Shen Dao`s Political Thought

Shen Dao’s Political Thought
Eirik Lang Harris
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Department of Public Policy
City University of Hong Kong
Although P. M. Thompson’s The Shen-tzu Fragments, is an excellent
reconstruction and authentication of the extant fragments of the text that bears
Shen Dao’s 慎到 name, there has been almost no work in any Western language that
takes advantage of these fragments to analyze Shen Dao’s philosophy. The views
attributed to him are usually centered around his concept of positional power (勢
), but in most instances this is done from the perspective of the Han Feizi, which
quotes Shen Dao’s discussion of positional power in Chapter 40.
While Shen Dao certainly did discuss positional power and Han Fei does
integrate this idea into his own political philosophy, we make a grave mistake if
we either believe that Shen Dao’s understanding of positional power is the same
as Han Fei’s or believe Shen Dao’s political system relied solely upon positional
power. Rather, we see within the fragments a unique message that advocates
systematic organizing society and government by allotments and divisions.
Furthermore, we see a great emphasis upon laws and methods in these
fragments, but one that is importantly different from Han Fei. Finally, Shen Dao
emphasizes the importance of the sage, attributing to him a position alongside of
heaven and earth. This sage has the same attribute of impartiality and lack of
concern for the human condition that is attributed to the natural world. He is, in a
very important sense, above the petty concerns of the people, and yet absolutely
essential to the flourishing of the state.
In this paper, I lay out these aspects of Shen Dao’s thought and provide
an analysis that makes coherent the fragments that we have. In doing so, I
demonstrate that Shen Dao had a sophisticated vision of political organization
which provides a unique contribution to Warring States political thought. Further,
I show how he provides interesting insights into ideas of meritocracy and
impartiality that are worth further examination by those interested in what
traditional Chinese philosophy can contribute to contemporary debates in political