New Book: Hagen, Lead Them with Virtue

Kurtis Hagen has published Lead Them with Virtue: A Confucian Alternative to War (Lexington, 2021). Read on for more information and reviews.

Recent scholarship has framed early Confucians as just war theorists with relatively permissive criteria for the just use of violence. Lead Them with Virtue: A Confucian Alternative to War makes the case that such interpretations conflict with what Mencius and Xunzi were trying to do. Kurtis Hagen argues that they both strove to prevent war by contrasting the situations of their day with idealized versions of the semi-mythic activities of sage-kings, which represent appropriate use of the military. These stories imply support for the offensive use of the military only when actual war—with its characteristic horrors—would not ensue. Following this logic, military interventions are just only in circumstances that do not actually occur. Confucians advocate, instead, a long-term strategy of ameliorating unjust circumstances by leveraging the credibility and influence that stems from consistently practicing genuinely benevolent governance. Passages that imply pacifistic readings of these texts are routinely dismissed by scholars as too naïve to be taken seriously. Hagen argues that the relatively pacifistic position implied by these passages is not in fact naïve, but is rather reasonable, and indeed should be supported, at least by contemporary Confucians.


“I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Moreover, I learned a great deal indeed from the reading. I have always enjoyed reading about Xunzi. I most highly recommend this excellent work.” — John Berthrong, Boston University

“Learning from early philosophers requires both getting the ancients right and applying their lessons astutely. In Lead Them with Virtue, Kurtis Hagen makes novel and powerful arguments on both counts. He shows that early Confucians were much less sanguine about ‘just war’ than has often been thought, and that we have much to learn from the ‘Confucian solution’ to peace and security. Over the long term, peace and prosperity come not from military strength but from benevolent governments held accountable by critical intellectuals.” — Stephen C. Angle, Wesleyan University

Lead Them with Virtue presents a Confucian perspective on topics including just war, dirty hands, the use of the military, humanitarian intervention, and global leadership. Hagen unifies these themes by placing strategic moral leadership at the center of a sustainable, long-term, Confucian vision.” — Karyn Lai, University of New South Wales

“Through a thorough investigation of the Confucian views on warfare and the world order, this book has provided an original analysis and insightful discussion of the Confucian approach to political conflicts and their solutions, and argued for this approach to be a plausible alternative to various war and world order theories popular in the West, past and present. Academic by nature, the book nevertheless may well serve as a kind of handbook not only useful to those political leaders who hold the power to wage a war but also beneficial for the general public who are particularly concerned with justifications, procedures, and consequences of engaging war in an increasingly globalized world.” — Xinzhong Yao, King’s College London

“In this provocative book, Kurtis Hagen challenges the dominant view among the students of Chinese philosophy that early Confucians such as Mencius and Xunzi supported humanitarian intervention. Highlighting the similarity between early Mohists and early Confucians regarding the use of violence, Hagen contends that it is a mistake to understand early Confucians as the advocates of humanitarian intervention who justified military intervention for good consequences because their central concern was with winning the whole world by noncoercive means, virtue in particular. Hagen’s book is one of the first attempts to systematically investigate the Confucian idea of just war and its core contention is worth serious attention and engagement.” — Sungmoon Kim, City University of Hong Kong

One reply

  1. A summary of the central theme of the book has been published in Philosophy Compass. It’s called: “Mencius and Xunzi on the Legitimate Use of Offensive Force: A Pacifistic Critique of Recent Just War Interpretations.”

    A 22-minute audio version of a modified portion of that article is available as a podcast, and on YouTube.

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