Lilla in TNR on Strauss and Schmitt in China

Shaojin Chai draws our attention to a recent and intriguing essay by Mark Lilla in The New Republic, entitled “Reading Strauss in Beijing: China’s Strange Taste in Western Philosophers.” Shaojin expresses some skepticism about a connection between the interest in Schmidt and “China’s imperialistic ambition or statist future”; but I found this bit of Lilla’s piece to ring true:

…Like Schmitt, [Chinese conservatives] can’t make up their minds whether liberal ideas are hopelessly naïve and don’t make sense of the world we live in, or whether they are changing the world in ways that are detrimental to society and international order. These students are particularly interested in Schmitt’s prescient postwar writings about how globalization would intensify rather than diminish international conflict (this was in 1950) and how terrorism would spread as an effective response to globalization (this was in 1963). Schmitt’s conclusion—that, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powers—sits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met….

One part of Lilla’s essay that puzzled me was his endorsing the perceived relevance in China of Strauss’s distinction between “philosophers” and “practical men” (or “gentlemen”):

…for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen….

I was puzzled because of the neisheng-waiwang ideal, according to which one sought both inner cultivation and outer, political influence; the acme of this is of course the sage-king. Chinese “sages” are not aloof seekers after truth. At the same time, the “elite class educated to serve the common good” does, of course, resonate, and I suppose one might charitably suggest that Lilla is drawing on the distinction between political leaders (zhengtong) and the moral leaders (daotong and, more recently, xuetong) who guide them?

6 replies on “Lilla in TNR on Strauss and Schmitt in China”

  1. Thanks to Shaojin and Steve for this fascinating and informative piece!

    Steve, to your question, here’s a pure guess: maybe in an academic context “the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good” amounts to, or is heard as, the following suggestion: “Instead of thinking of your teaching as aimed to educate (a) Potential academics and (b) Others, you should think of it as aimed to educate (a) Potential academics, (b) Gentleman leaders, and (c) Others.” In other words, recognize that there is something interesting to aim at other than producing academics and generally educated citizens.

  2. This is great stuff. The thing that struck me is that philosopher-gentleman distinction, based (loosely?) on Aristotle, can’t really be mapped directly onto the sage-gentleman distinction at a fundamental level. If the philosopher differs from a statesman at all, in the Aristotelian sense it is because the philosopher is someone who is devoted much more to theoria than to phronēsis. (Of course, in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle doesn’t seem to say much about the pursuit of these being mutually exclusive.) But I don’t think understanding what the sage is in the Chinese tradition invokes any such distinction. If there is any difference, it is a difference of magnitude, specifically of the magnitude of wise power (德) that someone commands. The sage overshadows the gentleman in sheer (historical) significance of effect on humanity. Something like that. So, I think Lilla completely misunderstands the sage-statesman/sage-gentleman rubric in the Chinese tradition.

  3. In fact, I do see and thus agree with Lilla that the gentlemen connection is meaningful although Confucian sages who perfect themselves with moral self-cultivation and ritual practices are not the same as the Platonic philosophers with the esoteric knowledge or Aristotelian gentlemen with intellectual virtues. What makes me a bit cautious in the last comment is that I personally know several “Chinese Straussians” who are no fan of Confucian political theory and who fail to see both Leo Strauss’s caution about the rule of philosopher-king and Neo-Confucian(especially Wang Yangming’s) turn from the ideal of sage-kingship to sage-leadership/citizenship,contrary to Lilla’s observation that they know “the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good.”
    What confused me more is Lilla’s ambiguity in this article toward Struassian politics in general and the Chinese version in particular. Lilla seems to praise Strauss and his followers’ in China, not Schmitt and the other statists conservatives. But his last sentence “Rome is not built in a day” rings me to wonder if he is referring to Roman Republic or Roman Empire. And this line seems to echo the conversation about learning Latin language in the second language and imply that the students of Leo Strauss in China are thinking about learning from Rome to build an empire. Did I miss something?

  4. Hi Steve,

    this is interesting stuff, indeed! A very strange, but fascinating mixture of German-American-Chinese scholarship/cultural criticism… By the way, a friend of mine and also a “card-holding” Straussian (if there ever were member-cards for Straussians), just published a volume on the China-Strauss connection: 徐戩(選編),《古今之爭與文明自覺:中國語境中的施特勞斯》,上海:華東師範大學出版社,2010…

  5. It is Daoism that we see more clearly the esoteric strain that is essential to Strauss and the political theorists that came after him. What is essential and true cannot be spoken of openly, if at all, or so they aver. So it may be the the proper analogy to Strauss would be the Daoist rather than the Confucian, thus supporting Lilla’s contention that the Chinese he has encountered are more interested in the Confucian gentleman-scholar ideal, which is often appropriate called “humanistic.”

    By the way, Lilla misrepresents Schmitt on several points. Much like Oswald Spengler, Schmitt thought of the modern state as a technology secondary to culture and, often, parasitical in nature, not as an ideal in and of itself. I believe the land-sphere desired by Schmitt instead contained a cultural core, of which it was the job of the sovereign to maintain.

    A core idea here is whether or not China will transition to democracy. I tend to think that whatever will emerge, even if it contains elements of local rule as found in other democracies, will not be democratic in the modern Western sense and that the motive for political centralization (found ultimately in the idea of a sovereign) will have continual appeal.

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