The Charisma of No-Charisma

For the philosopher Han Fei, the ultimate form of charisma was to have no charisma at all

Will Buckingham
7 min readFeb 26, 2022

Have you ever had a boss who is so unreadable, so difficult to gauge, so seemingly characterless, that they were almost scary? If so, perhaps your boss had been taking their cues from the Chinese philosopher Han Fei (韓非) (281–233 BCE). Because for Han Fei, the ideal kind of charisma is the charisma of having no charisma. And this is a particularly terrifing kind of charisma…

Philosophy in times of strife

Han Fei was born a member of the royal household in the small state of Han. What we know about Han Fei comes from the unreliable Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian. The stories may not be entirely trustworthy, but we do know that the context of Han Fei’s life was one of the political strife that marked the centuries known in China as the Warring States period (dating from 476 to 221 BCE).

Han Fei studied with the Confucian philosopher Xunzi, who argued that human nature was crooked and in need of correction. There was ample evidence for this view in the brutal political context of Han Fei’s day. But Han Fei’s thinking departed from that of his teacher. Where Xunzi emphasised the role of ritual in correcting our wayward natures, for Han Fei, the main instrument of correction was law: the apportioning of punishments and rewards.

Like many philosophers of his day, Han Fei aspired to become a political advisor. But he was hampered by one problem: according to Sima Qian, Han Fei had a stutter. This was a serious impediment in the courts of his day. For political advisors, glibness and fluency were a means to getting noticed. And it was all too easy to dismiss Han Fei’s thinking on account of his difficulty in speaking.

But if Han Fei’s stutter hampered his ability to persuade the ruler of Han of the coherence of his ideas, it also gave fuel to his writing: when he could not gain the ear of the ruler of Han, he decided to write his ideas down.

The philosopher and the poison

Han Fei’s writings did not take hold in his home state. But over in neighbouring Qin, the ruler, King Zheng (later to become Qin Shihuang…

Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham