A recurring feature of China's interaction with the West in the modern period is the influence the 'Middle Kingdom' has had on political theory on distant shores - that influence is reciprocal, but I want to focus on the direction of travel Westwards in this post, because I think it is a less familiar, but no less important, story.
Here is an audio version of the chapter on Leibniz from Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy.
The video below explains Leibniz's conception of "pre-established harmony" and monadology better than I can hope to here. The key point is that it avoids the Cartesian difficulty of explaining how mental events can be said to "cause" physical events (the "mind-body problem") by positing a pre-ordained, harmonious coincidence, rather than a physical causal link, between the two.
What Leibniz then did was, essentially, to project a belief in the Christian God back onto ancient Chinese history. Lach writes that: "According to Leibniz, the Chinese "worshipped the great God in the virtues of particular things, under the name of spirits of these things, in order to appeal to the imagination of the people.""
|August Hermann Francke (1663-1727)|
Michael Edwards tells us that scholars who had grown up in the shadow of the Thirty Years' War "sought for the universal language they were convinced had existed before Babel. Some believed it might be Chinese; by elaborate and totally unfounded argument they came to the conclusion that China had been peopled by the children of Noah before the confusion of tongues. It was even suggested that Confucius was a Christian prophet." Francke's unrealised ambition was to establish a Universal Seminary at Halle that would unite German Pietists and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in preparation for using Russia as a launching-pad for sending Protestant missionaries to China.
He became obsessed with the enigmatic trigrams and hexagrams in the ancient text, the I Ching (Book of Changes). Current scholarship suggests that these mysterious forms were simplified depictions of cracks that formed in tortoiseshells when they were heated in divination rituals.
The connection between universal religion and universal language made the University of Halle a centre of the German Enlightenment, and a cause celebre of the archetypal self-styled "enlightened despot" - King Frederick the Great of Prussia (Frederick II), who reigned 1740-86.
The University of Halle had been founded by his paternal grandfather, Frederick I, but his predecessor had considered closing it down as it became engulfed in controversial religious dispute - it was kept going, and allowed to operate with expanded royal priveleges, by Frederick the Great, as part of his wider policy of religious toleration and education. "Men", he wrote, "ought to be made to feel ashamed of fanaticism."
Here is a BBC documentary that assesses Frederick's legacy as an "enlightened despot" in more detail.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church it was a revival, chiefly among younger students, of the ideal of faith through good works as opposed to a fixation on ideological purity, and inquisitions that inevitably followed: "it developed into a hard-and-fast system of penance, grace and re-birth... [It] was characterised by various philanthropic activities (centred in Halle) and by its contribution to the missionary movement."
Here is one of the charity-schools in Halle.
One of the leading philosophers of the German Enlightenment thought the Pietists rather naive, and they in turn saw him as a treacherous atheist - so much so that they hounded him out of Halle altogether. His name was Christian Wolff.
In 1721 Wolff wrote his Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica (Discourse on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese).
Mark Larrimore has argued that Wolff wrote the book to challenge "the understanding of ethics as obedience to the utterly unconstrained commands of an omnipotent deity" - and in so doing, he appeared to many of his peers to be going one step beyond the Pietists. Where they had argued that motivation was not all that mattered in ethics, he appeared to be (though was not in fact) arguing that it did not really matter at all.
|Confucius (551-479 BC)|
Instead, "the Chinese realised that virtue consisted in being moved by the intrinsic value of the good, not just in obeying the command of a superior" and they practised "an inductive consequentialist ethics that employed historical examples in place of rules and that found its motive in the just pride of the virtuous."
Wolff argued that humans are capable of three degrees of virtue, which are categorised by their motivation, and which must be progressed through in the following order: empiricism and lessons of experience ("there are natural powers sufficient for the practice of virtue"); natural religion ("consideration of divine Providence"); and divine revelation. He believed that the Chinese had not advanced beyond the first stage but, to their credit, had achieved the most virtue possible within those limits.
More pertinently, he saw his own Orthodox critics as trying to pass to the third stage before completing the second, and he sought to use the example of China to educate them on the importance of toleration and learning: "philosophy was what Christians needed, too, and to appreciate the relevance of philosophy, the example of the Chinese remained indispensable."
|A 'Potemkin village'|
Meanwhile, Wolff's paean to Chinese "benevolent absolutism" reached Frederick II via one of his former students and, according to Davis, it was a powerful influence on the King's ideological development. Another influence was Voltaire with whom he enjoyed a lasting if turbulent friendship. Voltaire, who wrote a play to propagate the model of China's meritocratic state bureaucracy ('Confucian Morals in Five Acts'), told Frederick, a man who described himself as "a king by nature and philosophe by inclination": "Graft a sovereign onto a philosopher...and you will have a perfect sovereign." Although Frederick wrote to Voltaire, "I leave the Chinese to you...the European nations keep my mind sufficiently occupied", the influence of "far Cathay" was subtly pervasive.
In 1740 Frederick distilled his political vision in the form of an anonymously published rejoinder to Machiavelli's The Prince, called Anti-Machiavel.
Against Machiavelli's proposition that there exists an irresolvable tension between private and public morality (or between that of rulers and that of subjects), Frederick contended that the wise ruler could amalgamate both the most moral, and the most efficacious, ruler - according to the doctrine of natural law, a ruler could know better than his subjects what was good for them and coerce them towards that end, since they would be bound by innate reason to retrospectively acknowledge it as legitimate.
|Maria Theresa and family|
In a sense, critics like Rousseau were doing the same thing as the Sinophiles but in reverse - using China as a counter-example to currents of Enlightenment thought to which they were opposed. Rousseau, for instance, obviously found highly convenient the negative reports of a country supposedly ruled by its most highly educated members, since his main argument in the First Discourse was that the sciences corrupted morals.
As far as the suggestion that philosophers should rule went, the monarchs "treated such suggestions as they did the chinoiseries of their palace, as a pleasant gloss on the business of living."
I hope this is not too jarring a transition, but I want to jump forward to the late twentieth-century, and to the rise to prominence of behaviourism in public policy-making - because there is a link to both China and enlightened absolutism.
Simply put, Skinner believed that humans are wholly products of their environments: "Even revolutionaries are almost wholly the conventional products of the systems they overthrow." Once the causal connection between environmental factors and behaviour was understood, experts would be able to predict and manipulate people's behaviour without ever having to ask them about their thoughts and feelings.
Here is an excerpt from a BBC documentary, Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, which shows Skinner at work - and how he drew lessons about humans from his experiments with animals.
But Skinner too was an optimist in science - the problem as he saw it was not Enlightenment optimism per se, but its incompleteness, and the need to develop a science of behaviour that would yield "a behavioural technology comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology".
Skinner's ideal society was much closer to a model of technocracy than of democracy as it is usually understood. In the name of the General Welfare people's freedom had to be restricted, because they could not be trusted to make rational decisions - but it was no good doing this through a coercive authoritarian state apparatus, since people did not like feeling that they were being forced in this or that direction, so the means would just have defeated the end. Instead, a third party ought to modify the social environment so that people are left free to choose what they want to do - but the choice is framed in such a way that they are very likely to choose what the third party knows is best for society overall.
|A "struggle session" against "counter-revolutionaries"|
He was not unaware of the dangers inherent in his peculiar fusion of libertarian elitism, but he believed that, once it was set up, his system would be self-sustaining, and would incentivise those it empowered to use their power for the General Welfare - guided by a "science of values."
If this sounds rather familiar, it should not come as a surprise - the authors of the influential book Nudge collaborated with one of Skinner's colleagues (you can read more about the connections here). Below is a talk given by one of the authors, Richard Thaler, in which he explains that politicians should see their role as being "choice architects", who should "design a society in which people make better choices, as judged by themselves." He calls it "libertarian paternalism" - "libertarian" because people are left to choose and "paternalist" because choices are framed as the state sees fit.
The Prime Minister David Cameron has cited Nudge as an important influence on his thinking, and on his decision to establish a Behavioural Insights Unit in Number 10. The ideas of "radical behaviourism" have also played a part in the evolution of his "Big Society" agenda. Critics of the Big Society, mostly from the left, often argue that it is a fig-leaf for ideological public spending cuts, and that it is hopelessly naive to simply "roll back" the state and expect civil society to automatically flood in and close the gap.
address to the Young Foundation in 2009, where he set out the assumptions his team were starting from: it is not just about the state of Britain's finances, it is the state of Britain's morals, which has "broken" its social fabric. Since the late 1960s, so the argument runs, the British state has grown inexorably, not just in terms of resources, but also in terms of its functions and reach into previously off-limits areas of private life.
The result is that citizens have become individually far less responsible, so that state retreat, by itself, is unlikely to catalyse 'third-sector' substitutes - what is required is an interventionist state that will reshape society and supposedly make it easier for people to do the right thing by providing examples of moral leadership. To illustrate the point, the speech is worth quoting at length:
Even the branding of the Big Society is not new: in Hainan province during the 1980s-90s a series of political reforms designed by a scholar named Liao Xun were tried under the slogan, "Big Society, Small Government" (xiao zhengfu da shehui). K. E. Brodsgard has written that the project failed to create a "special political zone" (equivalent to the coastal "special economic zones") because of basic contradictions inherent in the "Big Society" ideology itself.
Most importantly, for all the talk of greater "transparency", the philosophy of nudging presumes - requires - a certain knowledge-gap between government and governed: if people know in advance that they are being manipulated towards a certain goal (even if that goal is what they may want from a rational, long-term perspective), they are likely to change their behaviour, because people don't usually like the idea of being manipulated. As David H. Freedman has written in The Atlantic:
But isolating an important part of political decision-making from public scrutiny can actually make it harder to make stable, long-term decisions for the General Welfare because individual decision-makers cannot build a base of mass support and are thus vulnerable to sudden changes in direction driven by issues of personality and administration. It is notable how few of the reforms enacted by the eighteenth-century enlightened absolutists outlived them. Likewise, Brodsgard observes of Hainan:
|Lee Kuan Yew (1923-)|
More recently, the Economist reported that the CPC has revived this agenda in Shenzhen, but "Li Luoli of the China Society of Economic Reform points out that the local ministries and developers have been able to ignore Beijing because there is no specific local body behind political reform."
It is interesting to find how much of the Big Society was motivated by a perceived need by Western governments to streamline their "wasteful" welfare states in order to compete with the Asian "tiger" economies (and, in the post-Mao period, China). Lord Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong and a man on the left of the Conservative Party, saw himself as a spokesman for the "Enlightenment values" of liberal democracy and liberal economics, against a tide of hyperbole about supposedly superior "Asian values" that - as interpreted by the erudite Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew - emphasise obedience to family and state before individual liberty.
Here is an interview with Lee Kuan Yew during a trip to the U.S. in 1967. When an American journalist asks him what he makes of the student protests across the country (at 15:30), he replies to the effect that people will always protest against their government, but it is the government's job to ensure that its policies are ones they will later look back on and approve of retrospectively - a sentiment of which I am sure Voltaire would have approved.
At length, I think we have come full-circle. Just as the "enlightened despots" of eighteenth-century Europe were in a sense Christianised versions of theorised benevolent Oriental despots, it is also plausible to see the "radical behaviourism" of B. F. Skinner as a secularised vision of enlightened despotism (in which Darwinian natural selection has taken on the role of divine Providence, and "nudging" technocrats the role of far-sighted philosopher-kings).
Moreover, just as the Jesuits reduced the complexity of China to the principles of Neo-Confucianism in order to justify their assimilationist approach to missionary work, so too have latter-day Western commentators on "Asian values" often simplified a messy reality in order to argue for the necessity of reforming welfare states in the West - and that the way to do it is to harness the power of the state to transform cultural values.
The constant thread running through this story has been the notion that the universe is characterised in a meaningful way by "pre-established harmony", and that, ironically, this can be used to legitimise alternative forms of government to participatory democracy. But if this is true, why don't the enlightened despots ever seem to agree among themselves?