Cultures that Practiced It
The Chinese, specifically during the Qin Dynasty, are the most notable practitioners of Legalism.
Nuts and Bolts
Legalism developed at around the same time as Confucianism and Daoism. It maintained that peace and order were achievable only through a centralized, tightly governed state. Simply put, Legalists didn’t trust human nature and, therefore, advocated the need for tough laws. They believed that people would be made to obey through harsh punishment, strong central government, and unquestioned authority. They focused only on things that were practical or that sustained the society. Not surprisingly, then, Legalists believed that two of the most worthy professions were farming and the military.
By adopting Legalism, the Qin Dynasty was able to accomplish the unification of China swiftly, and the completion of massive projects like the building of the Great Wall. But because Legalism also caused widespread resentment among the common people, who suffered under it, Legalism inadvertently led to wider acceptance of Confucianism and Daoism.
Contrast Them: Legalism and Confucianism
Although both Legalism and Confucianism are social belief systems, not religions, and both are intended to lead to an orderly society, their approaches are directly opposed. Confucianism relies on the fundamental goodness of human beings, whereas Legalism presupposes that people are fundamentally evil. Therefore, Confucianism casts everything in terms of corresponding responsibilities, whereas Legalism casts everything in terms of strict laws and harsh punishment. The Han successfully blended the best of both philosophies to organize their dynasty.