The Use of Force: A Confucian View

He who lives by force must use his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle, and in doing so he inevitably inflicts great injury upon the people of other states. If he inflicts great injury on the people of other states, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow more eager to fight against him. Moreover, he who uses his might to conquer the cities that other men guard and to defeat the soldiers that other men send forth to battle must inevitably inflict great injury on his own people as well. If he inflicts great injury upon his own people, they will inevitably hate him fiercely and will day by day grow less eager to fight his battles. With the people of other states growing daily more eager to fight against him, and his own people growing daily less eager to fight in his defense, the ruler who relies upon strength will on the contrary be reduced to weakness. He acquires territory but loses the support of his people; his worries increase while his accomplishments dwindle. He finds himself with more and more cities to guard and less and less of the means to guard them with; thus in time the great state will on the contrary be stripped down in this way to insignificance. The other feudal lords never cease to eye him with hatred and to dream of revenge; never do they forget their enmity. They spy out his weak points and take advantage of his defects, so that he lives in constant peril.  (Hsün Tzu, tr. Watson, pp.39-40)

Xunzi is no pacifist, but here he gives a beautiful and lucid analysis of the consequences of depending upon violence to gain one’s ends. In one paragraph he reveals the self-destruction intrinsic to the violent mindset. The power of this account lies in its long view of a causal chain, both for the aggressor and for the victim. Inevitably, situations never stay the same, and when they change it is according to a predictable pattern. In taking any significant action, an intelligent person will first think out the probable consequences, and these tend to follow typical patterns. Xunzi’s exposition is general enough to apply to military conquest in all times and places, but it extends to any kind of “use of force”: in politics, where the stronger of two parties simply imposes its will in the other; in economics, where one company eats up another or forces it out of business; in relationships, where one partner consistently forces the other to do her bidding. Any human action has its cost, but we see again and again how a habitual reliance on force will eventually backfire. The only exception to this is in the world of sports, where the stronger and more skilled players can simply win and leave the arena with a clear victory; in real life, on the other hand, there is no departure from the arena, and no definitive defeat or victory. Most people who live by the sword live by the delusion that there can be a definitive act of violence. One implication of Xunzi’s paragraph is that if we decide to use force, we should also have decided to accept the consequences. 

   Confucians are often criticized for their idealistic naïveté about people, and for being too soft and squeamish in the hard world of real politics; but Xunzi turns the criticism around by suggesting that the warmonger always bites off far more than he can chew, and will perish from his indigestion.

One who truly understands how to use force does not rely upon force. (40)