed to Legalism that dominated Qin dynasty. Sima Qian later fell from the Han emperors favor by defending a general who failed in a mission in counterattacking barbarian tribes from north of the Great Wall. Sentenced to castration and imprisonment, he refused to commit suicide, reasoning that his lifes mission of compiling tome on all history up until his time named simply Shi Ji, or Record of History, could not be left incomplete. This legendary work was of such high caliber that it became the standard against which all subsequent works by later historians were measured against.

Ancient Chinese
Philosopher Sima Qian

In this short piece, Sima Qian is refuting the Legalist spirit of works such as The Importance of Severe Punishment by Han Fei Zi. Having studied the demise of the Qin regime, he provides timeless quotations and historical examples to show the errors of those that came before him.

Body Text:

Confucius says, To guide the people by political means and rectify their conduct by the use of punishment can only succeed in making them shameless and opportunistic.

On the other hand, they will acquire a sense of shamefulness and can easily be induced to goodness if they are guided by moral precepts which impose propriety upon their conduct.1

Lao Zi2 says, A truly virtuous man does not speak of virtues and consequently becomes more virtuous. A man who shows off his virtues has little virtue in him. The more the laws are, the more numerous the thieves will be.

How right these remarks are, comments the Grand Historian.3

Laws are the only means of governing; they cannot eliminate the causes that prompt people to commit crimes. During the Qin dynasty, the laws were broad and minute enough, but crimes multiplied and knew no end. All people, high or low, conspired to violate the law, and the government was weakened as a result. During this period, the officials governed the people as if they were fighting fire with hot water; they had to be militant, relentless, and unusually cruel in order to meet the demand of their assigned role.

Those who spoke of virtues were regarded as having failed in the performance of their duties. When presiding over a trial, says Confucius, I, like all other judges, hope that there will never be another trial again.

An ignorant man laughs loudly when he hears of true virtues, says Lao Zi.

After the establishment of the Han dynasty, the government abolished all cruel laws, eliminating those that were superficial but maintaining those that were basic and essential. The law was so lenient that it could be compared to a fishing net with huge holes through which the largest fish could easily escape.4

Yet the government functioned better and better each day, and there was no dishonest dealings among government officials. Meanwhile, people enjoyed peace and security. It seems clear that the best way to govern lies in the cultivation of virtues rather than the imposition of harsh punishment.

Notes to Text

1. The Legalists believed in the opposite, in that morality and propriety are poor and temporary substitutes for the strict rule of law. Also, Confucius is stating this as a matter of natural law, in that there exist timeless and unchangeable standards of morality, such as respect for parents, prohibition of murder, etc. Top

2. Lao Zi is the legendary founder of Taoism. One of the central precepts of Taoism is not doing; very roughly explained, this implies that the best results often come from the least, or even an absence, of pursuit of such consequences in the first place. Conversely, the harder one pursues an objective, the easier it is to flounder. Top

3. Either Sima Qian himself, or his father, Sima Tan, who was also a famous court historian. Top

4. In other words, the notion that it is better to let a guilty offender go than to condemn the innocent. Top

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