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Chapter XL. A Critique of the Doctrine of Position

1Shên Tzŭ said:—

"The flying dragon rides on the clouds and the rising serpent strolls through the mists; but as soon as the clouds disperse and the mists clear up, the dragon and the serpent become the same as the earthworm and the large-winged black ant, because they have then lost what they rested on. If worthies are subjected by unworthy men, it is because their power is weak and their status is low; whereas if the unworthy men can be subjected by the worthies, it is because the power of the latter is strong and their status is high. Yao, while a commoner, could not govern three people, whereas Chieh, being the Son of Heaven, could throw All-underHeaven into chaos.

"From this I know that position and status are sufficient to rely on, and that virtue and wisdom are not worth yearning after. Indeed, if the bow is weak and the arrow flies high, it is because it is driven up by the wind; if the orders of an unworthy man take effect, it is because he is supported by the masses. When Yao was teaching in an inferior status, the people did not listen to him; but, as soon as he faced the south, and became Ruler of All-under-Heaven, whatever he ordered took effect and whatever he forbade stopped. From such a viewpoint I see that virtue and wisdom are not sufficient to subdue the masses, and that position and status may well subject 2 even worthies."

In response to Shên Tzŭ some critic says:—

"True, the flying dragon rides on the clouds and the rising serpent strolls through the mists. The dependence of the dragon and the serpent on the circumstances of the clouds and the mists I never deny. However, if you cast worthiness aside and trust to position entirely, is it sufficient to attain political order? No such instance have I ever been able to witness. Indeed, if the dragon and the serpent, when having the circumstances of clouds and mists, can ride on and stroll through them, it is because their talents are excellent. 3 Now, though the clouds are thick, the earthworm cannot ride on them; though the mists are deep, the ant cannot stroll through them. Indeed, if the earthworm and the ant, when having the circumstances of thick clouds and deep mists, cannot ride on and stroll through them, it is because their talents are feeble. Now, while Chieh and Chow were facing the south and ruling All-under-Heaven with the authority of the Son of Heaven as the circumstances of clouds and mists, All-under-Heaven could not evade chaos, although the talents of Chieh and Chow were feeble. Again, if All-under-Heaven was governed by Yao with his position, then how could that position differ from Chieh's position with 4 which he threw All-under-Heaven into chaos? After all, position cannot always make worthies realize their 5 good-will and unworthy persons realize their 6 malice. If worthies use it, the world becomes orderly; if unworthy persons use it, the world becomes chaotic.

"As regards human nature, worthies are few and worthless persons many. Because the unworthy men who disturb the world are supplied with the advantage of authority and position, those who by means of their position disturb the world are many and those who by means of their position govern the world well are few. Indeed, position is both an advantage to order and a facility to chaos. Hence the History of Chou says: `Do not add wings to tigers. Otherwise, they will fly into the village, catch people, and devour them.'

"Indeed, to place unworthy men in advantageous positions is the same as to add wings to tigers. Thus, Chieh and Chow built high terraces and deep pools to exhaust people's strength and made roasting pillars to injure people's lives. 7 Chieh and Chow could abuse their position and give themselves over to all vices 8 because the south-facing authority 9 worked as their wings. Were Chieh and Chow commoners, then before they as yet committed a single vice, their bodies would have suffered the death penalty. Thus, position can rear in man the heart of the tiger and the wolf and thereby foster outrageous and violent events. In this respect it is a great menace to All-under-Heaven. Thus, concerning the relation of position to order and chaos, there is from the outset no 10 settled view. Nevertheless, if anyone devotes his whole discourse to the sufficiency of the doctrine of position to govern All-under-Heaven, the limits of his wisdom must be very narrow.

"For instance, a swift horse and a solid carriage, if you make bondmen and bondwomen drive them, will be ridiculed by people, but, if driven by Wang Liang, will make one thousand li a day. The horse and the carriage are not different. Yet, if they sometimes make one thousand li a day and are sometimes ridiculed by people, it is because the skilful coachman is so different from the unskilful ones. Now, compare the state 11 to the carriage, position to the horse, commands and orders to the reins and the bridle, 12 and punishments to the whip and the cord, and then let Yao and Shun drive them. Be sure All-under-Heaven would fall into chaos. It is because the worthy and the unworthy are very different from each other. Indeed, if anybody wants to drive fast and far but does not know to employ Wang Liang, or if one wants to increase advantages and remove dangers but does not know to employ worthy and talented men, it is the calamity of the ignorance of analogy. After all, Yao and Shun are the Wang Liangs in governing the people." 13

In response to the foregoing criticism some other critic says:—

"The philosopher considered position sufficiently reliable for governing officials and people. The critic said that you had to depend on worthies for political order. As a matter of truth, neither side is reasonable enough. Indeed, the term shih 勢 is a generic name. Its species cover innumerable varieties. If the term shih is always restricted to that variety entirely due to nature, then there will be no use in disputing on the subject. What is meant by shih on which I am talking is the shih created by man. Now, the critic said, `When Yao and Shun had shih, order obtained; when Chieh and Chow had shih, chaos prevailed.' Though I do not deny the success of Yao and Shun, yet I do assert that shih is not what one man alone can create.

"Indeed, if Yao and Shun were born in the superior status and even ten Chiehs and Chows could not create any commotion, the political order would then be due to the force of circumstances. If Chieh and Chow were born in the superior status and even ten Yaos and Shuns could not attain order, the political chaos would then be due to the force of circumstances. Hence the saying: `Where there is order by force of circumstances, there can be no chaos; where there is chaos by force of circumstances, there can be no order.' Such is the shih due to nature; it cannot be created by man.

"By shih the critic 14 meant what man can create. By shih I mean only the kind of shih as acquired by man. Worthiness has nothing to do with it. How to clarify this point?

"Somebody said: Once there was a man selling halberds and shields. He praised his shields for their solidity as such that nothing could penetrate them. All at once he also praised his halberds, saying, `My halberds are so sharp that they can penetrate anything.' In response to his words people asked, `How about using your halberds to pierce through your shields?' To this the man could not give any reply.

"In fact, the shields advertised to be `impenetrable' and the halberds advertised to be `absolutely penetrative' cannot stand together. Similarly, worthiness employed as a form of shih cannot forbid anything, but shih employed as a way of government forbids everything. Now, to bring together worthiness that cannot forbid anything and shih that forbids everything 15 is a `halberd-and-shield' fallacy. 16 Clearly enough, worthiness and circumstances are incompatible with each other.

"Moreover, Yao and Shun as well as Chieh and Chow appear once in a thousand generations; whereas the opposite 17 types of men are born shoulder to shoulder and on the heels of one another. As a matter of fact, most rulers in the world form a continuous line of average men. It is for the average rulers that I speak about shih. The average rulers neither come up to the worthiness of Yao and Shun nor reach down to the wickedness of Chieh and Chow. If they uphold the law and make use of their august position, order obtains; if they discard the law and desert their august position, chaos prevails. Now suppose you discard the position and act contrary to the law and wait for Yao and Shun to appear and suppose order obtains after the arrival of Yao and Shun, then order will obtain in one out of one thousand generations of continuous chaos. Suppose you uphold the law and make use of the august position and wait for Chieh and Chow to appear and suppose chaos prevails after the arrival of Chieh and Chow, then chaos will prevail in one out of one thousand generations of continuous order. To be sure, one generation of chaos out of one thousand generations of order and one generation of order out of one thousand generations of chaos are as different from each other as steed-riders driving in opposite directions are far apart from each other.

"Indeed, when you abandon the tools of stretching and bending and give up the scales of weights and measures, then though you try to make Hsi Chung construct a carriage, he would not be able to finish even a single wheel. Similarly, without the promise of reward and the threat of penalty, and casting the position out of use and giving up the law, then even if Yao and Shun preached from door to door and explained to everybody the gospel of political order, they could not even govern three families. Verily, that shih is worth employing, is evident. To say that it is necessary to depend upon worthiness is not true.

"Besides, if you let anyone eat nothing for one hundred days while waiting for good rice and meat to come, the starveling will not live. Now, to depend upon the worthiness of Yao and Shun for governing the people of the present world is as fallacious as to wait for good rice and meat to save the starveling's life.

"Indeed, I do not consider it right to say that a swift horse and a solid carriage, when driven by bondmen and bondwomen, will be ridiculed by people, but, when driven by Wang Liang, will make a thousand li a day. For illustration, if you wait for a good swimmer 18 from Yüeh to rescue a drowning man in a Central State, 19 however well the Yüeh swimmer may do, the drowning person will not be rescued. In the same way, waiting for the Wang Liang of old to drive the horse of to-day is as fallacious as waiting for the man from Yüeh to rescue that drowning person. The impracticability is evident enough. But, if teams of swift horses and solid carriages are placed in readiness in relays fifty li apart and then you make an average coachman drive them, he will be able to drive them fast and far and cover one thousand li a day. Why should it then be necessary to wait for the Wang Liang of old?

"Further, in matters of driving, the critic chose Wang Liang for a case of success and took bondmen and bondwomen for a case of failure; in matters of government, he selected Yao and Shun for attaining order and Chieh and Chow for creating chaos. To run from one extreme to another is as fallacious as to consider taste as sweet as wheat-gluten and honey or else as bitter as parti-coloured lettuce and bitter parsley.

"In short, the criticism, composed of flippant contentions and wordy repetitions, is absurd and tactless. It is a dilemma involving two extremes 20 as the only alternatives. If so, how can it be used to criticize a reasonable and consistent doctrine? The argument of the critic, however, is not as sound as the doctrine under consideration."


1. 難勢. Its English rendering by L. T. Chen is "Misgivings on Circumstances" (Liang, History of Chinese Political Thought during the Early Tsin Period, p. 117, f.I), which is a great mistake. Derk Bodde rendered shih (勢) as "power" or "authority" (Fung, History of Chinese Philosophy: The Period of the Philosophers, p. 318 ff.), which is inaccurate. For shih, a special term employed by the ancient Chinese legalists, I have chosen "position" in English inasmuch as it implies "circumstance" objectively and "influence" subjectively and, moreover, is intimately related to wei (位) for which I have used "status".

2. With Yü Yüeh and Wang Hsien-shen 缶 is a mistake for 詘.

3. With Wang Hsien-ch`ien 之 below 美 is superfluous.

4. With Ku Kuang-ts`ê 也 below 勢 should be 以.

5. With Yü Yüeh 已 in both cases should be 己.

6. With Yü Yüeh 已 in both cases should be 己.

7. I read 生 for 性.

8. With Wang Hsien-shen 勢 should be supplied below 乘 and 四 above 行 should be 肆.

9. Namely, the circumstance and influence of the throne.

10. With Ku Kuang-ts`ê 未 below 本 should be 末.

11. With Wang Hsien-shen the Digest of Classics has no 位 below 國.

12. With Wang the same book has 銜 below 轡.

13. So much for the critical analysis of Shên Tzŭ's doctrine of position. In the following passages Han Fei Tzŭ attempted a critical estimate of the two foregoing systems.

14. With Wang Hsien-shen 吾 between 若 and 所言 is a mistake for 客.

15. The passage 以不可禁之勢,此矛楯之說也 involves both mistakes and hiatuses. With Ku Kuang-ts`ê it should be 以不可禁之賢與無不禁之勢兩立,此矛楯之說也.

16. 矛楯之說, logically speaking, is a violation of the Law of Contradiction, the same preducats cannot be both affirmed and denied of precisely the same subject.

17. With Wang Hsien-shen 反 should be supplied above 是比肩隨踵而生也.

18. With Lu Wên-shao 海 above 游 is superfluous.

19. Places hundreds of miles apart.

20. With Kao Hêng 未 below 兩 should be 末.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia