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Can the Center Hold? Musings on Graeco-Roman and Chinese Civilization
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-12-14 07:29:09
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In 2007 a book appeared which confronted the legacy of Western civilization to that of Chinese civilization. It raised much controversy in both societies. The author of that book is Will Hutton and its title is The Writing on the Wall: China and the West. I’d like to ponder the thesis of the book and then ask some pertinent questions and make some concluding personal remarks.

Hutton asks the same question (originally Yeates’) I have been applying to the present EU crisis: can the center hold? But he does not apply it to the West only but to China. He sees the one-party Communistic authoritarian state as eventually doomed by its own explosive economic reforms.  He writes that “For more than 2,000 years, China's conceit was that it was the celestial kingdom, the country whose standing was endowed by heaven itself and whose emperors tried to reproduce heavenly harmony on Earth. All China basked in the reflected glow; foreigners were barbarians beyond the gilded pale who should not be allowed even to learn the art of speaking and writing Chinese.” And then he adds ominously this intriguing comment: “When I first visited China in the autumn of 2003, such articles of Confucian faith seemed very far away, submerged by the lost wars and the 26 humiliating treaties of the 19th century, subsequent communist revolution and now the economic growth to which Beijing's motorway rings and Shanghai's skyline are tribute. This was a new China that had plainly left behind obeisance to the canons of Confucianism and the later cruelties of Mao. More than three years and a book later, I am less convinced.”

Why has he changed his mind now? He spells out the reason thus: “China has poor foundations on which to build the subtle network of institutions of accountability necessary to manage the complexities of a modern economy and society. Sooner or later, it is a failing that will have to be addressed.” Neither in Confucianism, not in the present Communistic system Hutton is able to discover a system that respects human right, constitutional checks and balances or any form of genuine democracy. China may be now the second largest economy in the world but this head spinning achievement has bred much shallow arrogance coupled with the pursuit of self-interest while the amorality of power has been taken to a new level. Western values, institutions and attitudes are revealed, according to the power elites in China, for the straw men that they are.

Hutton goes on: “Yet Western values and institutions are not being blown away. The country has made progress to the extent that communism has given up ground and moved towards Western practices, but there are limits to how far the reformers can go without giving up the basis for the party's political control. The tension between reform and conservatism is all around.” Equally amazing, China's communists have declared that the class war is over and party representatives say that the country is no longer pledged to fight capitalism to the death internationally, but, instead, wants to rise peacefully. China has joined the World Trade Organisation and is a judicious member of the United Nations Security Council, using its veto largely in matters that immediately concern it, such as Taiwan. But for all that, it remains communist. The maxims of Marxist-Leninst-Maoist thought have to stand, however much the party tries to stretch the boundaries, because they are the basis for one-party rule.”

A list of ills follows: “energy is wasted on an epic scale. But the worst problem is water. One-fifth of China's 660 cities face extreme water shortages and as many as 90 per cent have problems of water pollution; 500 million rural Chinese still do not have access to safe drinking water. Illegal and rampant polluting, a severe shortage of sewage treatment facilities, and chemical pollutants together continue to degrade China's waterways. In autumn 2005, two major cities - Harbin and Guangzhou - had their water supplies cut off for days because their river sources had suffered acute chemical spills from state-owned factories. Enterprises are accountable to no one but the Communist party for their actions; there is no network of civil society, plural public institutions and independent media to create pressure for enterprises to become more environmentally efficient. Watchdogs, whistleblowers, independent judges and accountable government are not just good in themselves as custodians of justice; they also keep capitalism honest and efficient and would curb environmental costs that reach an amazing 12 per cent of GDP. As importantly, they are part of the institutional network that constitutes an independent public realm that includes free intellectual inquiry, free trade unions and independent audit. It is this 'enlightenment infrastructure' that I regard in both the West and East as the essential underpinning of a healthy society. The individual detained for years without a fair trial is part of the same malign system that prevents a company from expecting to be able to correct a commercial wrong in a court, or have a judgment in its favour implemented, if it were against the party interest. ...The state still owns the lion's share of China's business and what it does not own, it reserves the right to direct politically.”

Hutton then predicts that the growing Chinese middle class will want to hold Chinese officials and politicians to account for how they spend their taxes and for their political choices. What nobody can predict is whether that will produce another Tiananmen, repression and maybe war if China's communists pick a fight to sustain legitimacy at home or an Eastern European velvet revolution and political freedoms.

I leave to the readers to pick up this fascinating book, but this single passage of the abstract of the book was particularly striking to me: “The West takes our enlightenment inheritance too easily for granted, and do not see how central it is to everything we are, whether technological advance, trust or well-being. We neither cherish it sufficiently nor live by its exacting standards. We share too quickly the criticism of non-Western societies that we are hypocrites. What China has taught me, paradoxically, is the value of the West, and how crucial it is that we practice what we preach. If we don't, the writing is on the wall - for us and China.”

So, lest we get too complacent and rest on our laurels, the writing on the wall is not only for China but for the West too. How does Hutton explain this double warning? In another article he wrote for The Observer he laments the loss of the very memory of Graeco-Roman civilization which is the very foundation of the West. We consider Greek and Roman civilization as dead cultures represented by dead languages. There is currently a raging debate in academia as to whether or not ancient Greek and Latin grammars are indispensable for a proper and crucial grasping of the classical world and how it still informs our own Western world.  I for one am no longer sure. I still remember at the University of Puerto Rico some forty years ago a debate raised by the mere contemplation of the elimination of ancient Greek and Latin from its curriculum. Today, the debate would not even be conceivable since most institutions of higher learning have already eliminated those classical subjects from their curriculum.

Till fifty or so years ago students in Europe and the US could still envision how the values of Greece and Rome came through the Renaissance and Enlightenment into the Western experience and legacy. Sad to say, such is no longer the case. Yet, Hutton reminds us that the history of ancient Greece and the establishment of republican Rome in 509BC, its rise to dominate most of Europe, Asia Minor and the near Middle East, its transmutation into an imperial system in 27BC, its collapse in the West in 476AD and in the East, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is at the very core of the story of the West. The Chinese rightly boast about the antecedents of their civilization, going back to 1030 BC. Europeans and Americans have just as much to boast about but they don’t because they are abysmally ignorant of their own legacy which is now considered a mere heritage to be placed in boring museums and history books.

On a more personal note, whenever I take students to the Roman forum, I never tire to remind them that the reason for 588 Rome's phenomenal rise and greatness is that it was a vibrant republican democracy; that was just as important as its military prowess; I tell them to let their imagination soar and as they stand in Rome’s ruins pretend to be listening to a speech by a Roman senator or tribune looking for their votes and to be conscious of the fact that this was going on at a time when the rest of the world's political organization was based on primitive, authoritarian, divinely ordained monarchs like China's. I then take them to the second Rome, the Vatican which is also a universal experience and flourished in the Renaissance. Finally I take them to the third nationalistic Rome that of Mussolini and Berlusconi, the least desirable of the three Romes as the Prince of Salina comments upon in Di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo.

There are many explanations for ancient Rome's subsequent decline and fall but Arnold Toynbee’s seems the most persuasive to me. It was not the Barbarians’s invasion, nor the advent of Christianity which brought down Rome, nor the mixing of blood,  but the transmutation of Rome from republic to empire which progressively undermined the civic dynamism and commitment to liberty, the political and social progress that had made Rome great. Republican Rome could eventually beat a threatening power such as Carthage; late imperial Rome lacked that kind of energy. I remind them that the Greek and Romans’ philosophical debates about the best form of political organization for the polis, about ethics and morality, about love and human relationships made us what we are as Westerners. Our very cultural identity has its roots there. Even Christianity, just as important to understand what makes the West tick, was a later synthesis. Without democratic Athens and republican Rome, there would have been no Magna Carta, no tradition of civil scrutiny of government, no Shakespeare, no Christianity and its unique ideals of “inalienable rights”, no liberalism and no republicanism.

Hutton argues, and persuasively so, that China's weakness is that it has too fragile traditions on which to build the institutions of accountability and scrutiny necessary for successful capitalism. The West has it, but it does not seem to know it, and that may be a greater weakness. To be sick is one thing, to be sick and not to know it, is fatal. In 1950 that was fully understood by the visionary founding fathers of the EU (as well as the visionary founding fathers of the US) who had a solid formation in classical studies. It was also understood by our intellectuals and educators. Today we are placing our hope in technocrats who can do math and balance bank books and put a broken humpty dumpty back together again.  I suggest that the West will resolve its present crisis only when it understands it again by envisioning a new renaissance of Greek and Roman civilization which in turn leads to a new imaginative social paradigm. History will render the final verdict.

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Marco Andreacchio2011-12-14 16:41:34
Painstaking investigations have convinced me that Old China's tradition of jurisprudence was as solid as it gets. It was torn asunder by the modern revolution exported by Western merchants with subversive guns, opium, and "Enlightenment" rhetoric.

The West had the advantage of being the original seat of the revolution.

Republican Rome was, of course, ruled by a patriciate (aristocracy) tied to monarchic authority. Among the aristocrats, two counselors would be selected as representatives, under the guiding light of oracles and gods. On the other hand, the old monarchic inheritance had been a lie sustained by an aristocracy competing for authority with the plebes. The boundary between the Monarchy and the Republic is at the very least blurred, since the shift from one regime to another entailed increased exposure of the aristocracy to plebeian sight. But as the monarchic aura under which the aristocracy had hidden for centuries fades, the plebs revolt against the aristocracy, leading to the rise of a new absolute monarchic mask--the emperor, who unifies all rights under himself. We are thus entitled to ask to what extent, if any, Rome's Republic differed *in substance* from the Monarchy. In both cases, key ingredient to political organization was the jurisprudential/"poetic" art by which aristocrats would retrace facts to laws that were visible to all in the divine-like persona of the monarch. Not without reason then did the interpreter of classical antiquity, Giambattista Vico, argue that and how in the order of things the first form of government is that of Aristocratic Republics (see e.g. paragraphs 1 and 2 of Bk. V: "Of the Recourse..." in SCIENZA NUOVA 1730/1744).

In ancient China, the situation was altogether comparable. Records of appeals to critical, public choice of authorities, abound. Nor should the title of "Son of Heaven" distract us from the fact that the Monarch was the *poetic face* chosen by the aristocracy to represent the country as a whole. The *facticity* of Monarchy stood side by side with a meritocracy that in its *essence* was open to all. It is *this* essence that philosophers such as Confucius and Mozi would point to by way of highlighting a humanly unbridgeable hiatus between otherwise necessarily related conventional rewards and natural merits.

Worthy of note is also the fact that in China's "medieval" Empire, general governmental *examinations* served as formal basis for a meritocracy that *in principle* was open to all citizens (even the plebs). But no illusion was shared in the possibility of establishing a polity in which merit and reward coincided without remainder, or in which justice was reduced to law.

Emanuel Paparella2011-12-14 17:18:50
To respond to the a distorted presentation of Vico as some kind of Platonist unconcerned with history as such, and given that I happen to have written a Ph.D. dissertation and a book on Vico at Yale University, let me present a more accurate picture of Vico's position vis a vis history as the vast majority of Vico scholars interpret it:

In the first place it should be noted that Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, neglected history altogether -- compared to science and mathematics, history was a poor thing in Descartes. Vico, however, thought differently. The historian could achieve a more profound knowledge than the natural philosopher. Nature was not made by man -- it was external to man, outside him. In the case of history, by contrast, the world to be studied and comprehended is the human world -- the result of human will, success and failure, loves and hates. In considering the course of human history, Vico was ahead of his time.

One of Vico's most crucial insights -- insights that appear full blown in the work of Hegel and Marx -- lay in his claim that the various aspects of a society's life at any given stage of its history form a coherent pattern and are intrinsically connected with one another. With a specific art form or religion go a certain type of political or economic organization, a certain set of laws, a collection of manners, styles of thought and so on. He incorporated all of this in his cyclical theory of historical development. This is the ricorsi for which Vico is most remembered.

Human societies pass through successive stages of birth, growth, development, decay and death. First there is the purely bestial condition, from which emerges what Vico called, "the age of the gods." Here the basic social unit is the patriarchal family. In the age of the gods, man's brutal or bestial instincts are curbed by their fear of supernatural powers. This, of course, signifies a mythopoeic world view -- myth-making -- as well as the beginning of religion.
The next stage is marked by the "age of heroes." This stage appears as a consequence of alliances formed between the fathers of families to meet the challenges from both within and outside the family. Oligarchies are established through these alliances and society is divided between patrician rulers and plebeian slaves. Laws are necessarily cruel and unjust and the poetry of the age is marked by ferocious and predatory ideals of behavior. This stage is followed by the "age of men," which is engendered not by reverence for human reason and natural law but by class conflict. The plebeians demand and gradually achieve equal rights and a legal system that respects its interests. However, the weakness of traditional ties and the questioning of accepted customs and values that result from the establishment of free democratic republics leads inevitably to corruption and dissolution. The end of the cycle comes either through conquest from without or through inner disintegration or both. This is followed by a reversion to barbarism and the cycle is then repeated.

An example of these three cycles in Vico is drawn from Rome and its history. The mythical Romulus is seen as a symbolic expression of the period when rebellions within the family against the fathers produces a feudal society. Sharp divisions are established by law between patricians and plebeians. This was followed by the Struggle of the Orders (490-300 B.C.) in which the plebeians gained crucial rights such as the Law of the Twelve Tables, the election of Tribunes and inter-marriage. In other words, CIVIL SOVEREIGNTY IS FORMED WITHIN A REPUBLIC. Yet the possibility of acquiring personal wealth and power which the Republic opened up, led to discontent and unrest among the people. Under the Caesars of the late Republic and throughout the history of the Empire, combined with the forces of individualism, the Empire collapsed. Such are the cycles of history in Vico, all governed by "Providence."

Roman Stranger2011-12-15 04:01:32
Mr. Paparella, you are inventing fables alien to Vico's own works. But already the slanderous and haughty rhetoric forestalls any possibility of a discussion.

Emanuel Paparella2011-12-15 07:47:25
Slanderous to whom? Marco Andreacchio or the Roman Stranger? There seems to be a sort of strange schizophrenia at work here: Marco Andreacchio presents himself as the sage on stage, the self-declared expert who after "painstaking investigations" and the sheer weight of his authority can put down with a few unsupported generalizations Will Hutton's thesis on China and the West, a thesis written after several trips to China and three long years of writing his (Hutton's) book; the Roman Stranger, on the other hand seems to be a convenient mask for exercising intellectual bullying via intimidation of one's interlocutor with egregious freely dispensed ad hominem charges of "slander and haughty rhetoric." Bizarre indeed.

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