Blesok no. 29, November-December, 2002

The Influence of Ontology on Philosophy of Politics in Ancient China

Aleksandar Stamatov


    Amongst the China philosophy researchers and comparative philosophers there is a generally accepted view, that Chinese philosophers, apart from European and Indian ones, give greater significance rather to the practical part of the philosophy, than to the theoretical one. But, that doesn’t mean that theoretical philosophy in China is wholly excluded. On the contrary, it is of great significance for Chinese philosophy. Our purpose here is to point on one aspect of the connection between theoretical and practical philosophy in China, specifically, between ontology and philosophy of politics, that is, the influence that ontology has on philosophy of politics. By this, our intention is not to oppose the above mentioned view, but to underline that, although practical philosophy has a primacy over theoretical philosophy, the latter plays significant role in the creation of practical philosophy, and represents its basis.
    In the period from sixth to second century B.C. numerous schools of philosophy developed in China. Therefore, this period is called “period of hundred schools”. Historically, this period belongs to the so called “period of warring states”, when, acquiring certain strength, the various feudal lords separated from the centralist power of China, and became rulers of their small states. These states often waged wars between each other in order to gain as larger territory and greater power as possible, until in the second century B.C. the strongest of them overcame and conquered all the states, and established again central power on whole China. The period of warring states was a good background for developing and flourishing of philosophy. It is the numerous wars and political crisis that caused Chinese philosophers to think about how to live better, so the ethics and the politics came first. The historian Ssu Ma T’an (?-110 A.D.) from the “hundred schools” sets aside six as the most significant ones. Here, we will set aside three most significant out of these six, Confucianism, Taoism and Moism, and will take into consideration their political teaching. However, our purpose here is not to speak of the political teaching of these schools as such, but to find out the connection between ontology and philosophy of politics, that is, the influence of ontology on philosophy of politics in these schools.
    It can be said that in these three schools ontology influences in two ways: direct and indirect. The direct influence consists of, on one hand, the opinion that the state and the laws are created by the ontological principle and the ruler represents nothing more than a servant to that ontological principle, and, on the other hand, the opinion that the state, the world and the ontological principle form a unity. There is an indirect influence when we speak of influence from the ethical and anthropological teaching, which themselves emerge from ontology. Ethics and anthropology can be viewed as separate disciplines, so that their influence on philosophy of politics can, likewise, be viewed separately. But, in Chinese philosophy everything begins with ontology, and subsequently the rest of the disciplines are deduced. Therefore, we ascribe any influence of one discipline on another to ontology, and by that, here, ontology indirectly influences that discipline.

The Origin of the State

    Mainly, the three philosophical teachings we are going to talk about, consider the genesis of the state as a result of the human nature and the virtues contained in it. According to Confucianism, the state is needed for establishing harmony in the inter-human relations, and with it, the complete development of the ethical norms to be achieved. Taoism, again, considers that a state like the Confucian one is not needed, but the state should represent a field where the individual, unobstructed of severe norms, will develop its abilities. Moism sees the state as opportunity for complete development of the universal love, according to which, everybody should be loved equally. Therefore, it is not wrong to say that the political teaching of these schools emerges from their ethical-anthropological teaching. But, if we stick to this statement and don’t look backwards at their ontological teaching, we can come into incomplete comprehension of the political philosophy of these schools, and the schools after, as well. Which means, if we want to realize the genesis of the state, we must go back to the genesis of the world.

a) Confucianism

    In Book of Songs[1] we read: “Heaven created people and gave all creatures suitable law, so following this law people can reach their moral perfection”.[2] Confucianism accepts this understanding. According to Confucius (551-479 B.C.), everything has its own purpose. So the state, also, became as a need of man to fulfill his purpose, that is, to fully develop the inter-human relations and the rituals. Confucius sees the state as a dynamic element, which emerges from the interaction of the opposed forces. These opposed forces find its source in the cosmic forces yin and yang. Yin represents the passive and yang the active element in the process of creation. It’s normal for Chinese philosophers when they theorize about the creation of the world, not to forget to include these two forces. Regardless of whether Heaven, Tao, or some other creator creates the world, yin and yang are always present to enable the creation. They always set as opposed to each other, and the things in the world undertake their characteristics. So, we have heaven, sun, male, light, warm, which are characteristics of yang, and earth, moon, female, dark, cold, which are characteristics of yin. Their mutual relations and overcoming of the former, and next moment of the latter, enable the existence of the world.
    Hereof, Confucius thinks that yin and yang precisely contribute for the creation of the state, as well. Heaven created humans, and some of them endowed with yang and they became men, and some of them with yin and they became women. As the world became from yin and yang, so did the society because of the difference that there is between man and woman. Confucianism speaks about five kinds of relations between people, out of which the above mentioned between man and woman is basic, and out of it, the others can be deduced: parent – child, older child – younger child, ruler – subject, and the relation between friends. These five relations make the genesis of the state possible. By it, Confucius sets the relations between men on metaphysical basis, and the society only follows and imitates the genesis and the development of the world.
    Mencius (371-289 B.C.) completes Confucius with his thinking that when Heaven created man endowed him with good nature, which is consisted of four virtues: human-heartedness, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. But, Heaven does not let man act by himself with these virtues, for, he could not develop them fully, or he could deviate. Mencius says that men “can not fully apply their natural powers”.[3] That is why Heaven places man in community with other people, by which human virtues could be preserved and developed. With the very creation, man is doomed to live in community, he is zoon politikon.
    His Confucian associate and bitter opponent Hsun Tzu (320-238 B.C.), does not deny the involvement of Heaven in creation of the state. But, his starting point is different. He asserts that Heaven created man with bad nature. Yet, both of them tend that man should possess good nature, with a difference that in Mencius man is good with its creation itself, and in Hsun Tzu man becomes good only with the help of the state. Thus, the process of creation of man, i.e. world in general, in Hsun Tzu ends with the creation of the state. Heaven establishes the state in order to finish its purpose, that is, to make the man a being with good nature.
    From the above mentioned it can be concluded that man should follow Heaven. Heaven, which created the things, also created norms of behaviour, from which the king-sages make rules and laws. Confucius says: “Only Heaven is great and only Yao[4] can imitate its greatness”.[5] Heaven possesses all virtues and man must imitate it. Heaven loves people without exception and man should love other people. Man by following Heaven establishes harmony with it and thus “the universal ego melts with the individual one”.[6]

b) Taoism

    Apart from Confucianism which sets philosophy of politics together with ethics as main courses in its teaching, Taoism is more directed to metaphysics and mysticism. In Book of Change it is said that the political affairs are represented by yang, and yin represents withdrawal from politics and engaging with nature. If we take ourselves according to the meaning of this statement, then Confucianism is yang, and Taoism yin. But, however little is written about politics in the Taoist sources, still we mustn’t neglect it.
    According to Taoism the world becomes from Tao. Tao can be translated as way, principle, logos etc. No one can know Tao and no one can say anything about Tao. That is why people call it Tao, which means it gives the way, the principle, the logos of all existing. If we want to know Tao there is only one way, and that is falling into mysticism.
    Tao does not underlie to ethical qualifications, for Tao it’s not possible to say either that is good or bad. But, its own existence is good by itself, because Tao creates laws that sets in the world, according to which all processes should come to pass, and if there would be no laws, the world would have been in chaos. Those are the natural laws and from them further on the Taoist ethics and the Taoist philosophy of politics are deduced. Nature, as it is, is the most important segment of human life and it cannot be changed, Taoists maintain; that is why the state should be treated as part of the nature in which the work of Tao is to be more noticeable then the work of man.
    Tao acts spontaneously and in creating the world doesn’t involve much effort. Lao Tzu (604-? B.C.) says: “Tao does nothing, and yet there is nothing that is not done”.[7] Here we speak about the famous Taoist principle wu wei, which can be translated as non-doing. Wu wei does not mean total passivity, but letting oneself to his natural urges without obstructing them. Thus, Tao let itself to its urge and spontaneously creates the world, the man and the society. Because of it, the state mustn’t be established by force, but spontaneously following the natural laws set by Tao. The purpose of the state is to help every individual to live in accordance with natural laws, which means to have a simple life and lead compliant to wu wei.
    Here we come to the mystical element of the philosophy of politics. Tao is one, and the world that it creates is one. But, Tao doesn’t stay out of the world; Tao is constantly in it, so, Tao and the world make one. Because the state becomes in natural way and is part of the world, it pertains to that unity. Therefore, a real state is the one that functions naturally, not with strict laws.

c) Moism

    Considering the genesis of the state, Moism maintain the view, which in Western terminology can be called social contract. People first lived in a natural condition where everybody had his own opinion and thought that he is right. When two people would meet, both of them would try to obtrude their opinion onto the other. Because nobody withdrew his opinion, an argument started. That was a time of general chaos where “man to man is a wolf”. People not standing anymore to live in such a condition agreed to create a state and proclaimed a ruler. Thus, Mo Tzu (468-376 B.C.) and his followers describe the real procedure in the genesis of the state. But, what we are interested in is its metaphysical background.
    Like Confucianists, Moists also take Heaven as ontological principle, with the difference that they have a more religious approach to it. What creates the world is the Will of Heaven. The Will of Heaven is actually the will to life. Heaven wishes to live and through love keep up alive all that exists. Love of Heaven is all-embracing and equal to any thing. Man should subdue to the Will of Heaven, and should love all people equally without exception. Heaven loves people, therefore establishes the state because by that the love could be freely exercised. Mo Tzu says: “When God and spirits established the state and cities and appointed a ruler, it was not for higher rang or any material profit. … It was to provide good living of the people and eliminate their difficulties, to enrich the poor and to increase the small, from danger to bring safety and from chaos to bring order”.[8] Hence, the state is field where man subdues and leads himself according to the Will of Heaven, accepts love from it and following its example loves all people equally. Heaven will be happy only then when people will exercise the all-embracing love, and if not all, at least most of the people will be happy.

The Ruling with the State

    In Western philosophy of politics there are different kinds of ruling. Some of them, as perfect way of ruling emphasize monarchy, others democracy, etc. In ancient China, however, there are no divisions of such kind. What all the political teachings in China agree is that there is only one perfect way of ruling, and that’s monarchy. The purposes of the state according to the three teachings, already quoted at the beginning of the previous chapter, should be ruler’s task to introduce them among people. Thus, the Confucian ruler has a task to develop inter-human relations and reach proper applying of the ethical norms. The Taoist ruler mustn’t interfere in the life of people, but should only direct them in their independent development. The task of the Moist ruler is to extend the universal love to all people and make people happy as much as possible. What is our field of interest here is how ontology of these schools influenced on the teaching about the ruler.

a) Confucianism

    Many centuries before Confucius and Lao Tzu, when religion played great role in society, it was believed that the ruler is appointed from God. Thus, in Book of History it is said: “Let the king be vice-regent of Shang Ti[9] and let him deal with the duties of his”.[10] In Book of Songs we read: “[Heaven] looks for someone to assign the power”.[11] Because the ruler gets his mandate from Heaven, he is called Son of Heaven. We can find a lot of such similar statements in the pre-philosophical literature in China. Monarchy is authorized by Heaven, and Heaven orders who will be the ruler by choosing someone similar to it, wise and good. Confucius calls this decree of Heaven, a mandate. The ruler gets his mandate from Heaven and Heaven can take it back. Heaven gives the mandate to the one that considers is capable of ruling, and people should respect its decree. If the ruler doesn’t fulfil his task conscientiously Heaven warns him. But if the ruler doesn’t obey Heaven again, then Heaven takes back the mandate and appoints another ruler. Every ruler prepares his son to succeed him after his death, but that doesn’t mean that he makes the decision. It is only Heaven who can decide. If the ruler doesn’t prepare his son enough to succeed him, or tries to proclaim someone who is not appropriate for ruling, Heaven transfers the mandate to another ruler and thus a new dynasty becomes. Heaven does that by instigating people to a revolution, and if the revolution is successful, it means that Heaven took the mandate from one ruler and assigned it to another one.
    The ruler knows the decrees of Heaven. Mencius says: “The one that fully developed his mind, knows his own nature. The one who knows his nature, knows Heaven.”[12] Therefore, ruler can be only the one that knows Heaven.

b) Taoism

    The basic idea of Taoism is that the ruler should model himself according to Tao. Because Tao acts spontaneously (wu wei) the ruler should follow its example and apply wu wei. One such spontaneous ruling or ruling according to wu wei means that there is no set of many laws, rules, prohibitions, ceremonies etc., but the tendency is towards ruling as simple as possible in concordance with the simplicity of Tao. The best expression of this is the Lao Tzu’s sentence: “The more restrictions and prohibitions are in the world, the poorer will people be. The more sharp weapons are produced, more problems will be in the state. The more skillful artisans are, more skillful deceits will appear. The more laws are established, more thieves and robbers will be.”[13] As we can see, as Tao does not use force in the world, the ruler should not use force in the state. The ruler should not press the people, but let it develop by itself, and he should just direct it.

c) Moism

    Moism, too, accepts the idea that the ruler is Son of Heaven. Good ruler is the one who takes himself according to the Will of Heaven, and bad the one who opposes it. The ruler must rule in the way Heaven orders. Mo Tzu says: “The ruler cannot create rules by himself. Heaven gives him the rules. The higher men understand that the ruler creates the rules of the world, but don’t understand that Heaven assigns the rules to the ruler.”[14] Therefore, we mustn’t ever disagree with the ruler because his behaviour represents the Will of Heaven. To contradict the ruler means to contradict the Heaven and that is a serious offence. Therefore, Moism maintains the idea of absolute monarchy, because the ruler is appointed by Heaven, and as Heaven is absolute ruler of the world, so the ruler is absolute ruler of the state.


    At the end it remains to point out the similarities and the differences in these three schools in relation to the above-elaborated subject.
    According to the three schools the state except of underlying on ethical norms, it, also, directs itself according to the ontological principle. Confucianism firmly sticks to Book of Change where the different phenomena in the world have their role and function. Due to it, they are placed in constant relation to each other. Out of them, Heaven separates as supreme ruler and beginning of all. Because there are many phenomena in the world the relations between them become complex. The complexity by itself is not bad if it follows Heaven and its ordinance. Thus, in the state, these relations should be brought to harmony, which means complete ruling of Heaven with the state.
    Taoism, again, speaks up exactly for the opposite of Confucianism. Tao acts spontaneously and because of that there are no complex relations developed between the things. Man should accept this simplicity and should not make his way into complex relations with other people. Therefore, in the state people should direct themselves according to simplicity, which would mean that Tao is perfectly practiced.
    Moism holds the view that Heaven loves all things equally and by that makes unity with them. Man, as product of Heaven, should accept all-embracing love from it. That means that he should love all people equally and feel as one with all mankind. If this is done in the state that means that Heaven succeeds to practice the all-embracing love.
    The three philosophical schools agree that perfect way of governing is monarchy. The ruler must be one, as the source of the world is one. For all of these schools the ruler is an image of the creator of the world. Through the ruler the ontological principle performs its function in the area of mankind. But, in this segment  the three schools have the following differences:
    Firstly, we can speak about difference between Confucianism and Moism together as opposed to Taoism. The first two maintain that the ruler receives his mandate from Heaven and they call him Son of Heaven. By that, the ruler is immediately responsible for his deeds before Heaven. The ruler, according to Taoism, does not receive mandate from Tao. He is just a man who has reached the highest wisdom to know the function of Tao. Knowing it, he just acts according to it, so there is no responsibility that he should take before Tao. Tao does not call upon any responsibility, while Heaven in Confucianism and Moism does.
    Secondly, there is difference between Confucianism and Taoism on one hand, and Moism. Moism sees Heaven on a more religious way apart from Confucianism, in which Heaven rather represents cosmic principle (idea that emerges from Book of Chabge), and Taoism which, also, sees Tao as cosmic principle. Hence, according to Moism, the ruler should without reserve obey Heaven and receive orders from it. The ruler is just a mediator between Heaven and people. Although sometimes Confucianism shows signs of religiousness of Moist kind, yet it differs from it because it considers that receiving orders from Heaven is not the important moment in the ruling. The ruler has realized the laws and the relations that emerge from Heaven and with his ruling he tries to practice them, same as in Taoism the ruler has realized the laws and the relations that emerge from Tao and tries to practice them in his state.
    Thirdly, what remains is to talk about the difference between Taoism and Moism on one hand and Confucianism on the other. In its ethical teachings Confucianism and Moism are big opponents. The former holds that from the closeness of the relations we have with people, our love towards them depends. For instance, I love my family the most, than my closer relatives, closer friends, more distant relatives etc. but, Moism maintains that all people should be loved equally no matter how close to us they are. These rules as such are prescribed by Heaven. Taoism, can be said that stands on the side of Moism because Tao in creating the world does not make differences between things and people. Thus, the Confucian ruler should develop relations of various types, while the Taoist and the Moist one are interested in one kind of relation, equal treatment of all people.
    At the beginning we marked Chinese philosophy as more directed to practical than theoretical philosophy. But, as we can see, practical philosophy in China can not develop without the support of theoretical one. The philosophy in China starts with ontology (as the philosophy in ancient Greece starts with ontology, too), and it is a basis of further thinking in the field of practical philosophy.


1. In pre-Confucian China there are six major works, so called Six Classics, which represent basis of Confucianism and Chinese philosophy in general. The Six Classics are: Book of Songs, Book of History, Book of Change, Book of Rituals, Book of Music, and Spring and Autumn Annals. Of these, only Book of Music is not preserved.
2. Compare: Waley, Arthur, The Book of Songs, George Aleen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1954, p.258
3. Compare: The Book of Mencius, Bk 6A, ch. 6, in A Source Book of Philosophy, tr. and comp. by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1973, p. 54
4. Legendary king-sage which existence is not surely confirmed, but is assumed that he lived in the middle of the second millenium B.C.
5. Compare: The Analects, tr. by Ku Hung-ming, The Shin Sheng Daily News, Taipei, 1984, VIII, 19, p. 40
6. Chin, Francis Y. P., Confucius and Aristotle: A Comparative Study on the Confucian and Aristotelian Political Ideas, The Committee for Compilation and Examination of the Series of Chinese Classics, Taipei, 1981, p. 62
7. Compare: Lao Tzu, ch. 37, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p. 158
8. Compare: The Works of Motse, translated by Y. P. Mei, Arthur Probstain, London, 1929, p. 58-59


9. The term Shang Ti means Supreme Ruler and it was used to designate the supreme deity.
10. Compare: Yutang, Lin, The Wisdom of China and India, The Modern Library, New York, 1942, p. 739
11. Compare: Alexander, G. G., Confucius the Great Teacher, Kegan Paul, Trench, Truber & Co., London, 1980, p. 323
12. Compare: The Book of Mencius, 7A, 1, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p. 78
13. Compare: Lao Tzu, ch. 57, in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, p. 166
14. Compare: The Works of Motse, trans. Y. P. Mei, p. 152

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