Traditional Chinese Concepts and 17th-18th Century Enlightenment Ideals: Reflections on the IHS Conference on Freedom, Equality, Democracy, and the Rise of Market Economy, October 2015



Kirill O. Thompson

Associate Dean, Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences at National Taiwan University. Professor, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, National Taiwan University.


  Despite the continuing drumbeat of the official Chinese mantra that "the twain shall never meet," values from the Chinese Classics of "the East" were important catalysts in the formation of the ideals of modern politics, society, and economy in 17th and 18th century Europe and America of "the West," including the values of equality, freedom, rights. For example, a number of 17th-18th century French radical thinkers culminating with Voltaire (1694-1778) and Rousseau (1712-1778) drew inspiration from the Chinese classics in their challenges to socio-political inequality, the divine right of kings, etc. Admittedly, the ideas and values had different nuances and played out differently than in the early China, however their general thrust accorded well with radical aspirations in 17th and 18th century Europe. The precise impact of the Chinese Classics is hard to gauge because the French radical thinkers had to express themselves in their own idiom to persuade their compatriots. In Chun-chieh Huang's terms, the French radicals had to "decontextualize" the ideas from Chinese language and culture, then "recontextualize" them in their own idiom to make them palatable to their country-men—and less vulnerable to conservative cultural and religious attacks. Following the French radical thinkers, educated American colonials and American founders, admired the Chinese Classics, especially Confucius (Kongzi, 孔子 551-479 B.C.E.) and the Four Books (Sishu 四書).

  The following discussion will consider the following questions: What early Chinese ideas and values were influential in the formation of 18th century Enlightenment ideals? What figures and ideas in the Chinese classics did the educated American colonials and founders admire? How were some early Chinese ideals implicated in the formation of the American ethic and republic?

  Before proceeding, let me disarm one potential question. Many regard Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) as a key architect of modern liberalism, with its stress on freedom and individual rights, which contrast sharply with the Confucian stress on relational humanity and consonant action. There is some truth in this but we must bear in mind, however, that Jefferson admired the Greek polis and regarded warm familial and social relations as fundaments to a healthy society and a full life. Jefferson's lifelong emphasis on cultivation through family upbringing, education, social activity, and daily study is reminiscent of Confucius' cultivation concerns and practices. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are minimal guarantees that any government and legal system ought to offer every citizen. Confucius and Mencius (Mengzi 孟子, 372-289 B.C.E.) speak similarly of the ruler's obligation to assure the security and livelihood of the people. In this spirit, Mencius asserts that the hearts and minds of the people are the barometer of the ruler's performance and qualification to rule.

  What did the French radical thinkers like about the Chinese Classics? They liked the idea of a self-sufficient, organically organized world, in which definite reciprocal principles of equilibrium and harmony could be seen at work. Such a view would be at variance with Theistic concepts of inert matter, divine fiat, miracles, etc., that served as the ultimate basis of the notion of the divine right of kings, which in essence justified arbitrary rule by a tiny patrician minority.

  Interestingly, Leibniz (1646-1717) tried to reconcile these Naturalistic and Theistic views of the world by means of the idea of spiritual monads at the heart of phenomena, shaping and guiding phenomena through reflection/perception, with the most luminous supreme monad at the top: As God is to all, the king is to society. The Achilles' heel of Leibniz's compromise was that the spiritual link ultimately appears to be more like a Deus ex Machina than a necessary requirement.[1] While Leibniz touted this spiritual link as the eternal essence of phenomena, it appeared superfluous to scientific inquiry and philosophic reflection. It could seemingly puff out of existence in an instant without making any difference.

  How could this Chinese view catalyze the formation of the 17th-18th century ideals? Most importantly, the Chinese organic view of the world lays the ground for derivative ideas of humanity (rendao 人道) and ethics (daode 道德), as expressed by Confucius and Mencius. Derived from a structured, organic view of the world, these ideas suggest that all people are born with a budding sense of dignity and propriety, and that with proper upbringing they will feel sympathetic and well-disposed toward others, a conception far removed from the Christian view of humanity as fallen, prone to sin, and in dire need of atonement and divine revelation.

  Consistent with these ideas of being born with a budding sense of dignity and propriety and the possibility of sympathy and concern for others are implicit notions of equality, dignity, freedom, and in a formative sense, rights. Such notions are implicitly played out as follows in the early Confucian classics: viewing society and state as organisms, modeled on family ties and responsibilities, Confucius and Mencius stress the ultimate dependence of rulers on their people, and the ruler's responsibility to prioritize the people's welfare and well being, and to be sensitive at to the impact their policies have on the people. To those ends, rulers ought to attune themselves to and work in harmony with the flow of nature, society, and the people, to ensure general harmony and prosperity. Indeed, such sentiments animate the early Confucian Classics and motivate respect for the early sage kings.

  Confucius insists that the leader is the least important person in the state; ultimately, he is just a figurehead, dependent on the labors of the people, for whom he is responsible. For Mencius, the leader should take his own feelings and sentiments as standards for assessing how people feel about his judgments and activities. To that end, the leader should be generous and sharing, not just of material necessities but of life's enjoyments.

  This Chinese view turns on an implicit notion of "species equality" which came to be expressed in terms of a common human nature (xing 性), or basic propensities, thought to be bequeathed by nature/heaven (tian 天) by Confucius,[2] explicitly stated as such in the Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong 中庸), and developed into a moral theory by Mencius. Xunzi (荀子, 313-238 B.C.E.) offered a more complex view of human nature; but saw all human beings as caught up in the same human condition: for Xunzi each and every person is challenged to make him/herself over morally, via regimens of study, cultivation, and practice, in order to realize him/herself and jointly produce civilized life in society.

  Confucius recognizes the will and humanity of each and every person, no matter how humble: for him, the will of a simple farmer is as firm and inalienable as troops are to a grand general. When some peasants boldly challenge Confucius' followers to defend their Master's teachings, Confucius admits they have a point, that they know essential things he does not know. For his part, Mencius stresses that all people have inner moral propensities and the capacity to be a sage, in other words, that all people are inherently equal, although some have more favorable formative conditions and/or are determined to succeed. For Xunzi too, all people could become a sage.

  In pre-imperial China, the rites (li 禮) were for expressing mutual recognition and respect. Granted, there was some asymmetry in every human relationship, save the friendship relationship; but the rites ensured that both sides of any relationship had dignity and respect. Through the rites, each side showed the other commitment and loyalty as a two way street. The rites in that sense laid practical grounds for the status and rights of each person.

Derivative ideas and principles

  Given the implicit Confucian notion of equality of human beings and the ruler's dependence on and responsibility for the people, if a ruler were to stray too far from the Way of the sage kings, ill-use his people, and lay waste to his state, Confucius said that worthy ministers should flee and bide their time until virtuous rule had been restored. For his part, Mencius said the people had the right to overthrow such a unfeeling, unwise, and wasteful ruler; he had not fulfilled the conditions of upright leadership and thus lost "the Mandate of Heaven" (tianming 天命) to rule. In Mencius' estimation, such a man was not a "ruler," but at best a mere fellow and at worst a thief. For Mencius, the overthrow would be far-reaching and lasting only if it were led by a morally worthy rebel leader who grasped the problems of the people and the land, was sympathetic to their plight, and had dedicated himself to the upright Way. According to historian Dave Wang, Thomas Jefferson felt inspired by this conception and wanted to be such a morally worthy rebel leader.

  Without doubt, such ideas catalyzed radical French thinkers in their rejections of socio-economic inequality and the divine right of kings, and defense of the basic equality of human beings and their rights in Europe in the 17th and especially the 18th century. At the same time, coming from an alien tradition, these sources could not be advertised as such but generally had to be recast in local idioms, and their provenance was not stressed. Many Western intellectual historians of the 17th and 18th centuries only register classical Western sources and discount East Asian sources as too far afield.

•Educated American Colonials and Founders

  In several studies, Dave Wang has shown that 18th century American colonials and founders admired Confucius and consciously adopted Confucian values and virtues.[3] The positive reception of Confucius' ideas can be observed vividly in the house of James Madison (1751-1836), where hangs an honored portrait of Confucius. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) saw Confucius as of the same caliber and stature as Jesus and Socrates. Interestingly, Madison and Paine represented two poles in early American politics. To Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), Confucius' ethics was valuable to the human being in general. And, Thomas Jefferson promoted Confucius' moral principles in his inaugural speech in 1801. In his personal notebook, Jefferson included a poem about an ideal Chinese prince that was selected by Confucius (Great Learning; Daxue 大學, ch. 3). John Adams (1735-1826) and Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) also honored Confucius in their making a blueprint for the new nation.

  Certainly, the founders were concerned about such bottom line issues as taxation without representation, civil liberties, and economic freedom, but they also focused on concerns of public and private morality. For them, the Revolutionary War was as much a fight against the corruption of British high society as it was for politico-economic reasons. The founders wanted new virtues for the new nation to unfold as a healthy democracy, and drew on moral resources from around the world in devising new virtues, including notably Confucian ideals, virtues, and ethical precepts.

  The most well-know Chinese philosopher, Confucius, was widely discussed in 18th century colonial American society as a profound thinker who understood the vital role of virtue in social, economic, and political life. Benjamin Franklin expressed respect for Confucius in these regards by following Confucius' steps for systematically cultivating his own virtues from youth from 1727. Appreciative of Confucius' teachings, Franklin published excerpts from Morals of Confucius in Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737, and as an adult he took Confucius as his role model in 1749.

  Dave Wang mentions a litany of Confucius admirers among the educated colonials, some of whom looked deeply into the early Confucian school. For example, Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826) praised the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean as "giving the most excellent precepts of wisdom and virtue, expressed with the greatest eloquence, elegance and precision." Morse went so far as to say that Confucius was most "striking, and far exceeded, [……] the prophecy of Socrates." Even women in 18th century America appreciated Confucius' ethics. Mrs. Elizabeth Drinker (1735-1807) thought people of her time ought to follow Confucius to cultivate their virtues. Indeed, after studying the Morals of Confucius, she wrote in her diary on May 28, 1795:

I have been pleased by reading the Morals of Confucius, a Chinese Philosopher, who flourished about five hundred and fifty years before the coming of Christ—said to be one of the choicest pieces of Learning remaining of that nation. A sweet little piece it is. If there were such men in that day, what ought to be expected in this more enlightened Age!

•Virtue and Happiness

  For John Adams, the second president, and Jefferson's political opponent, the purpose of government was to provide for the people's pursuit of happiness. For him, such happiness lay not just in "ease, comfort, [and] security," but also involved "virtue, humility, industry, and goodwill." Adams declared "Confucius [……] agreed in this" goal of "happiness through virtue." Moreover, Adams saw that such virtue could ennoble individual character and collectively lift an entire society. He admired Confucius' stress on the value of virtue for good government, and the followed Confucius in conducting his own efforts to elevate "the minds of the people."

  Respecting Confucius' virtues as important moral traits, Adams, in letter to Jefferson, criticized the English theologian and natural philosopher Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) for ignoring Confucius in his writings: "Priestley ought to have given us a sketch of the religion and morals of Zoroaster, [……] of Confucius, and of all the founders of religions before Christ, whose superiority would, from such a comparison, have appeared the more evident.

  For his part, Jefferson saw the importance of Confucius' virtues for keeping his ideals alive, augmenting happiness, and improving the country over time. In his inaugural speech in 1801, Jefferson declared:

Let us, [……] pursue our republican principles; our [……] representative government. [……] enlightened by a benign religion, [……] inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man, adoring a providence, which by its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here, and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? (Italics added).

Jefferson's esteem for Confucius and the Chinese Classics was steeped in his study of the French radical thinkers. He admired Voltaire (1694-1778), who saw Confucianism as "a high system of morals," and honored Confucius as "the greatest of all sages." Jefferson's inaugural speech revealed his sincere appropriation of the Confucian idea of the true gentleman, and belief that good morals were the basis of good government. Jefferson based his vision of a better America on benign naturalistic religion and wise and judicious government. And, the virtues he enumerated in his inauguration speech were precisely the moral principles that Confucius had instructed. Most strikingly, Jefferson adopted Mencius' notion that, "a ruler loses his mandate if the people don't approve" in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident [……] that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it."

  Dave Wang points out that when Jefferson was president he included a classical Chinese poem in his notebook, which celebrates a worthy prince as an example for other leaders. Jefferson's choice of this poem also reflects his appreciation of Confucian moral ideals. In the Analects, Confucius is recorded as saying more about such a ruler:

He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.

Jefferson consciously aimed to be such a "North Polar Star" in his land, and took the worthy prince as a role model. Specifically, the poem honors a beloved prince of the state of Wei. Citing this poem, Confucius presented Prince Wei as a model to be emulated (Great Learning, Dauxue, ch. 3). By placing this poem in his notebook, Jefferson revealed his wish to be a beloved and beneficial leader. As the prince of Wei's "[……] memory of eternal prime, Like truth defies the power of time," Jefferson too wished to be remembered for having, "In manners goodly great, Refined the people of the state."

  Jefferson also noticed that the Chinese Classics preserved records of the venerable values and worthy deeds of the early sage kings, so consequently he collected documents, books, newspapers, etc. of the day, from which future historians could fashion a true and authentic history of the American Revolution and thereby preserve the values and deeds of the revolutionary heroes for posterity.

  In summary, the American Founding Fathers drew upon the Confucian Classics in drawing up the blueprint for this new nation-state. Confucian ideas and morals were essential ingredients of this project by providing the moral fiber of the new virtues needed by this budding free and democratic society. That is, the founders tried to inculcate appropriated morals to ensure that the democratic system would function in a healthy way. They thought Confucius' ethics would ennoble the democratic system by nurturing the people's private and civic virtues, and thus yield good citizens to serve the new country. In short, the founders strove to ensure that Confucian moral philosophy would underwrite the distinctive American ethos and way of life they envisioned.

•The Confucian Classics and Thoreau's Civil Disobedience

  The Chinese Classics continued to be studied and have an impact in 19th century America. In the classic book, Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) often refers to the Confucian Four Books, with its teaching of vital qi 氣 animating the world and the human spirit, and unifying them as one. Thoreau himself had personally experienced such vital qi around Walden Pond and the surrounding wilderness near Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  Initially, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) had urged Thoreau to read the Confucian Classics. Emerson loved their concern with manners, civility, decorum, and social graces. But, Thoreau was more interested in their deeper concerns with moral cultivation, integrity, virtue, and principle. Summing up his early Confucian studies, Thoreau edited and published Confucian "Ethical Scriptures" 1 & 2 in the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial in the 1840s.

  Thoreau's overall life project was aimed at moral renewal of the self and the other. He believed that nature offered an inner code of the original self full of insights and lessons to return humanity to its senses and integrity, and saw in the Confucian Classics a similar appreciation of nature and human life. Thoreau was morally fortified by his studies of the Four Books and his experiences at Walden Pond to distinguish intuitively between good and evil, right and wrong, etc. He thus became increasingly willing to speak up for nature, against slavery, against unjust wars, against evil laws in general that conflict with what is plainly right and fair. In this spirit, he explicitly paraphrases Confucius' Analects in his influential treatise Civil Disobedience:

If a state is governed by the principle of reason [Confucius' Dao], poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if a state is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honors are the subject of shame.

  While Thoreau's ideas are officially dismissed today by Chinese officialdom as foreign and irrelevant, a voice in the dark, they are a vital and incisive reflection of China's early Confucian moral legacy. A contemporary scholar from Hong Kong notes that Thoreau was deeply influenced by Confucianism in formulating his theory and practice of "Civil Disobedience," a call to break laws and bring down systems that deny human dignity and propriety taken up by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), and others, to change history. Isn't the time is ripe for Thoreau's Confucian moral idealism to return home?



[1] Strewart, Mathew, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World (New York: Norton Books, 2006), pp. 288ff, 311.
[2] Confucius used the term de 德(moral efficacy).
[3] See references below.

Israel, Jonathan, "Admiration of China and Classical Chinese Thought in the Radical Enlightenment (1685-1740)," Taiwan Journal of East Asian Studies, 4,1 (June, 2007), pp. 1-25.
Lee, Thomas H.C. (ed.), China and Europe: Images and Influences in Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1991).
Mungello, D. E., The Great Encounter of China and the West (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005).
Perkins, Franklin, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Pinot, Virgile, La Chine et la formation de l'esprit philosophique en France, 1640-1740. Librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, Paris, 1932.
Strewart, Mathew, The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God in the Modern World (New York: Norton Books, 2006).
Thompson, Kirill, "Thoreau's Appropriation of Chinese Philosophy in Walden" (ms., 1993).
Wang, Dave, "Confucius in the American Founding: The Founders' Efforts to Use Confucian Moral Philosophy in their Endeavor to Create New Virtue for the New Nation," Virginia Review of Asian Studies, 16 (2014), pp. 11-26.
Wang, Dave, "Benjamin Franklin and China—A Survey of Benjamin Franklin's Efforts at Drawing Positive Elements from Chinese Civilization in the Formative Age of the United State," (http://www.gepcapital.com/franklinchina.pdf).
Wu, Ching Kit, "Civil Disobedience—Confucian Influences and Contributions," paper presented at the Conference on Confucian Values in a Changing Cultural Order (University of Hawaii, Oct. 8-11, 2014).

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