The Shenzi Fragments by Erik Lang Harris

Among my readings on shi 势 it felt like a good time to take a pause and read this short (compared to recent material) study on the philosophy of Shen Dao by Erik Lang Harris. “The Shenzi Fragments” includes translations of Shen Dao’s surviving writing, as well as an overview of Shen Dao’s three primary tenets of statecraft: 1) people act based on their own private interests, 2) strengths and weaknesses vary, and 3) subjective decision making will lead to  resentment. He also gives about 80 pages of comparative philosophy with some great material relating to the teachings of Han Fei, Xunzi, the Lushi Chunqiu, and the Huainanzi.

I’ve been interested in Shen Dao since reading Peerenboom’s book on the Mawangdui silk manuscripts, in which he details the relationship of Shen Dao’s views to those found in the Huangdi sijing along with his wider role in the development of foundational naturalism and Huanglao statecraft in the Qin and early Han. I also like to think, just for fun, of what it may have been like to have had his cushy job in the bustling city of Linzi getting pampered by the Tian clan to study and debate with some of the most famed members of early Chinese philosophy at the Jixia Academy, where, unlike his colleagues serving as political appointees, he didn’t have to worry about the dangers of political intrigue.

Shen Dao was particularly influential during the formative years of political philosophy and vessel theory development in the late 4th-2nd centuries BCE. He is cited in the Lushi Chunqiu dating from ~ 235 BCE, and his views were picked up by a range of philosophers such as Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and, in particular, Han Fei—whose work set the stage for the political and philosophical discourse of the emerging Qin empire and its subsequent modelling by the early Han emperors. A.C. Graham dates Shen Dao’s reference in Zhuangzi chapter 33 to 180 BCE, and his philosophy was an influential source for the authors of the Huainanzi who were active approximately 157 to 141 BCE.

In examining the Lingshu I believe there, too, we can find connections to Shen Dao’s ideas. In my view this can be considered on four primary points:   

  1. Both systems assert the need for a realist, pragmatic focus with an inclusive world view whose methodology can apply to all peoples, times, and circumstances. Emphasis on adaptation and unbiased decision making.
  2. The Shenzi and Lingshu, like the Huangdi sijing, regard nature as the source of normative order—not sage kings. The human realm is to be modeled upon the natural world. Consequently, the State, too, must be modeled on the dynamics of nature; in other words, political holism is a subset of ecological holism.
    • Heaven cast as an impersonal amoral force, contra Mozi, Kongzi, and Mengzi. Power and authority tied to those who can interpret the mechanisms of nature.
    • In the Lingshu the only sage is Huangdi—represented there as an imperfect sage-king who was, in context of the time, a figure associated with the school of Huanglao. Ruist sage-kings Yao, Shun, and Yu never make an appearance.
    • Water as a cosmic model of the Way and qi dynamic.
  3. Lingshu continues the debate of Shen Dao and Xunzi on the value of the individual vs the mechanisms of state.
    • Like Shen Dao it asserts that people have inherent dispositions, just as niches exist within an ecosystem; all have utility that must be harmonized to realize order.
    • Contrary to the views of both Shen Dao and Xunzi, the Lingshu takes a similar position as the Huainanzi in its belief that people can only be changed within the range allowed by their natural disposition.
  4. The role of the heart in the Lingshu bears important similarities to that laid out for the sovereign by Shen Dao.
    • Order requires a transparent hierarchy with clearly established responsibilities that do not exceed their position. The duty of the heart-ruler is to provide oversight and harmony.
    • Heart-Ruler does not participate in mechanisms of state; i.e. the heart does not partake in the mechanics of qi transformation.
    • Heart-Ruler, though critical as that which defines center and establishes totality, is not more important than any other function of state.

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