Why the Chinese Are Reading Plato, Aristotle, and… Leo Strauss?

REVIEW: ‘Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism’

Chinese president Xi Jinping (Getty Images)
April 30, 2023

The Chinese government of Xi Jinping has indicated, by word and deed, the intention of pursuing world hegemony—through its military buildup, aggressive posture toward Taiwan, and the Belt and Road initiative that extends across central Asia and beyond. It is also creating what sinologist Steven Mosher calls a world of "Sino States" from Cuba to Angola to Pakistan, obtaining strategic concessions such as seaports, discounted oil, and naval routes in return for unrepayable loans. Amid Xi’s claim to cultural, military, and political superiority over the West, Americans may be surprised to learn of a growing interest in Greek and Roman texts among Chinese academics—sometimes even cited in party editorials. This interest is especially remarkable, as University of Chicago classicist Shadi Bartsch observes, at a time when many American universities are closing their classics departments, sometimes claiming such studies are elitist or imperialistic.

In Plato Goes to China, Bartsch explains her aim to escape the "hall of mirrors" generated by Westerners taught to believe in the universal validity of such concepts as the superiority of democracy and the notion of individual rights. Bartsch’s outlook is one of cultural relativism: She refrains from making derogatory comparisons between Chinese and Western cultures—despite the belief of some prominent Chinese scholars that their civilization would benefit from imbibing elements of the Western classical tradition. (Oddly for a classicist, Bartsch ignores the self-critical character that typified the Western tradition of philosophy, poetry, and historiography starting in antiquity—as if all its contributors regarded democracy as the best regime or conceived philosophy as essentially deductive rather than empirical and dialectical. At the same time, she initially downplays the transformation that Western influences such as Marxism have already made in "Chinese" ways.)

Bartsch describes the unsuccessful endeavor of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to introduce elements of classical thought (blended with Christian theology) to China, which left the Chinese still thinking that their culture was superior. Only after the emperor’s 1912 overthrow did the opportunity arise for China’s "young intellectuals and reformers," many of them foreign-educated, to establish a republican government, led by Sun Yat-sen and influenced by the reading of Western thinkers like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Aristotle. But both the republican enterprise and the freedom of thought that encouraged it ended with the Japanese occupation of the 1930s, followed by the victory of Mao’s Communist forces.

The Maoist triumph cut off any continued study of the Western classics. Bartsch cites only one individual who retained interest in ancient Athens under Mao, a "dedicated communist" and economist named Gu Zhun, who looked to the Greek polis and to Aristotle’s political thought to resolve "problems inherent in socialist economics," being appalled by the "famine and cannibalism" generated by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. He "paid dearly" through imprisonment for his heretical suggestion that such Greek institutions as democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law demonstrated the superiority of Western culture and power to that of China.

During the economic liberalization under Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Gu Zhun’s thought achieved wider visibility with the posthumous (1982) publication of his book celebrating the polis. In turn, his thought helped inspire the production, "during the period of maximum openness and freedom of the press," of a six-part, government-sponsored TV series titled River Elegy (1988), which called for democracy and (Western) science, along with greater openness to the outside world, and was seen by over 200 million viewers. The series culminated in the ill-fated 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations by students and workers, suppressed by the army at the cost of hundreds or thousands of lives.

As post-Tiananmen party leaders purged reformers and "disciplined" dissidents, Bartsch recounts how Chinese classicists either turned their study in a purely apolitical direction or else tried to accommodate the regime by representing "the classical past … as supporting its values." Hence they cited Thucydides’ portrait of Athens’s fate in the Peloponnesian War to dismiss the supposedly "universal value of American democracy" (this in a 2012 op-ed in the New York Times). Others ahistorically blamed Plato and Aristotle for "brainwash[ing]" citizens into believing it was their duty to strive for virtue, thus "denying them independent thought" and emphasizing "consensus" at the expense of "individualism" (as if greater intellectual and personal freedom were offered in China!). Still others criticized Aristotle’s (misunderstood) doctrine of "natural" slavery and even his calling non-Greeks "barbarians" (following Greek usage)—at a time when the Chinese began imprisoning some million Uyghurs in conditions worse than those of Greek domestic slaves. One party editorial blamed the West for "hog[ging]" the term "democracy," when the world’s largest democracy is actually China. It also faulted the United States for having slavery until 1865 and denying women the vote until 1920.

As Bartsch observes, Chinese propagandists "have their moon cake and eat it too": denouncing democracy while claiming that their country best merits that title. All this illustrates "the somewhat depressing fact that the classics tend to be appropriated by those in power" in China, as they have been elsewhere.

Bartsch, however, is insufficiently critical of the use of classical texts by China’s rulers to justify suppressing dissent. She notes in particular the broad use of Plato’s Republic by post-Tiananmen classicists because of the similarity between several devices and institutions proposed by Socrates in that dialogue—communism, hierarchy, the "noble lie" designed to fortify that hierarchy and exclude foreign attachments—to those actually embodied in the Chinese regime.

Like those ostensible Platonists, Bartsch consistently fails to distinguish between Socrates’ proposals and the thought of the Republic’s author, a distinction stressed by a scholar whose work she will subsequently misrepresent, Leo Strauss. Thus she entirely misses Plato’s point.

Bartsch shows how Chinese academics have borrowed from such Western social theorists as Max Weber to find another ground for condemning the West, its allegedly "soulless" reliance on "instrumental" rationality, supposedly the cause of the Holocaust. Given their aims, she notes, it isn’t surprising that Chinese commentators "with an anti-western animus" have seized on such criticisms. (No mention here of Mao’s mass murders.) In turning to such "Weberizing," Bartsch laments, "the Chinese are doing themselves a disservice," since they might have found indigenous grounds, inherent in their own pre-Marxian tradition, for providing an alternative to what she depicts as "the abstract life of rational contemplation praised by Plato and Aristotle," the concept of ren or benevolence. But whatever may have been true in the past, she sensibly observes, "there’s little reason to suppose that the west is more of a hotbed of instrumental rationality these days than China." Hence, the West does not need to receive "Chinese spirituality" any more than China needs to receive "western rationality." So what has become of Bartsch’s quest?

In view of the dead end in which Bartsch’s endeavor to transcend a parochial worldview has culminated by the end of the fourth chapter, it is regrettable that she proceeds to dismiss the most profound quest among contemporary Chinese scholars for such a transcendence: their consideration of the thought of the German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973), who spent the better part of his career teaching in America (mostly at the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago). To begin with, Bartsch makes the crucial error of representing Strauss’s endeavor to promote the serious reconsideration of classical thought so as to question the premises underlying modern political philosophy, in view of the problems in which it had culminated, as an endeavor somehow to restore the world of the polis, something he deemed neither possible nor desirable.

Bartsch herself had touched on the dissatisfaction with modern rationalism expressed by 20th-century thinkers like Weber, members of the Frankfurt School, and Martin Heidegger that generated the intellectual crisis to which Strauss’s return to its classical counterpart was intended as a response. Central to that enterprise was Strauss’s rediscovery of a fact known to serious thinkers as late as the 18th century (Lessing and Rousseau) and even the 19th (Nietzsche): the practice by philosophers of "esoteric writing," or the concealment of their deepest thoughts from all but the most careful (literally philosophic) readers, both to spare themselves from persecution and to avoid undermining religious, moral, and political beliefs that might be essential to the well-being of nonphilosophic readers as a whole.

While the 18th-century Enlightenment brought great benefits to hundreds of millions of inhabitants of the Western world in the form of constitutional-liberal governments—exemplified by the United States—that aimed to secure the equal rights of all, while engendering vast economic prosperity, it did so at a cost. It engendered a sense of malaise among intellectuals and youthful "idealists" in the 20th century, dissatisfied with the meaninglessness of a "bourgeois" life, bereft of serious religious belief or the pursuit of earthly glory.

It should not be surprising that Chinese scholars, reacting against a form of totalitarian despotism derived from 19th-century Western thought, yet also repelled by the sort of materialism that flourished among the "oligarchs" who came to power under Deng and Xi, should find the intellectual alternative proposed by Strauss appealing. At the same time, the fact that Strauss took issue with the Enlightenment’s overt hostility to both religion and traditional morality facilitated the endeavor to reconcile classical Western philosophy, at least at the political level, with elements of the Confucian tradition. (Following Strauss’s death, one of the students closest to him, Werner Dannhauser, wrote that "he made proverbs seem wise again," meaning that philosophy as Strauss understood it took genuine proverbial wisdom seriously despite its "unscientific" character, even as the philosophic enterprise required ultimately going beyond it.)

Contrary to Bartsch, none of this has anything to do with basing government on a "noble lie." Despots hardly needed to learn the art of lying from Plato, Machiavelli, or Strauss. If anything, by reopening the possibility of philosophizing as a pursuit of truth, rather than (as Bartsch conceives it) just a reflection of the cultural "walls" of one’s society, Strauss assisted his serious readers to see beyond those walls and become more thoughtful, if sober and moderate, critics of the regimes they lived under.

As Bartsch observes, "Straussian" scholars in China ultimately took various intellectual and political paths, some of them unfortunately anti-American. Much as he may endeavor to instill moderation, a philosopher cannot control the direction in which some may take his thought. (Strauss rarely wrote or said anything about contemporary political issues but stated unambiguously his loyalty to the liberal-constitutional order, even as he sought to enrich and fortify it through genuinely liberal education founded in the study of great books both ancient and modern. Incredibly, however, Bartsch buys into the myth that "Straussian" influence somehow underlay the Iraq war, three decades after his death.)

Readers seeking a more instructive guide to Strauss’s role in contemporary Chinese thought should consult the volume edited by Kai Marchal and Carl K.Y. Shaw, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss in the Chinese-Speaking World: Reorienting the Political. It might incite them to contemplate, as Chinese scholars have done, Strauss’s studies of the history of political philosophy, as an entry to just the transcendence of one’s cultural horizon that Bartsch originally sought but failed to achieve. In other words, it would induce them to join in Plato’s (and Strauss’s) quest to discover those things that are by nature true, rather than merely reflecting one partial cultural perspective or another.

Plato Goes to China: The Greek Classics and Chinese Nationalism
by Shadi Bartsch
Princeton University Press, 304 pp., $33

David Lewis Schaefer is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.