Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The gentry

Meanwhile we continue to maim and destroy some of our best young men for no good reason. Via Maoxian.

New Republic: A few years ago, when I was still teaching at the University of Chicago, I had my first Chinese graduate students, a couple of earnest Beijingers who had come to the Committee on Social Thought hoping to bump into the ghost of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher who established his career at the university. Given the mute deference they were accustomed to giving their professors, it was hard to make out just what these young men were looking for, in Chicago or Strauss. They attended courses and worked diligently, but otherwise kept to themselves. They were in but not of Hyde Park.

At the end of their first year, I called one of them into my office to offer a little advice. He was obviously thoughtful and serious, and was already well known in Beijing intellectual circles for his writings and his translations of Western books in sociology and philosophy into Chinese. But his inability to express himself in written or spoken English had frustrated us both in a course of mine he had just taken. I began asking about his summer plans, eventually steering the conversation to the subject of English immersion programs, which I suggested he look into. “Why?” he asked. A little flummoxed, I said the obvious thing: that mastering English would allow him to engage with foreign scholars and advance his career at home. He smiled in a slightly patronizing way and said, “I am not so sure.” Now fully flummoxed, I asked what he would be doing instead. “Oh, I will do language, but Latin, not English.” It was my turn to ask why. “I think it very important we study Romans, not just Greeks. Romans built an empire over many centuries. We must learn from them.” When he left, it was clear that I was being dismissed, not him.

This conversation came to mind recently after I returned from a month of lectures and interviews in China. I had heard that Strauss was popular there, as was, to my surprise, Carl Schmitt, the Weimar anti-liberal (and anti-Semitic) legal theorist. The New Yorker had even run a piece that spoke of “the new generation’s neocon nationalists,” mentioning the interest in Strauss as some sort of disturbing development. What I discovered, especially among the many young people I spoke with, was something much more interesting and important. Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate, but they are being read by everyone, whatever their partisan leanings; as a liberal journalist in Shanghai told me as we took a stroll one day, “no one will take you seriously if you have nothing to say about these two men and their ideas.” And the interest has little to do with nationalism in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. It is a response to crisis—a widely shared belief that the millennia-long continuity of Chinese history has been broken and that everything, politically and intellectually, is now up for grabs.

... Liberal thought, the young ones now feel, just doesn’t help them understand the dynamics of Chinese life today or offer a model for the future. For example, everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one—a state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs. Similarly, there was complete consensus about China’s right to defend its national interests, just differences over what those interests are. When my turn to talk about American politics came, and I tried to explain the Tea Party movement’s goal of “getting government off our backs,” I was met with blank stares and ironic smiles.

... Classical liberalism sees society as having multiple, semi-autonomous spheres; Schmitt asserted the priority of the social whole (his ideal was the medieval Catholic Church) and considered the autonomy of the economy, say, or culture or religion, as a dangerous fiction. (“The political is the total, and as a result we know that any decision about whether something is unpolitical is always a political decision.”) Classical liberalism treats sovereignty as a kind of coin that individuals are given by nature and which they cash in as they build legitimate political institutions for themselves; Schmitt saw sovereignty as the result of an arbitrary self-founding act by a leader, a party, a class, or a nation that simply declares “thus it shall be.” Classical liberalism had little to say about war and international affairs, leaving the impression that, if only human rights were respected and markets kept free, a morally universal and pacified world order would result. For Schmitt, this was liberalism’s greatest and most revealing intellectual abdication: If you have nothing to say about war, you have nothing to say about politics. There is, he wrote, “absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.”

... The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius, though in a way statist, is altogether different: Its aim is to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations, including the ruler, who is there to serve. Central to the functioning of such a state are the “gentlemen” (or “gentry” in some Confucius translations), men of character and conscience trained to serve the ruler by making him a better one—more rational and concerned with the people’s good. Though the Chinese students I met clearly wanted to ├ępater their teachers and me by constantly referring to Schmitt, the truth is that they want a good society, not just a strong one.

Enter Leo Strauss, again. The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t—which is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret. Much was made of this gentlemanly idea in Straussian circles after his death, and as young Straussians became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat, beginning in the Reagan administration, many began seeing themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the “crisis of the West.” (This episode still awaits its satirist.) In this sense there was indeed a connection between Straussianism and the Iraq war.

But 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. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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