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  • Lead Them with Virtue: A Confucian Alternative to War by Kurtis Hagen
  • Don J. Wyatt (bio)
Kurtis Hagen. Lead Them with Virtue: A Confucian Alternative to War. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. xiv, 166 pp. E-book $45.00, isbn 978-17936-39714. Hardback $95.00, isbn 978-1793639707.

Opining in the introduction of the now-classic edited volume Chinese Ways of Warfare, John King Fairbank (1907–1991) observes that a "disesteem of physical coercion was deeply embedded in the Confucian teaching" and that doing "the right thing in the right way and at the proper time not only maintained the web of civilized relationships; it also confirmed one's position within it."1 By "the right thing," in this instance, Fairbank here means to refer essentially to the basic Confucian predisposition of ordinarily abstaining from confrontational violence as much as possible and, to date, no secondary study as yet has pursued this premise more purposefully or exhaustively than Kurtis Hagen's Lead Them with Virtue: A Confucian Alternative to War. As Hagen himself asserts in his own introduction, "This book argues that Confucius's most influential early followers, Mencius and Xunzi, who spoke more directly about warfare than did Confucius, would support the strategy of leading with virtue as an alternative to military interventions" (p. x). Hagen's introduction also provides a summary of the structure of the book, revealing it to consist of eight chapters and a conclusion.

Immediately thereafter, via chapter 1 ("A Brief Overview of Confucianism"), Hagen mainly introduces us to the principal classical Confucian philosophers recognized as advocating the anti-violence stance, who happen to be none other than the most familiar successors to the tradition after its namesake, Mencius (ca. 372–ca. 289 B.C.E.) and Xunzi (ca. 325–ca. 235). Hagen also employs this chapter to explicate what prevailed as the "Confucianized" interpretations of seven key classical terms, with those being: junzi 君子 (exemplary persons); de 德 (influential virtue); ren 仁 (benevolence); li 禮 (ritual propriety); yi 義 (appropriateness); tian 天 ("Heaven"); and dao 道 (way). For the most part, interpreting these terms quite conventionally, Hagen regards the first five as more closely associated with "the idea of moral leadership" (p. 3) than the latter two, which he identifies with "a religious, or at least quasi-religious aspect" (p. 7) of Confucianism.

Chapter 2 ("Western and Chinese Attitudes Regarding Warfare") is of unquestionably high significance because it is herein that Hagen unveils his principal argument in the form of a purported "Confucian solution" that is expounded in the next four chapters in succession. However, any solution first necessitates a problem, which, in this case, Hagen discerns in what he regards as the two most prevalent and mutually discrete Western attitudes toward warfare, which is either to romanticize it or to moralize it. In Hagen's view, the [End Page 201] implications of either of these approaches to war are as misguided as they are deadly because it distorts the grim realities of contestation by combat. Relying chiefly on the representative examples of the first of these attitudes posed by Niccoló Machiavelli (1469–1527) and Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), Hagen posits that romanticization, on the one hand, basically conflates gallantry with virtue, thus encouraging, even more, an overindulgence in war. On the other hand, the moralization of war imposes unrealistic expectations for conflict, wherein rules of engagement, based on a logic that moral constraints must be maintained even during wartime, are presumed to apply in situations in which they are neither applicable nor enforceable. For Hagen, the solution to be found in the Chinese tradition, and articulated in a variety of classical texts, ranging from the ostensibly militarist Sunzi and Sun Bing to the Mozi to the Daoist Laozi (though much less so Zhuangzi) to the Confucian Mencius and Xunzi, is a stark and no-nonsense apperception of war that is unclouded by either romanticization or moralization. Once seen for what it really is, the truly virtuous will seek to avoid war at all costs and, accordingly, even wars with humanitarian rationales could be deemed to be unworthy of support.

Chapter 3 ("Anticipating Confucian Just War Theory") is an essential table-setting chapter for the next three...

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