‘Plato Goes to China’ Review: When Ancients Serve Ideologues

From The Wall Street Journal:

In the opening pages of “Plato Goes to China,” classicist Shadi Bartsch promises that by tracing the history of the Chinese reception of ancient Greek and Roman political philosophy, her book offers “a uniquely illuminating vantage point for observing China’s transformation in its cultural and political self-confidence.” She further promises to explore in depth the uses that have been made of the Western classics in the 33 years since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.

These promises are not fully kept, for three reasons. The first is the chatbot-style superficiality of her historical overview, which begins with the early 17th-century Jesuits who tried “to make Christianity more palatable to the Confucians” by invoking Aristotle and the Stoics; then leaps ahead to the late 19th- and early 20th-century reformers who embraced Western concepts of citizenship; then ends with a quick sketch of the ferment leading up to Tiananmen.

The second reason for the book’s unkept promises is Ms. Bartsch’s unserious attitude toward religion. Rather than mention Aristotle’s considerable influence on the church after Aquinas, she resorts to flippancy: “For the Jesuits it would seem, just about all ancient thinkers were proto-Christians.” Academics often turn a blind eye to religious and metaphysical questions. But later on, when such questions loom large in China, this blind spot hinders her analysis.

Third and most important is Ms. Bartsch’s limited perspective on her main story. Taking up the better part of five chapters, she relates how, after Tiananmen, the Chinese Communist Party began using the classic thinkers of Western antiquity to legitimize its continued monopoly on power. And she casts Leo Strauss, an American political philosopher who never visited China and died in 1973, as the villain of the tale.

There is a grain of truth to this view. Prior to the arrival of Straussian teaching, the Western classics in China had been fuel for democracy’s cause. Afterward, pro-regime scholars steeped in Strauss began pointing to Plato’s critique of democracy as a way of discrediting Western values in general. In Ms. Bartsch’s judgment, this change is attributable to the Straussian theory of “esoteric writing,” which avers that some ancient authors, such as Maimonides, protected themselves from persecution by swaddling their true meaning in layers of verbal camouflage.

The trouble with this analysis is that it doesn’t apply to Plato’s critique of democracy, which rather than being swaddled in verbiage is right there on the surface. 

. . . .

Rather than make this important distinction, Ms. Bartsch adopts the perspective of those critics, including a fair number of classicists, who view Strauss not as a scholar but as a political opportunist who misread ancient texts for cynical motives. Indeed, she echoes the charge, made in the New York Times Magazine in 2004, that various Straussians influenced George W. Bush’s advisers to deceive their fellow citizens with a “noble lie” about the real motives behind America’s invasion of Iraq.

This may explain why Ms. Bartsch devotes so little attention to the “apolitical professors” studying the classics in China and so much to “the loudest public intellectuals,” meaning the ideological warriors who serve the party by rummaging through Plato and other classic authors for scraps of evidence that the ancient wisdom of the West stands in direct opposition to its modern ideals. Why she quotes so many egregiously ignoble lies churned out by these “thought workers” is not clear. Unless she is trying to create the impression that it is somehow the fault of Leo Strauss.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that most of the books WSJ reviews are likely chosen because the book editors of the WSJ think they will be of interest to its subscribers.

PG expects that when news of an upcoming WSJ review filters around the offices of the book’s publishers (Princeton University Press in this case), there is great joy and something of a celebration. After all, the WSJ has the largest circulation of any serious US newspaper and a great many of its subscribers (not including PG) have the wealth and discretionary income to send a servant or a secretary out to buy the book.

(Note regarding Secretaries: When PG had secretaries, he hired the smartest and most capable people he could find and counted himself greatly blessed when he found such people. He also paid them higher salaries than any other legal secretaries received in the area so they would stay with him for a long time. He also shared large court awards with his secretaries on the occasions when such awards came his way. Unfortunately, more than a few lawyers and non-lawyers don’t treat secretaries, assistants, etc., very well.)

1 thought on “‘Plato Goes to China’ Review: When Ancients Serve Ideologues”

  1. And we now have a new measuring stick for reviewers!
    “chatbot-style superficiality”

    I would suggest the WSJ showing an interest in the book may have a bit to do with the China part.

    There’s a fairly large cohort in Wall Street hoping against hope that China’s economy can somehow survive their hosing crisis, demographic crisis, energy crisis, semiconductor crisis, and self-inflicted tech sector defenestrations. They’ll likely rush to any China related book, hoping they’ll find a reason to keep thinking they haven’t missed the last lifeboat out.

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