Friday, July 10, 2020

The Word and the Sword

I found a single verse in Alma that comments upon an important debate and important ideas in philosophy. Alma 31:5-

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God.

The word having a more powerful effect on the mind than the sword comments on the debate between Legalists and Confucians in Chinese history. Legalists took one side of that debate as thinkers like Lord Shang and Han Feizi believed in the power of the state. Some of the basic concepts stated that the state should punish light crimes heavily and use a system of rewards and punishments to control the people, weaken the separatist tendencies of noble families, and harness the entire state for war. As part of that harnessing Legalists like Han Feizi thought religion and other items that could undermine the state were vermin.  

Lord Shang for example continually emphasized that the government should control the people and that a weak people will make the army doubly strong.[1] and “a fearful people, stimulated by penalties, will become brave, and a brave people, encouraged by rewards, will fight to the death.”[2]

Han Feizi rather stridently opposed calls for mercy, compassion, love and anything that might undermine the state’s ability to use the sword:

To reward those who cut off the heads of the enemy and yet to admire acts of mercy and compassion; to hand out titles and stipends to those who capture the enemy’s cities and yet to give ear to the doctrines of universal love [Mohism]; to strengthen one’s armor and sharpen one’s weapons in preparation for the time of trouble, and yet to praise the elegant attire of the civil gentry; to hope to enrich the nation through agriculture and ward off the enemy with trained soldiers, and yet to pay honor to men of literary accomplishment…to indulge in contradictory acts like these is to insure that the state will never be well ordered. The nation at peace may patronize Confucian scholars and cavaliers; but the nation in danger must call upon its frightening men.[3]

Religious writers, especially Confucians disagreed with this view. They argued a strong state might command men, but they are inherently fragile because they don’t win the love of and service of their people. The most widely cited belief comes from Mencius, a leading disciple of Confucius. He summarized the principle very well when he said that “when force is used to make men submit, they do not submit in their hearts…But when virtue is used to make men submit, they are happy in their hearts and sincerely submitted themselves.[4]

The Pheasant Cap Master, a Daoist text that looked towards a hopeful future, described a people that might obey threats of the sword, but secretly seethed at Legalist governments and waited for a chance to rebel. 

“Worthy men hide in a disordered generation. Above they have to follow the ruler, below, there is no straight speaking, When the ruler is arrogant in behavior, the people have many taboo words. So men distort their honest sincerity, capable knights disguise their true substance. Though their real mind is unhappy, they dare not but praise...they dare not but labor...they dare not but follow.[5] 

(Until they revolt. The Huainanzi attributed the swift and destined fall of the first Chinese dynasty to accumulated grievances.[6])

In a statement that seems somewhat simple Xunzi, a leading Confucian scholar specifically mentioned the tattoos and branding irons, (implements of punishments of Legalist states), as leading the people to view the opposing ruler as more like a father than their own:

If the [people in a Legalist army] favor the benevolent ruler [of the opposing state], look up to him as to a father or mother, and rejoice in him as in the fragrance of iris or orchid, and on the contrary regard their own superiors as so many wielders of branding irons and tattoo knives, as their foes and enemies, then human nature being what it is…how could they be willing to fight for the sake of men they hate and do harm to one they love?[7]

The first and last quote include details about the efficacy of soldiers forced into war by an authoritarian state compared to choosing to fight because their hearts are devoted to their leader. But the most important point of all the writings is that the state, or as Mormon wrote, the sword, can only change or compel men so much. The Confucian and Daoist writers argued very well that force fails to capture the hearts of the people and produces changes that are more superficial. The Book of Mormon includes an example of this. The people of Alma were subjugated by the Amulonites who then institutde the death penalty for those caught praying. But the power was temporary because “Alma and his people did not raise their voices to the Lord their God, but did pour out their hearts to him (Mosiah 24:12.)” Eventually God helped them escape and the Amulonite’s use of the sword proved ineffectual to the hearts of the people devoted to God.

What is interesting though is that the sword still has a prominent place in this part of the text. Alma’s mission to the Zoramites was designed to avoid their defection to the Lamanites and a war (Alma 31:4), yet it ended up happening (Alma 35:9-11). Even the converts among the Zoramites had to take up arms to defend the country (Alma 35:14). Even though the text says the word had more power than the sword, the word didn’t produce the change they wanted while the sword did protect the Lamanite and Zoramite converts.

The supremacy of the word over the sword might be a subtle critique against Moroni. His Title of Liberty included prophecy, but also men running with their armor (and presumably weapons) to hear and covenant with those words (Alma 46:21).  Moroni later received permission from the people and the government to suppress dissenters with the sword and force them to fight for the cause of liberty (Alma 51:15; 17-20). This was a time of great danger for the nation as they faced a significant invasion, but I always find it odd to make people fight for freedom. As Xunzi pointed out, the people should love the ruler and their nation so much that they “[buckle] on their armor and enthusiastically [attack the enemy] without waiting for any orders from their superiors.”[8] While Moroni’s free men enthusiastically flocked to his Moroni’s banner; applying the commentary of Chinese philosophers, we might conclude that the King Men submitted with their lips and supported the Nephite cause but they secretly seethed at the government, perhaps fueling the insurgency later in Helaman.

Clearly a nuanced look at the history of the text would suggest the Nephites may have relied on the sword too much, despite Mormon’s statement in Alma 31:5. The word was stronger as it penetrated the heart and made for more lasting change than those compelled by the power and swords of the state. Yet military action remained a tragic necessity as seen by the results of the Zoramite mission. Its possible that the Nephite’s compelled the bodies with the sword but didn’t win hearts like they should. This underscores how truly important it is to led the word lead people to do what was just. And it impresses me that the Book of Mormon can have such robust conversations with the ideas debated by impressive Chinese thinkers.   

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[1] The Book of Lord Shang, JJL Duyvendak trans., (Chicago University Press, 1928,) 198.
[2] The Book of Lord Shang, 201.
[3] Han Feizi, Basic Writings, Burton Watson trans., (Columbia University Press, 2003,) 108.
[4] As quoted in Rickett, Guanzi: Political, Economic and Philosophic Essays Vol I, Alan Rickett trans., (Princeton University Press, 1985,) 12.
[5] The Pheasant Cap Master, Marnix Wells trans., (Three Pines Press, 2013,) 195.
[6] Liu An’s Art of War: Huainanzi chapter 15, Anderew Seth Meyer trans., (Columbia University Press, 2012, )107-108. Chen Sheng, a conscript soldier, arose…He bared his right arm and raised it, proclaiming himself Great chuh, and the empire responded like an echo. At that time, he did not have strong armor or sharp weapons, powerful bows or hard spears. They cut date trees to make spears; they ground awls and chisels to make swords, they sharpened bamboo and shouldered hoes to meet keen halberds and strong crossbows, yet not city they attacked or land they invaded did not surrender to them. They roiled and shook, overran and rolled up an area of several thousand square li…Chen’s force and station were supremely lowly, and his weapons and equipment were of no advantage, yet one man sang out and the empire harmonized with him. This was because resentment had accumulated among the people.
[8] Wei Liaozi, in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, Ralph Sawyer trans., (Westview Press, 1993,) 260.

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