China's take on Plato and Aristotle

Holding up a mirror to the classical tradition

We tend to think of classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle as the ancestry of Western civilisation. But what happens when their ideas are exposed to a culture with a worldview very distinct from our own? Classicist Shadi Bartsch argues that contemporary Chinese takes on Western classical traditions can tell us as much about our own skewed views as they do about Chinese political culture.


Plato Goes to China is the product of an experiment: take the political and philosophical classics of Greek and Roman antiquity, and see how contemporary Chinese readers react to them. The value of this experiment lies precisely in the fact that tThese are not dead texts, even if they are by dead white men.; Plato, Aristotle, Vergil and others from the ancient world continue to engage withask questions that continue to speak to us in the west, even across time. Tand this is why the Chinese would like to understand them too.

We won’t necessarily approve of the answers they give – it’s that the questions that they raise make sense to us. Using them as a springboard we may ask, for example: are constraints on liberty necessary for the flourishing of the state? Should the moral convictions of one era be overturned by the moral convictions of the next? What can a small face-to-face democracy of men joined by age, status, and citizenship tell us about a scaled-up version marked by mass media and identity politics?

These long-gone worlds and cultures proved influential in the intellectual history of the west, love that fact or hate it as we will. They are one marker in our cultural DNA. Although relatively few people actually sit around delving into Socratic dialogues, you would be surprised at how much of Western culture has been shaped by the assumptions of its philosophical traditions: for example, the assumption that rationality is the highest human achievement; that citizenship is an unmitigated good; that democracy is better than monarchy; that art and music are less real in some sense than mathematics and science; and so on. Do you think logic can be thwarted by emotion? Guess what, you’re quoting a central tenet of much ancient philosophy.


There have been new and striking reactions to these “classics,” often as a way to hoist the West on its own petard.


All of this was driven home to me when I started to research reactions to the western classics in modern China – especially reactions in government-sanctioned statements by pro-CCP intellectuals. As much as these texts formed the intellectual context for our thinking about the world, they have been unfamiliar to readers and cultures elsewhere in the world for many centuries.

When we watch others reading them, we can see both our own assumptions – which we might otherwise not notice or reflect on – and the assumptions of the new readers. Such texts illuminate the fundamental differences with which we all approach the world, even those of us most intimately linked, but especially those of us who do not share cultures, ethnicities, and epochs.   

Since the events of June 4th 1989 and the Chinese cultural turn away from western ideals, there have been new and striking reactions to these “classics,” often as a way to hoist the West on its own petard. For example, Aristotle, father of the idea that man attains his greatest potential in service to the polis, the city-state, is often now excoriated in China on the following grounds:

  • Aristotle is enforcing a kind of slavery in allowing no citizen freedom from political involvement. Here the idea that civic participation is an inherent part of a fully formed (male) human is flipped on its head: if one doesn’t serve the polis, one is judged as imperfect and lacking. The weight of this judgment creates pressure to participate in political activity even if one has no wish to. Ironically, the Chinese reformer Liang Qichao took Aristotle’s line over a century ago when he castigated Chinese men as slaves for not caring about active citizenship.
  • Aristotle is engaging in cultural hegemony by thinking of non-Greeks as barbarians. Here all Greeks are implicated, because they were convinced of the superiority of their own culture. (Irony strikes again here: for hundreds of years, the Chinese held this vision of themselves).
  • Aristotle is blind to the way in which his emphasis on persuasive political speech opens a path to political self-interest and demagoguery. Classical Athens was an arena in which powerful rhetoricians shaped foreign and civil policy by speaking to their peers in the assembly. Inevitably (as Thucydides demonstrates in his Peloponnesian War) influence and self-interest aligned, leading to demagoguery rather than leadership.

The Chinese reaction to Plato is even more interesting. His Republic has been one of the most studied texts in China in recent decades. But precisely in those sections of the text where more recent Western scholarship has been dismayed to find Plato deeply elitist, pro-hierarchy, and possibly even eugenicist, many Chinese scholars have claimed he merely restates obvious truths.

The most stable society is one in which the people believe the salutary lies of the rulers? Yes. Humans form hierarchies by nature, as different people have abilities that are differently useful to the flourishing of the whole? Check. The “best” people should only marry those of similar ability, while the lowest castes – for such they are in his imaginary city-state, Kallipolis – should likewise stick to their own? Well, of course.

On the other hand, we may also read that Plato is bad in that he enabled an over-rationalized and heartless technocracy to hold sway in the US and Europe – an idea that originally emanated from Western philosophers like Max Theodor Adorno. So did the notion some Chinese have repeated that the place of Plato in our intellectual tradition contributed to the Holocaust, an idea that is best known from the work of Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish-born philosopher and sociologist who died recently in 2017. Bauman argued in Modernity and the Holocaust that the Holocaust was caused by modernity's obsession with order and rationality, meaning narrowly defined jobs, attention to taxonomies, technology, and procedural rationality, and the belief that obedience to rules is a moral good.


While it is true that these broad cultural characteristics are becoming less pronounced with the steady march of globalization, it’s amazing how clearly they emerge in watching a different culture engage with a set of texts long familiar to us.


This is not how we teach Plato in Western universities, as far as I know. Instead, we focus on his contribution to rational thought, the idea that concepts are truer than their physical manifestations, the notion that art is a distorted reflection of reality (and yet all of these are perfectly compatible with the views that Bauman expressed). We might introduce the idea of Socratic dialectic—a form of aggressive questioning that seeks to get at the truth by employing, inter alia, the idea of non-contradiction. Chinese culture is not a big fan of aggressive questioning or the quest for an elusive truth; instead, mutual respect and the establishment of a trusted relationship should take precedence. While it is true that these broad cultural characteristics are becoming less pronounced with the steady march of globalization, it’s amazing how clearly they emerge in watching a different culture engage with a set of texts long familiar to us.

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So, Plato goes to China; and in the process, we learn a lot about ourselves, such as our axiomatic assumptions about the value of rationality or our peculiarly Eurocentric emphasis on the benefits of logic. What would western culture look like if, with Confucius, we emphasized humaneness (ren) rather than deduction (the tool of most of our philosophers)? What if we believed, with Plato and Chinese readers of Plato, that it is good and necessary for government to lie to the people? What if our national mantra was “harmony”? And this kind of self-knowledge is crucial if we are to move forward in the world: the way we are, upon reflection, could be imposing limitations on our worldview. Instead of thinking about how to prove that Western culture is morally superior to all others, we could draw on the critiques from Chinese thinkers to open our minds to a broader art of understanding. That is, after all, the one prerequisite to meaningful dialogue.

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