Friday, July 28, 2017

Art: what is it?

According to a recent poll in the UK, a work by Banksy is at the top of a list of best works of art - along with, further down the line, a couple of record covers. Forget about Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Even Van Gogh did not make the cut. 

I don't doubt that an American poll would achieve similar results. As an art historian I deplore such aesthetic yahooism. But maybe the results signify a healthy revolt against some of the rubbish that is currently acclaimed by the art establishment, together with the arcane prose commonly deployed to foster it.

Over the centuries the definition of art has fluctuated. From the Romans and Greeks we inherited an emphasis on skill (cf. the words a r s  and  t e c h n e). Eventually, though, the need to learn drawing, perspective and chiaroscuro vanished. Deskilling ensued. 

The Renaissance propounded a class distinction separating the fine arts from the lowly applied or decorative arts. Defying this separation is the idea that art is simply the sum total of artifacts - things made by human hands. 

Today a kind of free-form empiricism reigns. Art is anything made by a self-described artist. Then there is the Institutional theory: art is anything that qualifies for display in a gallery or museum (whether it actually is or not).

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Chinese classics

The Chinese Classics Go West

Somewhat improbably, in the early modern period Jesuit missionaries in China perceived anticipations of Christianity in the Chinese classics, arranging for a select few to be translated into Latin.  After assimilating them, Enlightenment intellectuals began to read them in a new key, as models of secular thinking. 

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the German philosopher Leibniz concluded that there was a need for a new, purer arithmetic to replace our common decimal system. He discovered the model for this new math in a venerable book that ranks among the classics of Chinese philosophy: the I Ching, or Book of Changes. He titled his 1679 article on the new arithmetic "Explanation of the binary arithmetic, which uses only the characters 1 and 0, with some remarks on its usefulness, and on the light it throws on the ancient Chinese figures of Fu Xi". Fu Xi was the legendary author of the I Ching (Yi jing). The arithmetic Leibniz described was binary code, which is used in almost every modern computer.

In his Philosophical Dictionary Voltaire hailed Confucius (Kongzi) as the archetypal philosopher, a veritable fount of ethical wisdom. Voltaire regarded Confucius as a model representative of Deism, which he praised as a substitute for revealed religion.

By the early nineteenth century, European enthusiasm for China had faded, but the occultation was not destined to be permanent.  At this point enter a new missionary figure, James Legge (1815 –1897), a Scottish sinologist, protestant clergyman, and scholar, distinguished for his tireless energy in rendering classical Chinese texts into English. Convinced of the need for missionaries to be able to comprehend the ideas and culture of the Chinese, in 1841 he began a project of translating the Chinese classics, a monumental task Legge completed a few years before his death. Offering both the original Chinese texts and his English-language renderings, the coverage is extraordinarily comprehensive, including not only the Confucian works and the historical and poetic texts ostensibly edited by Confucius, but also such thinkers as Mencius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi.  Most of these volumes are still in print.

Of necessity, Legge used the Chinese scholarly texts available to him.  Not long after his death in 1897. a series of archaeological discoveries threw new light on the history of ancient China, its script, and ultimately the classics themselves.  First came the recovery of the “oracle bones.”  In 1899 an antiques dealer acquired a number of inscribed bones from locals, selling several to Wang Yirong, chancellor of the Imperial Academy in Beijing. Wang is believed to be the first person in modern times to recognize the markings on the bones as ancient Chinese writing similar to the inscriptions on Zhou dynasty bronzes, which had long  been prized for their artistic excellence.  In 1908 one scholar, Luo Shenyu discovered the source of the bones at the village of Xiaotun near Anyang, the site of the last Shang dynasty capital.  In 1928-37 excavations followed, revealing some 20,000 of the oracle bones.  Today, more than 200,000 pieces are known. The texts are laconic, but nonetheless offer invaluable information on the belief systems of early China and its history.

Other finds enhance our understanding of philosophical and other discursive texts.  A number of philosophical and medical works written on silk were discovered at the Mawangdui site in 1973, where the tomb was sealed in 168 BCE. They include some of the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the Yi jing or Book of Changes, two copies of the Daodejng. and a variety of other works  Their approximately 120,000 words cover military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts: ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing, and arithmetic.

A more recent find is the Guodian Chu Slips unearthed in 1993 in Tomb No. 1 of the Guodian tombs in Hubei Province, dating from the latter half of the Warring States era, perhaps around 300 BCE. The cache contained about 804 bamboo slips. The bamboo slip texts comprise three major categories, which include the earliest manuscripts of the received text of the Daodejing one chapter from the Classic of Rites, content from the Classic of History, and other writings.

The slip-texts include both Daoist and Confucian works, many previously unknown.  Still ongoing, studies of these texts have contributed fresh information regarding the history of philosophical thought in ancient China.

We turn now to the twentieth-century reception in the West.  Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley, who adapted their Chinese translations to a modern idiom, were initially concerned with poetry and belles lettres, only developing an interest in classical works later.  Yet a major landmark occurred in Germany, where Richard Wilhelm brought out his celebrated translation of the Yi jing in 1924, earning the appreciation of Carl Gustav Jung.  Eventually this rendering achieved English-language dress, becoming a kind of bible of the Counterculture.

Finally Waley turned to the Confucian Analects (1938), producing a version that is still serviceable.

Recent decades have seen a veritable explosion of Western scholarship, especially in North America.  While much of this work focuses on established monuments, above all The Analects and the Daodejing ascribed to Laozi, there has also been a new attention to such previously neglected figures as Mozi, Xunzi, and the legalist Lord Chang.  Affinities, not all convincing, have been perceived with contemporary Western philosophy, especially of the Analytic trend. 

Less meritorious are the self-help efforts in which the Eastern insights are mined for guidance in daily life.  There are also vague pseudo-emulations such as the various books entitled The Tao of Physics, The Tao of Pooh, The Tao of Bill Murray, and so forth. where the word tao just seems to be exploited for its attention-gathering quality - click-bait as it were.

The great efflorescence of early Chinese thought began in the latter years of the Spring and Autumn Period (722-481 BCE), continuing through the Warring States Period (403-221 BCE).  These dates roughly correspond with the years of the Greek philosophical movement,  Ancient China and ancient Greece, both characterized by a multiplicity of competing states, are the two poles of the arc of the Axial Era, as defined by Karl Jaspers.

Most contemporary scholars in the English-speaking world have adopted the official pinyin transliteration, though older sinological works use Wade-Giles.  Here are the differences in a nutshell: Tao vs. Dao; and Chou vs. Zhou.  The latter examples in these pairings are pinyin, preferred in this text.

Key Thinkers


By common consent the pivotal figure is Confucius (Kongzi), who was born in the small state of Lu about 551 BCE, and after some travels died there in 479.  The main source for his life and teachings is The Analects, a book in twenty chapters which is not “by” Confucius in the conventional sense, but a composite, transmitting utterances and dialogues by the sage as recalled by his followers.  It is now generally thought that chapters 3 to 9 are the original core, with the whole text not taking its final form until about two centuries after the master’s death.

The key point may perhaps be this: cultivation of the self is the key to the health of the state.  The link is the concept of de, sometimes rendered as “virtue” but which may be more adequately expressed as “quiet charisma.”  Confucius’ view of human nature was essentially optimistic: human beings are fundamentally good, and teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. He paid close attention to the details of everyday life, achieving what Herbert Fingarette has termed “the secular as sacred.”

 Above all, one must honor ren, or benevolence, applied in the first instance within the sphere of the family and then in broader circles.  Confucius also advocated the rectification of names, which may be characterized as the harmonization of terminology with reality.  Modestly, the master claimed not to be an innovator but a transmitter of ancient truths - which however he subtly reshaped to give them his own stamp.  This connection with the past must be constantly affirmed by proper observance of the rites.  The rites also assure conformity with the supernal order or tian (“heaven”).

Some recent studies have stressed the affinity of Confucius’ teachings with virtue ethics, currently a topic of considerable interest among academic philosophers. Virtue ethics is a broad term for theories that emphasize the role of character and virtue in human conduct over against either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences. A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: “Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation.”  Unlike deontological and consequentialist theories, the precepts of virtue ethics shun the quest for universal principles applicable in any moral situation. Virtue ethics theories address wider questions such as “How should I live?”; “What is the good life?”; and “What are proper family and social values?”

During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Confucian approaches supplanted Daoist rivals as the official ideology, while the emperors eclectically blended both with the severe principles  of Legalism.  The disintegration of the Han polity in the third century CE opened the way for the doctrines of Buddhism and Neo-Daoism, which offered spiritual consolations lacking in Confucianism. 

A Confucian revival began during the Tang Dynasty of 618-907. In the late Tang, Confucianism reemerged in response to Buddhism and Daoism, being reformulated as Neo-Confucianism. This reinvigorated manifestation provided the basis of the imperial examinations and the core philosophy of the official scholar class of the Song dynasty (960-1297). The abolition of the examination system in 1905 marked the end of official Confucianism. The New Culture intellectuals of the early twentieth century blamed Confucianism for China's weaknesses. In the early years of the Maoist People’s Republic this opposition intensified, only to be reversed towards the end of the twentieth century, as the regime established Confucius institutes throughout the world. More broadly, Confucian family values and work ethic have been credited with the remarkable growth of the economies of East Asia.  


Mengzi or Mencius was a fourth-century BCE thinker whose importance in the Confucian tradition is second only to that of Confucius himself.  The relationship between the two has been compared to that of St, Paul to Jesus.  

Eschewing the laconic and sometimes enigmatic mode of his master, Mencius was a patient and gifted transmitter of Confucian ideas.  He nonetheless endowed the ideas with his own philosophical stamp. He is noted for his theory of human nature, according to which all human beings partake of an innate goodness that may either be enhanced through education and self-discipline or squandered through neglect, though never lost altogether.  

Today contemporary philosophical interest in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology has stimulated fresh appraisals of Mencius, though significant philological issues still effect his texts.


What one might term the loyal opposition Confucianism is Daoism (or Taoism),  Ostensibly, its origins go back to the sixth century BCE when the sage Laozi (or Lao Dan) created the foundational text known as the Daodejing, or Classic of the Way and Its Power. (It is sometime designated by the older rendering of the Tao Te Ching.) While some elements may indeed stem from that early era, the text probably received its developed form somewhat later, towards the end of the fourth century BCE.

The ostensible founder, Laozi  (Lao Tzu in the older transliteration) was sometimes regarded as a contemporary and opponent of Confucius, whose career is well documented.  By contrast, the historicity of Laozi is doubtful, and many have concluded that he was not a real person.  (The name Laozi simply means “the old master.”)  Still, this does not mean that the book ascribed to him, the Daodejing is a mere jumble of accumulated apercus.  It has just as much consistency as if it were compiled by a single person, a consistency that helps to account for the fact that the text has long enjoyed enormous prestige not only in China, but in the world at large.
Until recent times scholars depended on a learned edition compiled by Wang Bi in the third century CE, almost half a millennium after the traditional time of the work’s creation.  This situation changed dramatically in 1973, when the excavation of the Mawangdui tomb revealed two basically complete copies of the book that date to about 200 BCE.  While the ordering of the two main parts was the reverse of what we are accustomed to (with the De half preceding the Dao half), the text itself was essentially the same as the one edited by Wang Bi.  In 1993 a new find was made at Guodian, consisting of about 40 percent of the text inscribed on bamboo strips. This version has been dated to the late fourth century BCE.
Consisting of about 5000 characters arranged in 81 chapters, the Daodejing is a very concise book, sometimes enigmatically so. 
In both classical and modern Chinese, the basic meaning of the word dao is “road, way, path, or channel.”  Over the centuries that root sense has lent itself to a variety of extended interpretations.  While the term plays a role in all the early schools of Chinese philosophy, it enjoys a unique centrality in Daoism. As  deployed in the Daodejing and the other foundational classic, the book of Zhuangzi, the dao represents much more. It is both ineffable and pervasive, imperceptible and primordial.  It is an absolute and transcendent principle, the utterly unspeakable ground of all existence.  In its ceaseless operations dao is the spontaneous process inherent in all entities and manifested at all levels - in the human body, in society, in nature, and the cosmos.  To act in accordance with the dao means to achieve health, harmony, and inner peace.
De (“efficacy, power, virtue, integrity”) is the second most important term in the Daodejing, where it occurs 44 times, as compared with 76 occurrences of dao. In fact dao and de are complementary elements in the sense that the first is the field, the second the focus.  De must not be regarded as some powerful, thrusting force.  Rather it acts like water, persistently and patiently seeking its level.
The important concept of Wu-wei has engendered some controversy.  It seems clear, though, that the traditional rendering of the expression as “nonaction” or “no action” is mistaken, for Daoism is not a philosophy of pure quietism.  Wu-wei is probably best understood as “effortless action” or “nonwilful action.”
A central concern is the belief, shared with some other Chinese classical schools, that society and the individuals comprising it had somehow lost their way, departing ever more from the truly authentic state that had prevailed in the past.  Artifice and guile had supplanted primordial innocence. This conviction is the approach that some Western scholars term primitivism.  

At all events, it is only with the greatest effort that one can strive to return to the desired condition of primordial innocence.  Pu, meaning “unworked wood; inherent quality; simple,” provided an early Daoist metaphor for the natural state of humanity.  It relates to the broader concept of Ziran (literally, “self-so”), “natural, spontaneous.”
Any confidence we may have about the doctrines taught in the Daodejing must be provisional because of the way that the narration deploys the technique of apophasis or the via negativa.  “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.”  In different form apophasis is found in Christian mystical thought.  A related concept is emptiness, not unlike the kenosis of Christian tradition.
The other foundational text of early Daoism, the Book of Zhuangzi, differs greatly from the Daodejing in both tone and presentation, though many of the same doctrines are affirmed.  The earliest part of the text, presumably going back to the sage Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) himself, is the first seven chapters, known as the Inner Chapters.  The other twenty-six chapters, probably later additions, present a variety of allied viewpoints.  The original core seems to belong to the second half of the fourth century BCE, roughly contemporary with the Daodejing according to current reckoning.
The title of one translation, Wandering on the Way (Victor Mair), captures the casual, sometimes light-hearted tone of Zhuangzi’s account. Most of the thirty-three surviving chapters contain parables and allegories.  In fact these play a central role in the exposition, and are typically witty, emotional, and sometimes fantastic. They do not seem to be retellings of earlier stories, but invented for the purpose.  Some tales are whimsical, such as the curious account of evolution from misty spray through a series of substances and small creatures to horses and human beings.  There is also an episode where a man fears that his left arm will turn into a rooster, his right arm will become a crossbow, and his buttocks assume the form of cartwheels.
Because of the vivid tales it contains, the Book of Zhuangzi is rightly regarded as the first book of Chinese short stories; and this labile creativity is probably the best way to understand its purpose.
The stories and anecdotes proliferating in the Zhuangzi present a striking set of principles and attitudes.  Some of the most salient are living one’s life with genuine spontaneity, merging one’s inner self with the dao, keeping aloof from politics and social obligations, accepting death as part of the process, showing appreciation for small things, and determined opposition to social values and conventional reasoning. The Zhuangzi teaches that the key to true happiness lay in freeing oneself from the world and its standards through the application of the Wu-wei principle.
The book interprets the universe as something that changes spontaneously, without a supreme divine figure to guide it.  It is the obligation of human beings to strive for happiness by living spontaneously, in keeping with the principle of Ziren.  In actuality, though, the human intellect lingers on artificial distinctions, such as good versus bad, big versus small, and usefulness versus uselessness.
The Book of Zhuangzi has frequent recourse to analogies with craftsmen and artisans, such as the skilled woodcarver and the skilled butcher.  These people do not tie themselves into knots pondering about the theory of their activity, but simply do it.
The Zuangzi opposed formal government, regarded as problematic at its foundation, for as soon as government interferes in human affairs it destroys all chance of individual happiness.  For this reason the book has sometimes been regarded as proto-anarchist.
Mozi is conventionally regarded as standing over against both Confucianism and Daoism; yet there are overlaps as well.  Mozi's moral teachings emphasized self-reflection and authenticity rather than obedience to ritual. His world-view is characterized by a vein of hard-headedness, and he observed that we often learn about the world through adversity. Mozi exhorted people to lead a life of asceticism and self-restraint, renouncing both material and spiritual extravagance.
By reflecting on one's own successes and failures, one attains true self-knowledge in a way that mere conformity to ritual cannot secure. Like Confucius, Mozi respected the paragons of early Chinese history, but he criticized the Confucian tendency to idealize conviction the ways of the ancients. After all, what we think of as "ancient" was actually innovative in its time, and thus should not be used to hinder present-day innovation. Mozi maintained that people were capable of changing their circumstances and directing their own lives. They could do this by applying their senses to observing the world, judging objects and events by their causes, their functions, and their historical bases.
Mozi sought to amend the long-entrenched Chinese over-attachment to family and clan structures with the concept of "impartial caring" or "universal love.”  In this regard, he argued directly against Confucians who maintained that it was correct for individuals to care about different people in different degrees. By contrast, Mozi argued that in principle one should care for all people equally, a notion that philosophers in other schools rejected, as they interpreted this notion as implying no special amount of care or duty towards one's parents and family. Mozi believed that “universal love" comes from righteousness while "differential" entails human effort. Furthermore, Mozi’s basic argument concerning universal love asserts that universal love is supremely practical, an argument directed against those who objected that such love could not be put into practice.
Somewhat disconcertingly, Mozi also subscribed to a belief in the power of ghosts and spirits, although he is often thought to have only worshipped them pragmatically. In fact, in his discussion on ghosts and spirits, he remarks that even if they did not exist, communal gatherings for the sake of making sacrificial offering would play a role in strengthening social bonds. 
Modern interpreters regard Mohist ethics as a form of consequentialism - more specifically, state consequentialism.  Mohist ethics seeks to ground the moral worth of an action on how it contributes to the stability of a state,[through social order, material wealth, and population growth. During Mozi's time, war and famines were rife, and population growth ranked as a moral necessity for a harmonious society.  Unlike Jeremy Bentham, Mozi discounted the importance of individual happiness; was important; state interests outweigh the consequences of individual actions.
Mohism was suppressed under the Qin dynasty, dying out completely under the Han, which adopted Confucianism as the official doctrine. Yet many Mohist ideas migrated into the mainstream of Chinese thought, since both Confucians such as Xunzi and Daoists such as Zhuangzi show affinities with Mozi's concerns. 

Xunzi, who lived in the third century BCE, ranks with Confucius and Mencius as one of the three foundational architects of Confucian philosophy.  Distancing himself some of the other thinkers of the time, he articulated a systematic version of Confucianism encompassing ethics, metaphysics, political theory, philosophy of language, and a well-developed philosophy of education. He shows a close familiarity with other thinkers of the epoch.

In this light Xunzi took exception to Mencius’ optimistic view that human nature is basically good.  Instead, he held that in its raw form it is unsatisfactory. Left to itself, human nature lacks an innate moral compass, falling into contention and disorder.  However, we are not obliged to simply accept this inadequacy.  He makes an analogy with the crafts. For example, carefully treated wood can be permanently shaped into forms that are elegant and useful.

In this endeavor ritual is an essential tool with important benefits for the individual and society as a whole.  Xunzi declined to endorse claims for the supernatural efficacy of ritual.   Instead he focused on humanity's part in shaping the roles and practices of an orderly society, assigning a much smaller role to Heaven or Nature as controlling sources of order or morality than most other thinkers of his day. 

Although Xunzi’s thought was later sometimes castigated as standing outside the bounds of Confucian orthodoxy, it remained influential during China’s later centuries. 


While the term legalism has come under fire for its inaccuracy, it remains as useful label for a tendency in late Zhou thought that continued into the Han dynasty and beyond.  To be sure, the legalists were not a self-aware and organized intellectual current; rather the term arose to categorize certain thinkers and texts.  As such it long served as a bibliographical category in imperial libraries. It has been said that the Chinese term fa jia is misleading, inadvertently reducing the rich intellectual content of this current to a single keyword, fa. In fact the semantic field of the term fa is much broader than “law,” embracing methods, standards, impersonal regulations and the like.  While the term “legalism” was coined only during the Han dynasty, its roots—or more accurately the habit of grouping together several thinkers who will be eventually dubbed “legalists”—can be traced to the philosopher Han Fei (d. 233 BCE), who is often considered the most significant representative of this intellectual current. 

In an essay on the “essence of the six schools of thought,” the historian Sima Tan notices that fa jia are “strict and have little kindness,” and “do not distinguish between kin and stranger, nor differentiate between noble and base: everything is determined by the standard (or law, fa).” Sima Tan criticized the Legalists’ approach as “a one-time policy that could not be constantly applied,” but also hailed the fa jia for “honoring rulers and derogating subjects, and clearly distinguishing offices so that no one can overstep his responsibilities.”

Of the ten “Legalist” texts in the Han imperial catalogue, six ceased circulating more than a millennium ago; two have survived relatively intact, and of two others only a few fragments survived vicissitudes of time. The earliest (in terms of its composition) surviving text is the Book of Lord Shang,  ascribed to Shang Yang (aka Gongsun Yang or Lord Shang), a harsh reformer who helped to orchestrate the rise of the state of Qin to the position of a leading power of the Chinese world. 

Lord Shang was a statist of a particularly rigorist sort.  He proposed dividing society into a hierarchy of some twenty different ranks.  Everyone must accept mobilization in the service of the state.  Those who fell behind in the execution of their duties through laziness or contumely would become government slaves.

The second major surviving text, Han Feizi, is attributed to Han Fei, a scion of the ruling family from the state of Han, a tragic figure who was allegedly killed while in the custody of the King of Qin, whom Han Fei wanted to serve. Of all Legalist texts in the Han imperial catalogue, the Han Feizi has fared the best over the vicissitudes of time: all of its 55 chapters attested in the Han catalog are still intact. The issue of whether or not the entire book had been penned by Han Fei is debatable: considerable differences among the chapters in terms of style and mode of argumentation suggest that they come from different authors.  Still it is generally accepted that the whole reflects Han Fei’s views.

With his pragmatic approach to government and politics, Han Fei has been compared to Machiavelli and Hobbes.  In rulers he advocated a policy of concealment and even guile so that they would neither be distracted by the flattery of followers nor hobbled by objections devised by opponents.

Unlike many thinkers of his day, Han Fei discounted appeals to the sages of early times, supposed paragons of morality and skill.  He held that living so long before as they did, it was not possible to know much about them. Moreover, times change and what may have been appropriate at one era is unlikely to be appropriate now.

One should not set one’s hopes in the prospect of an ideal ruler, for most rulers are of necessity of an intermediate type.  Yet if institutions can be secured, the ensuing continuity would make it possible to survive a bad ruler.

Han Fei decried the presence of “socially useless” individuals, including classical scholars (that is, Confucians), wandering orators, private swordsmen, draft dodgers, and merchants.  Appropriate steps must be taken to eliminate such noxious individuals.

In rhetoric and public speaking great care must be taken to adjust one’s message to the audience - again a pragmatic approach.

The broader context of the legalists is that, largely ignoring morality and questions pertaining to how a society ideally should work, they directed attention to the actual functioning of contemporary government.  In their view, hardheaded realism dictated a pragmatic strategy for consolidating the wealth and power of the ruler and the state, with the goal of attaining increased social order, security, and stability. Not surprisingly, their texts appealed to the needs of the emergent bureaucracy of the Han dynasty.


A welcome plethora of recent studies and translations has made it possible to go beyond the Dynamic Duo of Confucius and Laozi so as to assess a whole constellation of thought. Among the new translations are exemplary editions of Mozi, Xunzi, and the Hainanzi (the latter an important Han-era compilation). From this richness lessons for today have been discerned.  Not all of these interpretations are convincing, but the effort to comprehend this amazing body of material is surely worthwhile.

Some useful references.

Antonio S. Cua (Editor), Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy, London: Routledge, 2003.
Wiebke Denecke, The Dynamics of Masters Literature: Early Chinese Thought from Confucius to Han  Feizi,  Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2010.
Feng Youlan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, trans. Derk Bodde, 2nd edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Angus C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
Christoph Harbsmeier, Logic and Language in Ancient China, (in Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 7, Part I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Philip J. Ivanhoe, and Bryan W. Van Norden (Editors), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd edition, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005.
Mark Edward Lewis, Writing and Authority in Early China, Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.
Michael Loewe (Editor), Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide, Berkeley: The Society for Early China, 1993.
Michael J. Puett, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2002.
Benjamin Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1985.
Bryan W. Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.
Arthur Waley, Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, London: Allen and Unwin, 1939.
Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

To learn Classical Chinese see the following site: 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Vagaries of the word queer

During the 1990s, with the rise of Queer Nation and Queer Theory, there seemed a serious possibility that "queer" would become hegemonic, a universal label for all of us same-sexers and possibly other nonconformists as well. 

Things did not turn out that way, for Queer Nation has been essentially defunct for some years now, and Queer Theory is collapsing, together with its postmodern cousins in the academy. No one that I know of speaks of queer rights or queer marriage. So the q word has not, despite the aspirations of some observers, become the overall label of choice. That function has been assumed by LGBT - not in my view the ideal solution, but it has in fact become the answer. 

All the same there is still a use for the queer label. In the current assimilationist climate there is a danger that our heritage (if I may use the term) of outlaw/outsider affirmation will be swept away. Yet it continues, as the Queercore film shows. So the word queer should still be employed for this, dare I say, heroic affirmation of the outsider tradition. But the q word is contraindicated as a generic term, and those of us who object to its hegemonic deployment are justified: it does not apply to us.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

More on Islam

In an earlier posting, I cited Milo's three points about Islam. There are, in addition, two overarching issues. The first is that in many Western countries Muslim immigrants resist accepting the unwritten rule of all such migration: assent to the norms of your new country. Instead, Muslims, many of them at least, expect us to modify our behavior, customs, and laws to adhere to their own preferred models - models which have singularly failed in the unhappy nations from which they have fled.
Secondly, Islam is a system of total social control in which individuality is ruthlessly, sometimes violently suppressed. Why would anyone agree to such incursions? Well, some do, as Erich Fromm showed in his book The Fear of Freedom (UK title).
A while back I was sitting on a bench near the Episcopal cathedral here and fell into a conversation with a young woman. She said that a verger had approached her about becoming an Episcopalian. She remarked that being Jewish she didn't think so. Instead, she was considering converting to Islam. Why? Because she liked the idea that it imposed boundaries.
In its extreme form this flight from freedom recalls those old ads in the tabloids which went something like this. "Respond respectfully to this request from Master Abdul. This will be the last decision you will ever have to make.


I have been receiving the postings from Milo Yiannopoulos and his team. Clearly these are of value in the interest of sampling a wide variety of opinion. 
Some things Milo says are needlessly provocative and hinder reception of his more valid assertions (yes, there are some as I will explain presently). I am not a feminist, but his assertion that feminism is a cancer is irresponsible and inaccurate. Feminism is not monolithic: it comes in many varieties and one can choose the assertions therein that one wants to subscribe to. Apparently, even Milo believes that women must have equal treatment under the law.
In a recent interview Milo condensed his views into two main principles. First, he is opposed to political correctness with its assumption that only one set of views is legitimate; divergence from this orthodoxy must be discouraged or suppressed. Of course PC advocates are entitled to express their views; they just must stop insisting that they are the only acceptable ones. I agree.
Secondly, he points out that the commanding heights of the American knowledge and opinion industries, namely academia, the mainstream media, and Hollywood, are overwhelmingly liberal, in figures approaching 9 to 1. Despite denials, this is so, as many surveys have shown.
Then there is his attitude to Islam, sometimes disfigured to be sure by rhetorical exaggeration. He makes three points about Muslims: unwillingness to accept the principle of freedom of opinion and expression; inferiorization of women; and the belief that homosexual conduct must be forbidden. In this context I remain puzzled by the left's longterm love affair with Islam. Maybe this strange infatuation is ebbing now; I hope so.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Classics: fire in the ashes

Recent decades have seen a gradual fading of the notion of the special superiority of ancient Greece.  In modern times it is arguable that the first truly influential champion of this idea was the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann.  While his History of the Art of Antiquity of 1768  gives some perfunctory attention to Egypt, it is essentially an account of the glories of ancient Greece in the aesthetic realm.  The significance of the Romans was secondary, as transmitters of this primary heritage.

The expression “Greek Miracle” has a somewhat later origin, as it was coined by Ernest Renan as a result of a visit to Athens in 1865, which he recounted a few years later.  Trained as a Semitic philologist Renan came to believe in something he called the “Jewish miracle,” culminating in his Life of Jesus of 1863. Visiting Athens as part of a Middle Eastern tour he was “blown away” by the sight of the Acropolis.  He then formulated his idea of the “Greek miracle”  paralleling the Jewish one.  In this way Renan recognized two primordial sources of our civiilization: Jerusalem and Athens.

Over time at the instance of others this insight hardened into the sense that ancient Greece was sui generis, a great leap into the kingdom of logic and reason, setting it off from its more primitive precursors in the ancient Near East and pharaonic Egypt. According to Henri Frankfort, "ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians lived in a wholly mythopoeic world". Each natural force, each concept, was a personal being from their viewpoint: "In Egypt and Mesopotamia the divine was comprehended as immanent - the gods were in nature." This immanence and multiplicity of the divine is a direct result of mythopoeic thought: hence, the first step in the loss of mythopoeic thought was the fading of this view of the divine. "It was the Greeks, inventors of philosophy as we know it, who first emancipated themselves from mythopoeic thought.  Today we live in a world that was defined by them.”

Edith Hamilton offered a similar view  Her widely-read account The Greek Way of 1930 (five additional chapters were added in 1942) made classical studies, previously the province of the elite, a popular realm.  Regrettably, some passages make for dismal reading.  She views all of the East  - not just Egypt and the ancient Near East, but also India and China - as hopelessly enveloped in tyranny and economic misery.  In this monolithic view vast terrains of human achievement are regarded as incapable of change - unless, I suppose, they can somehow adopt the model of ancient Greece. This stereotype of the unchanging East is a staple of Orientalist scholarship, rightly critiqued by Edward Said.  Moreover, her account of Greek art is limited to the familiar chestnuts of the fifth century, leaving out the impressive discoveries of archaic art beginning in the Acropolis excavations in the 1880s.  The Pre-Socratic thinkers are a similar omission.

Eventually, this stark dichotomy between the glories of ancient Greece and its less advanced precursors faded.  Several developments fostered this fading. First, there was the comparison of civilizations found in the systems of Spengler and Toynbee.  To be sure, one could maintain that ancient Greece was still superior to all of its cousins, but it was harder to do so. 

The solution in my view is to return to an expanded version of Renan’s original pluralism.  Indeed, the rise of Greece was significant.  But no more so, in all likelihood, than the rise of ancient China and India - not to mention the societies of the New World.

While many believe, or seemed to believe that ancient Greece was self-generating, owing no debt to the venerable civilizations to the east and south, it has long been clear, for example, that the Greek alphabet derived from the alphabet of the Phoenicians, a Semitic-speaking people dwelling on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

In his controversial series called Black Athena (1987ff.) Martin Bernal usefully laid out the options.  Bernal challenged Eurocentric attitudes by calling into question two of the longest-established explanations for the origins of classical civilization. The Aryan Model, still common today, maintains that Greek culture ensued from the conquest from the north by Indo-European speakers, or "Aryans," over the native "pre-Hellenes." The Ancient Model, which enjoyed some favor in Classical Greece itself, held that the native population of Greece had initially been civilized by Egyptian and Phoenician colonists and that additional Near Eastern culture had been introduced to Greece by Greeks studying in Egypt and Southwest Asia. Moving beyond these prevailing models, Bernal proposes a Revised Ancient Model, which suggests that classical civilization in fact had deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures.

Significant in fact is the the more general challenge posed by indebtedness to the older neighboring civilizations.  Bernal’s Black Athena proved controversial in that it focused too exclusively on Egypt. 

Yet the ancient Near East was a more serious candidate, as shown by Martin West in The East Face of Helicon.  In fact over the last sixty years scholars have increasingly acknowledged links connecting early Greek poetry with the literatures of the ancient Near East. Martin West's major monograph surpassed previous studies in comprehensiveness, demonstrating these links with massive and detailed documentation and showing they are much more fundamental and pervasive than has hitherto been recognized. His survey embraces Hesiod, the Homeric epics, the lyric poets, and Aeschylus, and concludes with an illuminating discussion of possible avenues of transmission between the orient and Greece.

Over the last two decades the notion that the Greeks were exceptional has been questioned ever more widely. It has been emphasized that they were just one of many ethnic and linguistic groups centered in the eastern end of the ancient Mediterranean world. Long before the Greeks appeared in the historical record, several complicated civilizations had existed – the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, the Hattians and Hittites. Other peoples provided the Greeks with crucial technological advances; they learned the phonetic alphabet from the Phoenicians, and how to mint coins from the Lydians. They may have learned how to compose elaborate cult hymns from the mysterious Luwians of Syria and central Anatolia. During the period in which the Greeks invented rational philosophy and science, after 600 BCE, their horizons were dramatically opened up by the expansion of the Persian empire.. Many of these thrilling advances have revealed how much the Greeks shared with, and absorbed from, their predecessors and neighbors. Painstaking comparative studies have been published, making these debts clear.

In her monograph When the Gods Were Born, Caterina López Ruiz maintains we should no longer think of the Near East-Greek nexus as simply one of donor-recipient in which the older cultures of Western Asia exported ideas and motifs, which were then reframed by the Greeks. Instead, she believes that one should speak of a larger koine, in which these elements freely circulate. This model would imply that there are components which started in Greece and moved eastwards (in addition to the more familiar reverse process). Thus far the components of this kind that have been detected are few, at least prior to the Hellenistic period. But one may expect to find more of them.

Secondly, López Ruiz emphasizes the pivotal role of the Ugarit (Ras Shamra) and the Phoenicians--the northwest Semitic area in what is now western Syria and Lebanon--as a a kind of laboratory or entrepot in which the culture mixing took place. Hitherto the greatest emphasis has been on the Hittites and Hurrians (in Asia Minor) as transmitters. That northern route was still important, though, and since the Hittites and Hurrians were Indo-European, it serves to remind us that the broader issue is not a simple contrast between Indo-European Greeks and Semitic Mesopotamians. In the transmission of myth, language was probably not as important as usually assumed. We must also expect that a good many bilingual individuals were involved.

All this information complicates the picture.  But do we really wish to throw the baby out with the bath?  Can it be that the Greek accomplishment, while not wholly novel, was in fact hugely significant?  As such it can be studied as a participant in a kind of congress of ancient root civilizations, including Egypt and the Near East, India, and China. 

At all events classical studies have not been idle in the last few years.  Here are some recent developments,

1) French contributions.  French classicists have been active and influential in the closing decades of the twentieth century.  A number of leading figures, including Marcel Detienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, have been influenced by the structuralism of the anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss.  This model facilitates integration of bipolar factors, such as above vs. below, sexual excess vs. sexual restraint, and so forth  - sometimes entailing the neglect of long-term factors, such as precursors in Mycenaean Greece and the ancient Near East.

 A number of monographs have been translated into English. A representative example is Marcel Detienne’s Gardens of Adonis. The author challenges Sir James Frazer's thesis that the vegetation god Adonis -- whose premature death was mourned by women and whose resurrection marked a joyous occasion--represented the annual cycle of growth and decay in agriculture. Using the analytic tools of structuralism, Detienne maintained that the festivals of Adonis depict a seductive but impotent and fruitless deity--whose physical ineptitude led to his death in a boar hunt, after which his body was found in a lettuce patch. Contrasting the festivals of Adonis with the solemn ones dedicated to Demeter, the goddess of grain, he presents the former as a parody and negation of the institution of marriage.

Detienne considers the short-lived gardens that Athenian women planted in mockery for Adonis's festival, and explores the function of such vegetal matter as spices, mint, myrrh, cereal, and wet plants in religion and in a wide selection of myths. His inquiry touches on attitudes toward sexual activities ranging from "perverse" acts to marital relations.

Honesty requires the admission that the International resonance of these scholars has been fading for some time. Trained in the French lycée system, the leading figures seem to be talking among themselves.

2) Feminism and Gender Studies. The appearance of second-wave feminism in the 1960s affected all the humanities,  sometimes fostering renewed attention to old problems, in other cases casting doubt on the very subject. In this connection some were inclined to abjure the classical culture of Greece and Rome altogether as hopelessly patriarchal - the realm of the dreaded DWEMs (dead white European males). Yet there were a number of trained classicists women who were also feminists, finding value in linking the two commitments.

During the 1990s some advocated merging women’s studies into a larger whole termed Gender Studies, adding to the study of women also the study of men, and embracing such issues as the relation between gender and biological sex, as well as the flourishing investigations of same-sex behavior and its representations. 

Initially some feminists were drawn to the trend to revived the old theories of matriarchy introduced by J. J. Bachofen In the nineteenth century.  Gradually this preoccupation faded away because of the paucity of evidence.

In the realm of professional classical studies an early landmark was Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. This 1975 monograph by Hunter College professor Sarah Pomeroy ranks as a turning point in the study of women in ancient history, as it deals with a wide variety of roles for which we have evidence from early times to the death of Constantine.

In the ensuing decades women scholars turned to literary and dramatic literature, which was found to be less relentlessly patriarchal than former assumed. Greek tragedy, with such figures as Alcestis, Antigone, Iphigenia, Medea, and Phaedra, proved particularly fruitful ground.

There have also been significant studies of same-sex behavior and its representation.  While generally recognizing the role of the binary male-and-female, scholars in this realm have also emphasized liminal figures, such as the hermaphrodite and the eunuch.  There were also serial gender-switchers, such as Tiresias.

3) Reception studies. The end of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a major new effort in classical studies.  Considered promising by some, the capacity of Reception Studies to revitalize the field remains problematic.  It has nonetheless generated a considerable volume of scholarship, assuring tenure for at least a few academics.  It bears sustained attention.

The precursors of this approach were a group of German literary theorists of the School of Konstanz, headed by Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997) and Wolfgang Iser (1926-2007).  Jauss’s English-language book, Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (1982) made the approach known outside of Germany.

These scholars upheld the concept of reader-response criticism.  In a nutshell, the idea is this.  Up to now literary studies have focused on three major concerns: source-spotting; links with the biography of the creator; and the formal qualities of the work.  Left out is what may be the most crucial aspect at all: the way the attentive reader constitutes the work in the actual task of reading it, which is primarily a silent, individual endeavor.  This is the act of Reception.

The drawback of this method as originally formulated is that it may lead to critical anarchy.  How can one know which readerly approach is best if everything is in the care of the individual consumer, with all of his or her quirks and penchants?  As the Latin proverb has it, Quot homines, tot sententiae.  Thus there is a swirl of competing interpretations, as each act of reading makes way for a new one. Subjectivity is king. 

The specter of subjectivity fostered a reformulation of the issue, recognizing that the effort of decoding the work is not simply a matter of individual caprice, as it were, for such judgments respond to overarching factors that are collective in nature.  These factors include the subculture of academics (who continue to occupy the commanding heights), gender, social class, ideology, and fashion.

For their part, Jauss and Iser had stressed the role of the individual interpreter.  As the idea spread, though, it was realized that it is unwise to ignore the collective aspects, for we read not just as individuals but, willy-nilly, as participants in a group endeavor

An early formulation of this issue is due to an American professor of English, Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in This Class, 1980).  Fish stressed the role of interpretive communities.  Embracing the relativistic implications of the reader-response theory, Fish maintained that a text does not have meaning apart from an overarching set of cultural assumptions.  This context includes authorial intent, though it is not limited to it.  He claimed that we as individuals interpret texts because each of us is part of an interpretive community that supplies us with a particular way of reading a text.  This is so, he held, even though we may not be fully aware of the nature of this collective endeavor and the way it shapes our perceptions,

There is also a diachronic aspect, because over the course of time different emphases are dominant.  

Let us briefly consider a particularly rich example, the work of the great Latin poet Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro; 70 BCE-19 CE).  His first two lyric collections, the Eclogues and the Georgics, are themselves examples of reception, owing much to the examples of the Hellenistic Greek bucolic poetry found in Theocritus and Bion.  His major work, the Aeneid, is indebted to Homer.  

Fortunately, Vergil’s request that the Aeneid be destroyed on his death was not honored, and it quickly took its place as the national epic of Rome.  In late antiquity his somewhat mysterious Fourth Eclogue, featuring a charismatic child as a kind of savior figure, was welcomed by Christians as a prophecy of their faith.  Tertullian hailed the Latin poet as anima naturaliter Christiana.

There were also occult aspects.  In late antiquity, for example, Vergil’s works functioned in a kind of divination exercise, the Sortes Virgilianae, whereby one would open the text of his works at random, seeking guidance from the passage so revealed.  During the Middle Ages Vergil took on the legendary guise of a magician.  Yet the supreme medieval exemplar of the cult of Vergil is his role as Dante’s guide in the Divine Comedy.

In various ways the Aeneid served as a model for Renaissance vernacular epics, such as Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) and Camoes’ The Lusiads (1572).  

The persistence of Latin as the common vehicle of intellectual communication in Europe assured Vergil a continuing readership.  Yet in eighteenth-century Germany Vergil was somewhat downgraded because of the preference for ancient Greek works, especially Homer.  Still, Italians continued to cherish the Latin poet who was viewed as a national treasure.  In France, the composer Hector Berlioz utilized the Aeneid for the libretto of his grand opera, “Les Troyens,” composed between 1856 and 1858.

With the decline of Latin, Vergil is nowadays mainly read in modern languages, with some inevitable loss of the aesthetic qualities that depend on the special character of the Latin language.

In principle the reception approach can be applied to any past or present cultural manifestation that is regarded as worthy of study.  The following is the expansive view of the Reception Studies Working Group at the University of California, Davis.  “Reception studies confront us with the changing intellectual and cultural roles of sacred and profane canons of art and literature in the broadest sense. Indeed tracking receptions requires an examination of the cultural setting of the reception in which the new work appears; the authority of learned environments and educational systems in general; the relationship of culture and politics where canons and their reception are created, translated, promulgated, and preserved.  [The task is to] examine how the various appropriations of earlier texts and cultural forms have responded to them as prompts, have imitated or echoed them, have inspired new cultural, scientific and artistic developments, selectively read or edited them, undermined them, or otherwise used them, all of which constitute their reception history.”

However this may be, in the present context the issues stem from classical reception - the reception of Homer, Pindar, the Pre-Socratics, Thucydides, Epicurus, Cicero, Ovid, Tacitus and many other authors and historical figures.  The approach also serves to address classical achievements in the visual arts, where the Parthenon in Athens, the Pantheon in Rome, the sculptural group known as the Laocoon - not to speak of many other works - have had complex reception histories.

Reception Studies seeks to delineate this pluralism.  It has something in common with the older idea of “our classical heritage,” sometimes phrased as the Legacy of Ancient Greece and Rome, though it regards such this concept as too passive and too dependent on the flattering notion that classical works are unchanging, inviolate paradigms of splendor.  Then there is the idea of our debt to ancient Greece and Rome.  All these metaphors - heritage, legacy, and debt are ultimately rooted in economics.

Two languages that have been major vehicles of classical scholarship yield more vital metaphors.  In German one speaks of the Nachleben of the classics, sometimes rendered as survival, but the original term is more strongly vitalistic: the classics live on - they have an afterlife.  But do they live on just as they are, or is there some quality of the supernatural?  That is, are they revenants, kindly ghosts accompanying us on our journey?  

Continuity is also implicit in the Italian term fortuna, though this expression also connotes precariousness, for the turns of the Wheel of Fortune can be capricious.  Ultimately, this term may be rooted in the Greek tyche, though this implies good fortune.

For its part, the Latin language gives us the moniker of traditio, or handing down. This time-honored concept is not entirely satisfactory, for in assigning the consumer a passive role as a mere recipient it denies agency at the point of delivery.

In his perceptive book on Sophocles entitled Oedipus at Thebes (1957), the Hellenist Bernard Knox has encapsulated the older view that the Reception approach challenges.  “What does [the Oedipus Tyrannus”] mean to us now? And the answer suggested is: the same thing it meant to them, there, then. For in this case the attempt to understand the play as a particular phenomenon reveals its universal nature, the rigidly historical method finds itself uncovering the timeless.”  Knox displays a confidence few would endorse nowadays, as we recognize that all efforts to recover the mentality and, if you will, the message of works conceived long ago in a society very different from our own are fraught with uncertainty.  Moreover, Knox’s own views were colored by his own experiences.  As a US Army soldier he fought in Italy in World War II.  The success of that effort encouraged some in the belief that in the radiant postwar era we were entering a new, juster world order.  And the classics would take their place among the pillars of that order.

Reception studies proceed from very different premises.  This approach holds that can have no confidence that we can recover - and then endorse - the true meaning of any work that has come down to us from the past.  

Yet it may be that Reception bears the traits of is own era, the approach that can be broadly termed postmodernism.  In this view everything is fluid and transitional. There is no stable reality to be recovered from the past, only changing perceptions thereof.  A more balanced view combines the recognition of the value of the source works with a delineation of the transformations that have enriched - though also sometimes distorted - our understanding of the source works.  

At all events, even in this era of a crisis in publishing, some academic presses have enthusiastically embraced the reception approach.  Oxford University Press, the leader in this endeavor, now offers more than seventy titles in its Classical Presences series.

Some caveats are appropriate.  Do reception studies truly offer salvation - or even solace - for classical studies?  This hopeful conclusion is questionable, because in place of the older confidence in the intrinsic value of the classics, the new approach relegates them to the modest status of triggers in a process that ends up overshadowing them.  In this way the classics assume a minor role in a narrative that in its many twists and turns inevitably overshadows the originals.  Moreover, in focusing - as it sometimes does - on adaptations in film and television, in the comics and electronic games, the approach runs the risk of pandering to popular taste, with scanty positive yield.  


Lin Foxhall, Studying Gender in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge, 2013.

Johanna Hanink, The Classical Debt, Cambridge, Mass., 2017.

Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray, eds., A Companion to Classical Receptions, Malden, Mass., 2011.

Brooke Holmes, Gender: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Oxford, 2012.

Nicole Loraux et al., eds., Antiquities (Postwar French Thought, III), New York, 2001.

Daniel Orrells, Sex: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Oxford, 2013.

Michael Squire, The Art of the Body: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Oxford, 2011.

John J. Winkler and Froma Zeitlin, eds. Nothing to Do with Dionysus?  Athenian Drama and Its Social Context, Princeton, 1990.