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By Justin Smith

letter-to-confuciusI’m writing you this letter to emphasize that the government should be based on virtue. Rule by virtue is the nurture of the people by morality, and the building of a natural order for the controlling of the people, based on the ritual.  Government by means of virtue is opposed to the rule by law which means the guidance of the people by government and coercion by the force of statutory law. If you hedge a people round with laws, they will for ever, and with no conscience at all in the matter, be searching for loopholes in the law, and however many restrictive prohibitions are passed, it will not be possible to catch up with them. But government by virtue makes its appeal to the moral senses, and allows scope for free action; hence, illegal conduct will disappear. Therefore, for such reasons I consider the claims of rule by virtue to be superior.

Virtue has a dynamic power to attract and transform the people. Jen is the thread running through all other virtues. Jen is humaneness, humanity, love, goodness, benevolence, man-to-man-ness, and kindness. Such two concepts are shu, “reciprocity” and zhong, “loyalty” are the pathways leading towards the realisation of jen (Hirth, 1950, p. 88). The underlying commitment of shu is not only to refrain from doing harm to others by abiding by rules, but also to integrate one’s self and others by following the Way. Zhong denotes a positive intention to act (Hirth, 1950, p. 87). In order to integrate oneself with others, it is not enough merely not to impose upon them the things one does not like oneself. It is more important to help others to achieve what one wants, and only in this positive way can one be said to be “loyal” to others. Unless men possess humanity, benevolence, or perfect virtue, there is no hope that society can be spared the evil, cruelty, and violence that was destroying it. There are no utilitarian persuasions to attract men to the practice of perfect virtue.  Virtue is often despised and persecuted; therefore, you must be prepared to face frequent poverty and distress (Hirth, 1950, p. 80).

The “government by virtue” is built on the conscience of the individual, for the moral awakening of the individual is regarded as its foundation. In the case also of the ruler, if there is no lofty moral character inherent in the statesman who gives the orders, it cannot be expected that his orders will secure the obedience of the people. Government would be carried out most perfectly in a situation in which both ruler and ruled were persons of good character, and were together possessed of a moral awareness. In this way, with a mutual understanding between prince and servant, government can be conducted in complete and unobstructed harmony.

What are the “secrets of good government”? Everyone should play his role and be guided by the laws of morality. If the prince properly discharges his part as prince, then the servant will fulfil his own due functions. The most important requisite for good government is this mutual discharge of respective duties, as dictated by the individual’s moral conscience.            You may ask me about the principles which should govern a ruler’s treatment of his ministers, and the ministers’ service to their prince. The discharge of one’s function should result in action which conforms to the canons of ritual, and in this respect, the standard is the ritual which grows from and conforms to the custom of the group (Hirth, 1950, p. 77).

The basic difference between the concept of the nature of the law and the government by virtue is that action in accordance with the law should not be unconscious, but should stem from the realization by the individual of his proper place and function within a group, and should be an autonomous obedience, as to a moral imperative (Hirth, 1950, p. 70). Even though there is small difference between the government by virtue and the government by law, the government by virtue is not the opposite to the law: it would be more correct to say that results similar to those obtainable by the working of the law could be gained autonomously through the moral awakening of the individual.

Government should be rooted on the moral consciousness of man. Thus the secret of government lay in the appointment of men of high moral character as statesmen. Those governments which do not place honest and morally upright men in high office, but govern through wicked and dishonest ministers, should not expect submission of the people.

The ruler is responsible for the welfare of his people. This welfare includes not only providing for their sustenance and tranquillity but also for directing the people into the right course of action by his own moral example. Heaven had vested the ruler with these material and moral tasks and expects him to accomplish them through moral means.

Ancient kings such as Yao and Shun, King Yang, the wise founder of the Shang dynasty, and the great ancestors of the ruling house of the Chou, Kings Wen and Wu and the Duke of Chou embody the humanity and perfect virtue and their deeds and their reigns represent all that was wise and good in history and society.

In a governmental system the officials should be discouraged from trying to formulate rules, for such rules, if specific, can only duplicate the enactments of custom and, if general, may entangle the official in a web of words. If the officials are personally and individually worthless, there will be no hope for good government and the only remedy will consist in selecting good officials and placing them in high positions. If the officials are good, their integrity and common sense will show them the solutions to problems and they will have no need to solicit advice from some manual of commands. No lifeless paper and ink can guide people unless there are upright officials to study the classics and put the judicious rules found in them into effect. Thus, a government made up of rigid laws—a system having no reference to the personality or value of individuals, but embedded in a vast mechanism of numbers is anathema and lunacy.

Therefore, the only safeguard against bad government is good government by good men; the only remedy for bad government is the effort of good men.


Hirth, F. (1950) Confucius and the Chinese. New York: Routledge.


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