A Study on a Confucius Aphorism

15 April 2015
Confucius said,
“Lead the people with governmental measures, and regulate them by law and punishment, and they will avoid wrong-doing but will have no sense of honour and shame. Lead them with virtue and regulate them through the rules of propriety, and they will have a sense of shame, and moreover set themselves right.”
When I read this, I imagine a ruler coming to this renowned sage for advise on how best to rule these people he has inherited, a kingdom which has fallen into debauchery. The ruler wonders if placing harsh laws with even harsher punishments, and building prisons will quell the people. Yet the sage responds with the above quote. The ruler would at first be perplexed, “How can you stop unruly behavior without strict rules and punishment?” Only after long reflection the ruler discovering what Confucius meant.
I came to a similar conclusion as Confucius a few years ago, when discussing with someone the rules for the infoshop and squat that we were opening. The person I was speaking with was concerned, since we would be housing the homeless, and others who came through our doors; He was worried over scenarios of what if deviant and destructive people came, and were abusive or otherwise criminal towards others. He believed that the only way to deal with such things, if they ever came to pass, was to write up many rules, and if people didn’t follow them, to demand that they leave, with weapons if we have to. But I told him of another way.
I told him, to not worry, that we only needed one oath written on the wall, which those who enter should live by, I said the oath should be “To wrong others is wrong.” That it did not have to be any more complicated than that, for within that one thing, all other things were covered. I also told him that having it be an oath firmly held within their hearts was far more effective than any rules one could place on someone.
For I have through my life realized that if people disagree with a law or rule, they will simply disobey it, and although to some extent threat of punishment will detour some; many will just find ways to do it without getting caught, even if that includes doing more crimes. The United States era of Alcohol Prohibition shows this to be true, as does the current U.S. War On Drugs. It doesn’t matter that these things are against the law, the people who wish to do it, still do it, because they do not in their hearts believe them to be wrong.
Confucius also mentions how the ruler must lead his people by example. I can also find analogies to this in modern day America. The United States is known for having problems with violent crimes and murder at such levels which are extreme compared to many other developed nations. Many in the U.S. wonder why this is the case, and what the cause could be. Yet in the past 239 years that this country has existed since 1776, it has been at war for 222 of those years. Imagine what that must do to the psyche of its people; What example is it giving to its people on how they should behave and treat one another?
In a society where war, violence amongst people, is the main means to solve disputes, and people are severely punished for things which they do not consider crimes; What ways would people learn to handle situations and deal with things? People learn from those around them. So if they are only surrounded by those as the ways to deal with things, then they will only learn to deal with things in those ways. If they have a dispute, they will only know to end it with violence, if someone wrongs them, they will only know to severely punish them. Governments who function in this way, give the example to their people to also function in this way, as opposed to setting an example to be themselves good.
Imagine though if a ruler or government were to set an example of virtue and honourable, kind treatment of others. If instead of war, and violence they showed brotherhood; if instead of punishment, they modeled forgiveness and helping. What nature would that inspire, what mindset would that breed? I feel it would lead to a more harmonious and better society, and a gentle people.
I said to my friend that if a person in the depths of their heart honestly believes something, that they would never violate it. I used an example that many men believe that to hit a woman or an animal is wrong, and those who truly believe that, never do it, and if they do, they feel ashamed, and some even feel such a lack of honour that they kill themselves once they have done that. Same goes for child rape, and many other horrible things. There will always people who do these things, but it is rare and very frowned upon.
So if we showed, through example, that to wrong others is wrong, and these people came to believe that deep within their hearts, they would try their best not to do it, without any need of threat of punishment. And that we also should practice forgiveness towards those who do wrong people, for they are people who have learned a bad way of coping with things, and they are in some form suffering too.
It is far better to have people control themselves with their own rules, than to try to rule over them with your own, for they may break yours if they disagree with them; But they will almost never break things they deeply believe in their hearts. I know this to be true, and Confucius had this insight as well. If only other people and countries could have this same realization as well, imagine the way the world could be.

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