Today's date:
Fall 2000

A Sino-Hellenic Humanism?

Michael Lind
is the author of a number of books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry, including The Next American Nation (1995). A leading post-liberal thinker, he is a Senior Fellow of the New America Foundation.

Washington—The beginning of the 21st century is also the dawn of the first global society of states. The Seventy-Five Years’ War of the 20th century (1914–89) marked the transition from the European society of states, extended throughout the world by European imperialism, to a new, global society of states. The world wars and the Cold War were, among other things, wars of secular political religion among fascism, communism and liberalism. The winner was liberalism—broadly defined as the combination of representative institutions, constitutional government and market economics. Today there are non-democratic regimes, non-constitutional democracies and Socialist economies. But no militant illiberal ideology of universal scope like fascism or communism exists today to challenge the basic premises of liberal thinking.

But liberalism is a doctrine about the external organization of society. It is silent on the more important question: How shall we live? Here the debate is not between democracy or capitalism and their rivals, but between humanism and its rivals.

The term "humanism" has several meanings, including secularism or humanitarianism. By humanism I mean specifically classical humanism—a cultural pattern that has flourished in ancient China, ancient Greece and Rome, and in the Euro-American world of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Despite significant differences, Chinese humanists, Greek and Roman humanists and Renaissance Euro-American humanists shared these things in common: a focus on human life, combined with a high degree of indifference toward supernatural and metaphysical questions; an emphasis on practical reason or common sense, as opposed to supernatural inspiration, deductive rationalism or individual genius; and a respect for a classical literary tradition embodying the wisdom of the past (as distinct from a scriptural tradition allegedly recording divine revelation). Confucius, Hsuntze, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, Erasmus and Voltaire, brought back to life, would discover that they had a great deal in common with one another. The European humanists of the 17th and 18th centuries took this for granted. French philosophes admired Confucian mandarins; Voltaire undertook to write a universal history, in which he treated non-Western civilizations with respect; Goethe hoped for the emergence of Weltliteratur or "world literature," and contributed to the process by writing imitations of Chinese and Persian poetry as well as of ancient Greek and Roman forms. The €rst attempt at a global humanism was aborted, however, by romanticism.

THE ROMANTIC CHALLENGE TO HUMANISM | Romanticism, which originated in Germany and Central Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, came in various versions (including 20th-century modernism, which was really a late, decadent form of Romanticism). All variants of romanticism rejected Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism in favor of mystical, apocalyptic doctrines that celebrated the individual "genius" and the organic "people"—defined as the proletariat or the racial nation (nationalism comes in liberal, civic versions as well as romantic, racist versions). Romantic racial nationalism culminated in National Socialism; Romantic Socialism, which in its Marxist form owed more to German Romanticism than to the French or British Enlightenments, found its monument in Marxism-Leninism.

Today the political manifestations of German/Central European Romanticism have been defeated in favor of liberal democratic capitalism—itself a product of Renaissance/Enlightenment humanism. But in the realm of the arts and philosophy, old romantic notions still hold sway. The most enduring and pernicious is the 19th-century German distinction between Kultur (culture) and Zivilisation (civilization). For the German Romantics, "civilization" referred to mere technological and material efficiency; "culture" was something spiritual. Civilization was superficial; culture was profound.

The Romantics, in other words, rejected the distinction that Asian humanists, Greco-Roman humanists and Euro-American humanists had made, between civilization and barbarism. The Asian and Western humanists had divided humanity by a horizontal line; the civilized had more in common with other civilized people of different races than with their own barbaric linguistic or genetic relatives. A French philosopher had more in common with a Chinese mandarin than with his barbaric Frankish ancestors in the Dark Ages. The Romantics replaced the horizontal, trans-racial distinction between the civilized and the barbaric with vertical distinctions between tribal cultures. In the racist version of Romanticism, some tribes were superior to others; in post-racist romanticism (known as multiculturalism) all tribes are equal. What all forms of ethnic romanticism share is the insistence that all members of a tribe, past, present and future, share more in common with one another than they can ever share with people belonging to different tribes but sharing a common civilization. In the multiculturalist view, as in the racist view, there can be no Voltairean universal history, no Goethean world literature, only Aryan-German culture and Afrocentric culture.

FROM CULTURE TO CIVILIZATION | It is time to replace the romantic idea of a plurality of incommensurable "cultures" with the humanist idea of a global, or potentially global, civilization. The term "civilization," in the humanist tradition, implies a humane, reasonable worldview and way of life, not merely a high level of science, technology and organizational development.

From the perspective of classical humanism, civilization refers to a high degree of social and political organization. In the Agrarian Age, which ended in the 1800s, this meant sedentary, farming-based societies with elite literacy; in the technological age, civilization means urban, industrial societies with mass literacy. All humanist societies have been literate civilizations; but all literate civilizations have not been humanist.

During the Agrarian Age, most civilizations were religious rather than humanist. The Jewish and Hindu civilizations, and their spinoffs—Christian, Muslim and Buddhist civilizations—subordinated intellectual life to religious faith. By contrast, in premodern humanist societies—ancient China, ancient Greece and Rome, and Early Modern Europe and North America—the intellectual elites tended to be, not priests, but imperial scribes and bureaucrats or republican city state elites. Although their societies were not without religion in some form, these premodern humanist elites owed their positions at court, or their prominence in the forum, to their mastery not of religious scriptures but of secular literary classics. Whereas rabbis, priests, mullahs and monks quoted prophets, Chinese, Greek, Roman and Euro-American humanists quoted poets.

RATIONALISM VERSUS HUMANISM | The secularization of politics, although incomplete, has eliminated religion as the basis of public authority everywhere outside of the Muslim world. But the decline of theocracy has not meant the triumph of humanism. As we have seen, the void of supernatural religion was €lled in many countries in the past two centuries by secular romantic religions, like fascism and communism. Humanism in our technological age also has another competitor: rationalism.

Rationalism is the attempt to base politics not on a wise understanding of human nature informed by history and tradition but on "social science." One strain of Enlightenment thought, severing its humanist roots, has been responsible for a series of rationalist ideologies—utilitarianism in the 19th century, "rational choice" theory today.

Within its proper sphere—the study of nonhuman nature and of human biology—rationalism has its place. But the idea that there can be a "science" of government, and that politics can be replaced by nonpartisan technocracy, is a delusion—a delusion that is dangerously appealing in an era in which technological innovation is imbued with glamor.

With religious civilization in decline, and romantic civilization in retreat, the greatest threat to humanist civilization today comes from rationalism—from the misguided attempt to reconstruct human society on the basis of new theories instead of perennial wisdom. But in rejecting pseudoscientific rationalism in favor of the practical reason that is the best guide to human affairs, humanists never join romantics in mistakenly rejecting reason as such.

THE SINO-HELLENIC SYNTHESIS: TOWARD A GLOBAL HUMANISM | The humanism of the third millennium must be relevant to a post-industrial, global civilization. At the same time, it must draw on the wisdom of the pre-industrial past. The new humanists of the 21st century must synthesize what is best in premodern humanist traditions while rejecting all that was merely local or ephemeral.

This means emphasizing some premodern traditions while downplaying others. The global humanists of the third millenium will find little of relevance to their project of reformulating perennial human wisdom in either the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition of monotheistic revealed religion or the Hindu-Buddhist tradition. By definition, traditions which rely on divine revelation or mystical gnosis are of limited value to humanists whose method is codified common sense. (This is not to say that premodern religious traditions are not of value in other areas, like literature and the arts.)
If Greco-Roman humanism and Renaissance humanism are regarded as phases of a single Hellenic intellectual tradition, then the two premodern humanist traditions of interest to today’s global humanists are the Hellenic and the Sino-Asian. Can there be a synthesis of traditional Western and Eastern practical wisdom—a Sino-Hellenic humanism?
Such a synthesis makes more sense than the historic attempts to synthesize humanist and religious traditions. At roughly the same time in the Middle Ages, Chinese thinkers attempted to synthesize Confucian humanism with Buddhist metaphysics in Neo-Confucianism, while European thinkers like Thomas Aquinas sought to integrate Christian theology and Greco-Roman thought. This raises a fascinating idea: What if both of these marriages were mistakes? What if the practical, worldly Hellenic and Sino-Asian humanist traditions belonged together—not with their other-worldly spouses?
There was no Central Asian philosopher to effect a synthesis of Mediterranean and Asian humanism in 1200 a.d. But today, when religion has been dislodged from control of intellectual life, and when the Romantic and rationalist utopias alike have failed, there is an opportunity to weave together what is best and most enduring in Hellenic humanism and Sino-Asian humanism to provide a "usable past" for the new global humanism.

THE ORATOR AND THE MANDARIN | The potential for complementarity of Western and Eastern humanism is evident when it comes to politics. The modern democratic state is the heir of both Western humanist and Eastern humanist traditions. In modern democracies, elected representatives supervise huge bureaucratic agencies staffed by career civil services made up of professional civilian and military bureaucrats. Everyone knows that democracy and constitutionalism are the inheritance of the Greeks, the Romans and the Renaissance republicans and constitutional monarchists. Few, however, acknowledge the influence of Confucian China on the modern civil service. It was from imperial China that Western governments in the 18th and 19th centuries got the idea of using competitive examinations to fill government jobs that had previously been filled by clients of department heads or by individuals who actually bought their jobs from corrupt supervisors.

If the Ciceronian orator, eloquent and well-educated, is the ideal elected politician in the Western humanist tradition, the learned, moral Confucian mandarin is the ideal civil servant in the Eastern humanist tradition. China and its cultural satellites never had a premodern tradition of democracy. Nevertheless, the ethos of the Confucian magistrate can survive intact, when the Sovereign People, represented by their elected officials, replace the Sovereign Emperor.

Likewise, the Ciceronian model of the orator-politician—whose Western exemplars include Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill—is complemented by the Confucian model for the magistracy which must carry out the laws enacted by elected officials. In the absence of something like the ideal of the Confucian mandarin whose qualifications are general erudition and practical wisdom, Western civil and military services, since they became professionalized a few generations ago, have tended to think of administrators as narrow specialists in technical tasks. But that will not do. No laws enacted by democratic legislatures can be detailed enough to guide administrators; some exercise of judgment will always be called for. The mandarin is more likely to exercise bureaucratic discretion wisely, with an eye to morality and larger political consequences, than a technocrat afflicted with tunnel vision.

Education: The New Humanist Curriculum | In the Renaissance, the Italian humanists attacked the sterile Christian-scholastic educational system of their day. In place of the medieval curriculum, which emphasized abstract theology, metaphysics and the exact sciences like mathematics and geometry, the Renaissance humanists promoted the studia humanitatis or "the humanities"—the €ve disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy (which included politics as well as ethics).

Today’s university curriculum reflects a 19th-century division between "natural sciences," "social sciences" and "art" or "the arts," a grab bag for everything left out of the first two categories. One project of a new global humanist movement would be to replace the trichotomy of natural science/social science/art with a new/old dichotomy: the natural sciences and the humanities. The project of creating "social sciences" with the kind of mathematical rigor found in the natural sciences would be abandoned as an impossible rationalist scheme. Economics, which some have turned into a quasi-mathematical pseudoscience, would be re-incorporated into political economy. The arts, separated by the Romantics from humanist disciplines like moral philosophy and rhetoric, would find their place, as they did in the Renaissance and the ancient world, within the humanities.

An educated person would be expected to be well versed in both natural science and the humanities. But individuals in positions of public authority should receive humanistic educations; they should not be specialists in science or technology. Great political questions of the sort that both the orator-legislator and the mandarin-bureaucrat must decide are never technical questions, even when they have technical elements. They call for exercises of practical reason on the part of erudite individuals whose limited personal experience has been broadened by a knowledge of history and other societies—in other words, by the collective experience of the human race.

All humanist traditions emphasize careful, although not mindless, study of literary and historical classics (as opposed to religious scriptures). Most, though not all, of the classics of the new global humanism would be selected from the Hellenic and Sino-Asian traditions. The histories of Greece and Rome by Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus and Gibbon would be joined by Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shiji) and Zuo Qiu-ming’s Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals; in the area of foreign policy, Machiavelli would share honors with the Chinese classic, Intrigues of the Warring States. Educated people would be expected to know Horace and Du Fu, to learn the moral maxims of Confucius and Seneca, of Montaigne and Hsuntze.

Even in a world of widely diffused higher learning, erudite global humanists would remain a civilizing minority in societies the majority of whose members are narcotized by a crude, sensationalistic mass media culture which may take forms undreamed of today. From both the Ciceronian and Confucian traditions, the humanists of the third millennium will learn that it is the duty of the educated individual to seek out public service, even at great risk to their reputations, their freedom and even their lives, rather than to choose the safety and otium or ease of retirement. Like the Western and Eastern humanism of the past, the global humanism of the future will emphasize practical wisdom in the service, not of private curiosity, but of the public good.

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