Perkins Reviews Harris, The Shenzi Fragments

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2017.03.05 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

Eirik Lang Harris, The Shenzi Fragments: A Philosophical Analysis and Translation, Columbia University Press, 2016, 173pp., $55.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780231177665.

Reviewed by Franklin Perkins, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

The two main extant lists of philosophers from the late Warring States Period — one in the Xunzi and one in the Zhuangzi — both mention a thinker named Shen Dao 慎到 or Shenzi 慎子 (Master Shen), suggesting he was among the most prominent philosophers of that time. Shenzi is thought to have lived from approximately 360-285 BCE and to have been part of the famed Jixia Academy, a group of scholars and advisors supported by the state of Qi. There are records of a book bearing his name in existence through the Tang dynasty, but then it disappeared. All we have now are fragments attributed to Shenzi that were passed down in other texts, similar to what we have in Europe from the philosophies of pre-Socratic thinkers like Heraclitus. Eirik Lang Harris provides a translation of those fragments that are most likely to have been copied from the now lost Shenzi, relying on P. M. Thompson’s judgment of their authenticity in The “Shen Tzu” Fragments (Oxford, 1979). The translation is accompanied by the original Chinese text, based on that edited and published by Xu Fuhong 許富宏 (Shenzi jijiao jizhu 慎子集校集注 [Zhonghua shuju, 2013]). Harris also provides an introduction, an extensive explanatory essay, and notes.

Taken together, these materials provide all one needs to access the thought of Shenzi. The translation is accurate, clear, and highly readable. The inclusion of the Chinese allows easy access to the original text as well. A brief introduction explaining the nature and history of the fragments is followed by an explanatory essay that occupies more than half of the book. The essay is divided into two parts. The first (“Shen Dao’s Political Philosophy”) consists of a summary of the ideas found in the Shenzi fragments. The essay is particularly helpful in shaping the fragments into a coherent philosophical system. The second half of the essay (“Shen Dao in the Early Chinese Intellectual Milieu”) situates the thought of Shen Dao in relation to other thinkers of the Warring States period and early Han dynasty. This includes a discussion of Shenzi in relation to what we might call the rise of Chinese naturalism, but the focus is on the significance of Shenzi in relation to the development of Chinese political philosophy, focusing on connections to the Xunzi, Hanfeizi, Lüshi chunqiu, and Huainanzi. The translation itself includes general explanatory comments following some of the fragments, as well as footnotes that address more technical issues of translation or sources.

The greatest value of the book is in presenting the thought of Shenzi in a way that makes it accessible to a general audience. It could be used easily by students or by those unfamiliar with Chinese philosophy but wishing to gain a greater understanding of classical Chinese political thought. As Harris shows, the thought of Shenzi is interesting in its own right, appearing remarkably modern and relevant. Shenzi takes a naturalistic view of the world, stripped of anthropocentrism or anthropomorphism. The natural world has no particular care for human affairs, but it has consistent patterns than can be learned and used. As fragments 1-4 say:

While heaven is bright, it does not worry that the people are in the dark. While the earth is bountiful, it does not worry that there is insufficiency among the people. While the sage is potent, he does not worry that the people are endangered. Even though heaven does not worry that the people are in the dark, those who open up doors and windows certainly can take from [heaven] in order to obtain their own illumination, though heaven does nothing. Even though the earth does not worry that there is insufficiency among the people, those who chop down trees and cut grasses can certainly draw from [the earth] in order to obtain their own bounty, though the earth does nothing. Even though the sage does not worry that people are endangered, those of the hundred surnames who take the sage as their standard from above and harmonize with those below can certainly draw from [the sage] to attain their own security, though the sage does nothing. (106)

This account of the natural world leads in two directions. On the one hand, the sage institutes laws that are modeled on the regularity and impartiality of nature. Harris argues that these laws are human inventions rather than elements of nature itself, but they should function like natural laws (48-50). When that is done, the ruler can do nothing (wushi 無事) in the same way as heaven and earth. On the other hand, human beings must create laws and institutions that fit into the concrete patterns of nature. Most of all, they must address the natural feelings or dispositions (qing 情) of human beings. According to Shenzi, human beings primarily act for their own sake (ziwei 自為), so a system of laws must be designed such that individuals are best able to serve their own interests by doing what ultimately helps the state. That is, law must serve to align the interests of individuals with the interest of the state. In such a system, order will emerge naturally, without any need for the concern or action of the ruler and without any requirement for morality or self-sacrifice. Harris points out and briefly discusses the similarities between this view and theorists of the modern state in Europe such as Adam Smith (27).

There are many further details of great interest in Shenzi’s account. For example, there is his emphasis on diversity, both the diversity of particular talents people have and the diversity of skills required to run a large state. Thus the political system must be able to match the varied talents of individuals with the appropriate task (29-30). One of the most interesting points is how, if people come to view the laws of the state as they view the laws nature, then they will acquiesce without contention or resentment. Fragment 61-65 uses the analogy of flipping a coin: “Thus, those who apportion horses draw lots, while those who apportion fields cast coins. It is not because coins or lots are wiser than men, but rather they are the means by which to get rid of private interests [si 私] and block resentment” (120). Another passage, which also appears in the Lüshi chunqiu, makes a related point in regard to rules of property:

If a rabbit runs through the streets, a hundred people will pursue it. This is not because a single rabbit is sufficient to be divided among a hundred people but rather because its allotment [fen 分] has not yet been determined. . . . If piles of rabbits fill the market, and people pass by without turning their heads, it is not because they do not desire rabbits [but rather because] the allotment has already been decided. When allotment has already been decided, then people, even if they are base, will not contend with each other. (125)

When order is clear and stable, even bad people will conform to it, just as they resign themselves to the patterns of nature without resistance or excuses.

Aside from introducing the views of Shenzi, the other main value of Harris’ book is in shedding light on the development of Warring States philosophy. That is most obvious in the development of political thought. Harris’ discussions of the relationship among Shenzi and the Hanfeizi and Xunzi is particularly subtle and complex. Harris shows not just the continuities between Shenzi and the Hanfeizi but also the ways in which the latter seems to address potential weaknesses of Shenzi, particularly in developing the notion of positional power (shi 勢). In relation to the Xunzi, Harris points out the deep similarities with Shenzi, most obviously in Xunzi’s view of heaven as consistent but indifferent to human concerns, and Xunzi’s analysis of natural human dispositions in terms of the pursuit of individual desires. What is most interesting is how these similar assumptions lead to opposed political systems. Harris focuses on the few claims in the Xunzi that at the highest levels of development, human nature can be changed, thus taking the contrast with Shenzi as one between reforming human nature and controlling it through law (82-83). In fact, more passages in the Xunzi claim that all people have the same desires and all pursue sensory pleasure. A more interesting contrast, then, may be in Xunzi’s portrayal of ritual as the best means to satisfy those desires, rather than Shenzi’s more simple focus on punishment and reward.

Given the length of Harris’ explanatory essay (which is significantly longer than the fragments themselves), it cannot be faulted for what it leaves out. Nonetheless, two particularly interesting questions remain. One is how Shenzi might relate to the Mohists. Harris hardly mentions them, but they are the first philosophers we know of to explicitly advocate the use of unbiased standards (often using the term fa 法, which is also used for law) to advocate a thorough system of control based on rewards and punishments, and to warn against allowing familial biases in government. All three ideas appear in the Shenzi fragments, making one wonder if there is some line of influence. The other question is the link between the thought of Shenzi and the Laozi. That linkage became a dominant line of thought in early China, known as Huang-Lao 黃老, but its origins remain obscure. What is striking in the fragments is how close they are to views also appearing in the Laozi. Harris mentions these similarities but does not discuss what they might mean. Should we see the Shenzi fragments and the Laozi as two parallel positions emerging from a broadly shared worldview? Should we see one line of thought as influencing the other?

In this context, one point of caution should be noted. There are many elements of uncertainty in attributing these fragments to Shenzi or in dating them in relation to the development of Warring States thought. First, we have no way of knowing the relationship between Shenzi the person and the book known by that name. Harris largely ignores this problem, mentioning only in a footnote that Thompson claims only that the fragments came from the Shenzi, not that they have any link to Shenzi the person (141 n. 14). Since the Shenzi appeared only later in the Han dynasty, we have almost no way to date the fragments themselves. Second, even if there was a strong link between Shenzi and the Shenzi, we have no way to know how much the various fragments were modified. Thompson’s book was published in 1979, and much in the field of sinology has changed in the intervening thirty-eight years, in particular through the discovery of an unprecedented number of excavated texts. These have drawn our attention to the ways that works were modified and changed over time, problematizing a simple division between passages that are forgeries and those that are authentic. Moreover, six fragments attributed to Shenzi appear in bamboo texts purchased by the Shanghai Museum and thought to date from 300 BCE. Harris mentions these in a footnote but does not quote or discuss them (141 n. 15), in spite of the fact that they were likely written down during Shenzi’s lifetime and thus would be the most reliable indication of his thought.

While these uncertainties complicate attempts to trace the lines of influence around the fragments, Harris seems basically right in saying that the fragments contain a consistent and coherent political philosophy. A more nuanced account of their status would help specialists but would likely also undermine the main strength of the book, which is in providing a clear and accessible edition of the Shenzi fragments readable by a wide audience. It is to be hoped that this availability will spur further research on the history of the fragments and the role of their ideas in the development of classical Chinese thought.

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