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Socrates and Xi Jinping Go Into a Bar
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Socrates and Xi Jinping Go Into a Bar

A review of ‘Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism.’

American efforts to understand Chinese-American relations do not generally turn to classical Chinese philosophers like Confucius or Mencius for inspiration. Readers of Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, or even The Dispatch will find little to suggest that 21st-century military or ideological competition cannot be understood without engaging ancient Eastern philosophy. (Or, for that matter, ancient Western philosophy.) I would not therefore have expected that Chinese discourse on such matters would frequently invoke classical Western thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. According to Shadi Bartsch, however, I would have been mistaken.

Bartsch is a classicist at the University of Chicago and recently produced a well-received translation of Vergil’s Aeneid. Her newest book, Plato Goes to China, is based on 30 years of effort learning Mandarin and immersing herself in the debates of Chinese public intellectuals. In it, Bartsch explores the uses (and sometimes abuses) of classical Western philosophy—in particular Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle—in contemporary Chinese discourse. She is interested less in the academic field of classics as it is institutionalized in Chinese universities than in the broader world of public debate: blogs, journals, speeches, opinion journalism. Her examination shows not only that the Greek classics are alive and well in the Chinese public square—more so, perhaps, than in the American?—but also that they are increasingly interpreted in ways that support the current Chinese regime.

Although most of the book focuses on the past 30 years, following the Tiananmen Square protests and their suppression, Bartsch begins with a look back at three earlier moments that together highlight what is distinctive about the current Chinese use of Greek philosophy. She considers the Jesuit missions of the 17th century under Matteo Ricci, the period leading to the May 4 Movement of 1919, and the late 20th-century liberalization under Deng Xiaoping prior to Tiananmen Square. The first of these indicates the creative uses to which Westerners have put classical thought for the purposes of cross-cultural engagement and persuasion; the second and third reveal how Chinese thinkers have turned to the Greeks for inspiration at moments when their own society appeared backwards, inferior, and in need of reform.

Following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, however, intellectuals have become cautious about criticizing the regime in the name of Western ideals. Instead, writes Bartsch, “intellectuals still invoke classical western texts but read them in ways that run counter to the reformist ideas of the May 4th Movement and the 1980s.” Thucydides, for example, becomes a warning to the United States. His criticisms of Athenian democracy during the Peloponnesian War reveal democracy’s susceptibility to demagoguery and imperial overreach, which lead ultimately to disaster. Similarly, Plato’s Noble Lie proves a remarkably malleable instrument for criticizing the West. In the Republic Socrates argues that the ideal state, in order to maintain social order and hierarchy, would need to tell its citizens a “lie”: that they have all been born of the earth and are thus literally one big happy family, but that as a result of their subterranean gestation, their souls are interwoven with different metals (gold, silver, bronze, iron) that determine their class and role in society. For some Chinese critics, this myth suggests the hypocrisy of American government: capitalist oligarchy veils itself behind the lie of democratic equality. For others, it becomes a justification of the hierarchy within Chinese society and thus a defense of party rule and differential privilege.

Subsequent chapters focus on critiques of Western rationality, the influence of Leo Strauss, and renewed appeals to Confucius in the service of nationalism. Many Chinese intellectuals, Bartsch argues, criticize Western “rationality,” understood in Weberian terms as instrumental or utilitarian, and contrast it unfavorably with a Chinese focus on compassion or the heart, embodied in a traditional norm such as ren—difficult to translate, but something like “humaneness” or “benevolence.” Kant looms large in this soulless Western world of cold, calculating reason, but lurking behind him are Plato and Aristotle, who (it is claimed) wrongly celebrated reason at the expense of other values. China can appeal to its own, equally if not more impressive, classical past in the person of Confucius. Some writers emphasize the similarities between Socrates and Confucius, others the differences. But in either case, whether Socrates proves inferior or merely superfluous, there is no need to appeal outside the Chinese tradition for guidance.

Particularly fascinating is Bartsch’s description of the surprising influence of Leo Strauss on a number of Chinese thinkers. Ever since the Iraq War, when they were claimed to be driving a hawkish U.S. foreign policy, Straussians have frequently come in for criticism in the United States. Rarely has an academic political philosopher been accused of such extensive and baleful influence on American policy. (Implausibly, I should add. In reality, much of the popular discussion of Straussian influence has been uninformed and oversimplified.) In China, on the other hand, Strauss has apparently enjoyed a renaissance. His chief appeal seems to lie in his willingness to criticize aspects of Western modernity, a perspective “seen by his Chinese readers, rightly or wrongly, as enabling both a condemnation of liberal democracy and an upholding of the value of Chinese nationalism.” At the same time, Strauss’ theory of esoteric writing—the claim that philosophers, in order to avoid destabilizing the political realm, conceal their deepest insights behind more conventional exoteric doctrines—allows intellectuals to soothe their consciences as they defend the Chinese regime in public. After all, that’s just what philosophers have always had to do if they did not want to suffer persecution, ever since Socrates drank the hemlock. Bartsch confesses that this raises insoluble interpretive problems: Are some of these Chinese thinkers themselves writing esoterically, appealing to the Greeks as a critique of the regime while denying that they are doing any such thing?

Plato Goes to China is at times frustrating for a certain ambiguity of perspective. As she outlines Chinese interpretations of ancient texts, Bartsch works hard to avoid judging their plausibility. We always, she concedes, read texts in light of our own concerns and interpret them in light of our own problems. An interpretation of a classic text is therefore not discredited merely because it appears to serve some contemporary political agenda. More importantly, Bartsch wants us to experience a certain shock of unfamiliarity by encountering Greek philosophy through a Chinese lens. Perhaps these different readings can help us see things we ourselves may have taken for granted, no doubt in self-serving ways, in our own use of Plato and Aristotle. As she writes in the introduction, “a study of the Chinese reception of these texts has the capacity to enable us to understand our own assumptions.”

Nevertheless, not all interpretations are created equal, and Bartsch does not always conceal her own skepticism. About the pro-government scholar He Xin’s claim, for example, that “the entire world history currently compiled by the west is actually forged based on the values of modern times in the west,” Bartsch permits herself the observation, “This is a startling claim, to put it mildly.” She suggests that the Chinese critique of Western instrumental rationality oversimplifies Western concepts of “reason.” She later claims that nationalist appeals to Confucius often reduce him in the same way, oversimplifying his idea of hexie (harmony) and overlooking elements of his thought that might be less congenial to the current government. One occasionally has the sense of an author repeatedly biting her own tongue. Perhaps this is unavoidable if we are truly to let our familiar readings of the ancient texts be unsettled by provocative Chinese interpretations. Nevertheless, I occasionally found myself wishing for less deference to readings that struck me as implausible.

Be that as it may, I learned a great deal from Plato Goes to China, and Bartsch has done a real service by making this aspect of Chinese public discourse available to those of us who will never spend thirty years mastering the relevant texts in Mandarin. One last aspect of her book resonates as well: the classicist’s wistfulness for a world in which Plato and Aristotle remain touchstones for public debate. “In the west,” writes Bartsch, “politicians do not hold up classical antiquity as a badge of national pride or urge its various ethical teachings on the public.” By contrast, “Chinese interest in western antiquity is comparatively widespread.” Certainly we do not want to distort the teachings of ancient texts. But the Chinese example suggests that the classics retain their ability to teach, inspire, and provoke us. In that sense, one might suggest, Bartsch’s ultimate goal is for Plato to go to China—and then to return again, surprising us anew.

Peter C. Meilaender is professor of political science and dean of religion, humanities, and global studies at Houghton University.