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Why are intellectuals so Grecophilic?

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Robert J. Kolker
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Here is the question: Why is the intellectual community (Objectivists included) so Grecocentric and Grecophiic? Without diminishing the accomplishments of the Greeks one bit, their faults are really not fairly weighed. Furthermore Athens is given far too much centrality. Most of the ideas about the world that have prevailed in the long run are Samosian and Ionian in origin. It was a non-Aristotelean , Aristarchus of Samos who proposed a sun centered system with the planets (including our own earth) revolving around a central body. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristarchus_of_Samos. He also got the distances and sizes of the Sun and Moon pretty well, considering his observations were made before telescopes were invented. The Athenian schools had a grave flaw. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were all gifted and had the gift of the gab, something the Greeks had and exploited thoroughly. Unfortunately this tends towards a denigration of the empirical and a glorification of the a priori. The tendency is to assume that a convincing argument must be true. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that experiment assumed a central role in the physical sciences.

A related question: Why aren't the Chinese more appreciated? Read the -The Travels of Marco Polo- (by Marco Polo) and -The Genius of China- by Robert Temple. It is clear the ancient and not so ancient Chinese were several light years ahead of the Europeans and the Greeks in matters of technology. Europe did not really catch up until the sixteenth century.

Bob Kolker

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The obvious answer is that you live in the west, and therefore most western education is going to be slanted towards western civilizations. Likewise, if you were to grow up in China, you'll probably be educated on how glorious the Chinese civilization was.

The second reason is that the western civilization has been the undisputed dominant global culture for the past two hundred some odd years. It's easy for those of us that grow up during this historical period harbor under the illusion that this was always the case. But if the past decade or so is any indication, it should be obvious that the rest of the world is rapidly catching up to the west at an extremely rapid rate. It isn't inconceivable for instance that in our children's life time China/India (and the greater Asia in general) will catch up to or even surpass the United States and become the dominant global superpower -- economically, scientifically, or even militarily.

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The obvious answer is that you live in the west, and therefore most western education is going to be slanted towards western civilizations.

The adoption of the values of Western civilization is the reason the East is rising up today. That is no slant.

...western civilization has been the undisputed dominant global culture for the past two hundred some odd years.

Is that causeless? That occurred because of the widespread adoption of Western principles of reason, scientific discovery, individualism and capitalism.

...it should be obvious that the rest of the world is rapidly catching up to the west at an extremely rapid rate.

That is true to the degree those societies have adopted the Western values of property rights and individual rights. For example, Japan began prospering when the country began adopting Western institutions after the Meiji Restoration in 1867. Hong Kong prospered under the near laissez faire economic policies of Great Britain. South Korea and Taiwan all prospered after adopting Western principles of property rights and the rule of law. China is emerging today because of the limited emergence of property rights, and the demise of Communism as a potent intellectual force.

It isn't inconceivable for instance that in our children's life time China/India (and the greater Asia in general) will catch up to or even surpass the United States and become the dominant global superpower -- economically, scientifically, or even militarily.

That could happen if those countries adopt the Western principle of capitalism and what lies at its base, individual rights and a respect for reason. If they don't, they will sink back into poverty. If they do adopt Western principles, the West will have nothing to fear from the East, and vice versa. In fact, all parties benefit as trading partners. Observe the tremendous mutual benefit of trade between Japan and the U.S. today, or between the U.S. and any other "Westernized" Eastern country.

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Why GB, you Greekophile, you! ;)

Agree with everything you said. One need not be Greek to have been influenced by Western culture. The only reason its called "Western" culture is because it is the West which has been Greek-ized. India, and China, you're next!

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There's the matter of influence. Greek culture was always an influence in Europe and, since the XVI Century, in the Americas as well. Chinese culture had scant impact on Europe. Some Chinese goods and inventions did (silk and gunpowder to be precise), but you did not see Confucius taught at Western universities.

On the other hand, the military has been strongly influenced recently (in the past century or so) by the ideas of Sun Tzu

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Robert, your objections to Greek culture boil down to saying "They were not perfect". Well, big deal. The question could only make sense is (1) there were a clearly superior culture which (2) was relevant to our lives. Chinese culture is essentially irrelevant to our lives, and you haven't given us a concrete reason to consider it superior to Greek culture. What makes classical Greek culture superior to others is the role of the mind. I'm happy that they invented some clever gadgets. They also invented a lousy writing system, perfected the corrupt bureaucracy, and cast the individual into pit that it may never recover from. What do we have: silk, tea, paper & printing, gunpowder, the compass. All fine inventions / discoveries. And by jove, we recognise those contributions. What more do you want? What aspects of Chinese logic, metaphysics, epistemology or ethics play a role in modern society? Exactly what credit are we cheating the Chinese out of?

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The adoption of the values of Western civilization is the reason the East is rising up today. That is no slant.

Is that causeless? That occurred because of the widespread adoption of Western principles of reason, scientific discovery, individualism and capitalism.

I agree that the values you mentioned are the reason why the East is rising today. Your error is in assuming that these values did not exist in the East prior to Western imperialism. In fact those very values --not coincidentally-- very much exemplified China during the various heights of its civilization (the Tang dynasty for example).

South Korea and Taiwan all prospered after adopting Western principles of property rights and the rule of law.

Actually property rights and the rule of law did exist in these countries prior to the West.

That could happen if those countries adopt the Western principle of capitalism and what lies at its base, individual rights and a respect for reason.

Personally I think that Chinese culture has always had great respect for reason, although I do think as a whole Chinese philosophy wasn't always based on the right premises. Individual rights, on the other hand, is I think perhaps the most important value introduced into modern Asia.

If they do adopt Western principles, the West will have nothing to fear from the East, and vice versa. In fact, all parties benefit as trading partners. Observe the tremendous mutual benefit of trade between Japan and the U.S. today, or between the U.S. and any other "Westernized" Eastern country.

I never meant to insinuate that there was something to "fear" from the East becoming modernized, at least not from rational men. I do think however many Westerners (Americans in particular) will feel --irrationally-- very threatened if they are ever displaced from its place at the top of the pecking order. Just look at the way auto workers in the US reacted when Japanese cars over took American autos back in the late eighties/early nineties, or how people feel about jobs being outsourced to India today. Most people, when used to a certain level of pay and living standards for doing their job, rarely want to worker harder or take pay cuts -- even when it is the nature of capitalism.

Chinese culture is essentially irrelevant to our lives, and you haven't given us a concrete reason to consider it superior to Greek culture.

It's pretty relevant in the lives of about one third of the world's population. Maybe just not you.

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I would add to my comments that certain Asian values are tremendously valuable, in particular the emphasis on scholarship and education, and on pursuing work with the highest devotion. Undoubtedly, those values have helped Asians, whether they live in America or another non-Asian country, or as residents of China, Japan, etc. Because of the combination of those beneficial Eastern values and the beneficial influence of Western ideals and institutions, individual Asians in the West and Asian countries achieve very high incomes and rapidly growing economies, respectively.

As for Americans being afraid of Asians, many are. They are also afraid of Mexicans, blacks, rich people, poor people, you name it. As Americans understand and value individualism less, they will increasingly turn to racist and other irrational ideas. What is the solution to those mistaken beliefs? The solution is the re-adoption of the Greek principles of reason, and the Western principles of individualism. In its highest form, it is the adoption of the premier Western philosophy, Objectivism.

The "Western ideal" is really the human ideal. That it happened to begin in Greece and later on in Europe and America is an accident of geography. Hell, it should probably be called Eastern, at least from my vantage point. Europe and Greece are much closer to me in an easterly direction than they are in a western direction. (I live in New York.) The terms "Eastern" and "Western" are just so Old World-centric. ;)

Edited by Galileo Blogs
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I do think however many Westerners (Americans in particular) will feel --irrationally-- very threatened if they are ever displaced from its place at the top of the pecking order.

Irrationally, you say? Or maybe it's because Western Civilization is the one that brought a little thing called individual rights into the picture, and to have massive, rights-trampling slave states move up in "the pecking order," as you so flippantly put it, is a rationally scary concept.

What, Chinese people can't be interested in Objectivism or something?

If they are, then they would be interested in WESTERNIZING China, not holding onto or celebrating their deficient and backwards culture.

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Actually property rights and the rule of law did exist in these countries prior to the West.

Personally I think that Chinese culture has always had great respect for reason, although I do think as a whole Chinese philosophy wasn't always based on the right premises. Individual rights, on the other hand, is I think perhaps the most important value introduced into modern Asia.

These two statements seem a bit contradictory. Property rights are individual rights, so which other individual rights were you thinking of? I would agree that rule of law existed, but I disagree with GB that this is in any way fundamental. INdividual rights are much more fundamental as a concept and as you've said, this is the most important external introduction into modern Asia.

As an example, is this the type of "property right" you are thinking of (from online Encyclopedia Brittannica regarding the height of the Tang Dynasy):

Land distribution followed the equal-allocation system used under the northern dynasties and the Sui. Every taxable male was entitled to a grant of land—part of which was to be returned when he ceased to be a taxpayer at age 60 and part of which was hereditary. The disposal of landed property was hedged around with restrictive conditions. Great landed estates were limited to members of the imperial clan and powerful officials, various state institutions, and the Buddhist foundations. Although some land was hereditary, and more and more passed into the hereditary category with the passage of time, the lack of primogeniture meant that landholdings were fragmented among all the sons in each generation and thus tended to be small.

This is a property right, but not one which stems from any sort of concept of individual rights. That is the problem. This is what property rights look like under a system of monarchy.

It's pretty relevant in the lives of about one third of the world's population. Maybe just not you.

hmm, this argument amounts to a numbers game. Do you think the best way to tell which culture is arguably better is to see how many people live under it? Or maybe might it be better to see how that culture has impacted those people. If Western culture provides 10x the benefit and impact to those living under it, than does say other cultures, then what is it about having 3 billion people living under another culture that is so great? Aftrica has almost a billion people living in it and it still arguable the most backward cesspool on the planet.

Edited by KendallJ
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These two statements seem a bit contradictory. Property rights are individual rights, so which other individual rights were you thinking of? I would agree that rule of law existed, but I disagree with GB that this is in any way fundamental. INdividual rights are much more fundamental as a concept and as you've said, this is the most important external introduction into modern Asia.

As an example, is this the type of "property right" you are thinking of (from online Encyclopedia Brittannica regarding the height of the Tang Dynasy):

This is a property right, but not one which stems from any sort of concept of individual rights. That is the problem. This is what property rights look like under a system of monarchy.

To clarify, I did not intend to imply any separation of individual versus property rights, or that the rule of law is more fundamental than individual rights. I singled out property rights to emphasize it, because property rights, specifically, are the rights that are most relevant for economic advancement. Of course, there is no way to have secure property rights without a secure right to life, which is the base of property rights, and all the other rights that implies: right to free speech, fair trials, etc.

As for the rule of law, I also meant it in the context of a society based on reason and individual rights. If that was not clear from my post, I will make it clear here. I would never support the rule of just any laws, such as the laws that existed in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Rather, when I said rule of law, I meant the rule of law as it exists in a free society.

I agree with Kendall's point about property "rights" in the Tang dynasty. Those weren't property rights. To the degree they weren't, economic growth was slower than it could have been in China. That is true even though China at that time was much wealthier than the West. Fact is, the West had even less respect for property rights in that era, which was called the "Dark Ages".

Confusion over what are truly property rights clouds discussions in other contexts. For example, in many parts of Latin America, it is illegal to sell off pieces of large estates. As a modern-day offshoot of the ancient law of primogeniture, these estates must be passed down intact from one generation to the next. So, farmers and others complain they cannot get land to farm or build houses on. What is the solution typically offered by the Latin American governments (and, incidentally, encouraged by the United States)? The forceful expropriation and redistribution of this land. This occurs all over the world. Of course, the proper solution is a system of true property rights. Let land owners have the freedom to simply sell all or part of their land.

As for the Tang system, I would call it or the modern day variation of primogeniture practiced in Latin America, a system of property grants, not rights, since a true property right implies the complete freedom to dispose of one's property how one chooses. That includes selling it to anyone, or not, without restrictions. Calling it property grants keeps in mind the distinguishing point that these grants are bestowed at the pleasure of the state, who can restrict them or revoke them at any time. Interestingly, that appears to be a good description of property "rights" in China today. Any property owner holds his property at the discretion of the local Communist official who can expropriate it any time. Of course, that same terror, to a much lesser degree, exists in America in the post-Kelo world.

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On the topic of why Objectivists (advocates of reason) would favor ancient Greece over ancient China, it's pretty obvious. Aristotle practically established the field of pro-reason philosophy. Chinese philsophy, a blend of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Legalism, is something that Chinese people are still suffering the consequences of. It still leads to a culture that focuses on a focus on others and one's status and duties relative to others, a willingness to accept contradictions, a negative ethical judgement of profit, self-interest, and individualism.

We have discussed Chinese philosophy before on this forum.

See, for example my discussion here:

http://forum.ObjectivismOnline.com/index.p...ost&p=56102

http://forum.ObjectivismOnline.com/index.p...=post&id=73

(see my attachment in the above post of a paper co-written in 2002)

or

http://forum.ObjectivismOnline.com/index.p...=1328&st=25

Below are two key and contrasting takes on knowledge from a major philosopher from Greece and China:

Compare these two passages, written at approximately the same time in history, and ask yourself which one an advocate of reason should study:

“He who examines the most general features of existence, must investigate also the principles of reasoning. For he who gets the best gasp of his respective subject will be most able to discuss its basic principles. So that he who gets the best grasp of existing things qua existing must be able to discuss the basic principles of all existence; and he is the philosopher. And the most certain principle of all is that about which it is impossible to be mistaken... It is clear, then, that such a principle is the most certain of all and we can state it thus: "It is impossible for the same thing at the same time to belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect."

-Aristotle, Metaphysics,

The sage never has a mind of his own;

He considers the minds of the common people to be his mind.

To pursue learning, learn more day by day;

To pursue the Way, unlearn it day by day:

Unlearn and then unlearn again

Until there is nothing to pursue;

No end pursued, no end ungained.

It is by sheathing intellect's bright light

that the sage remains at one with his own self,

ceasing to be aware of it, by placing it behind.

-Lao Tzu “Tao Te Ching”

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I think an interesting question to ask is how exaclty should such an analysis be conducted. That is, most people can point to specific concrete items in any culture that might hint at a rational, individualistic approach, but how do we know it really was? or what makes it more broadly so?

Alan, you've got a great example there. What were the key idea people saying at the time? It think this is one very important factor, especially if you subscribe to the Objectivist theory of history.

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On the topic of why Objectivists (advocates of reason) would favor ancient Greece over ancient China, it's pretty obvious. Aristotle practically established the field of pro-reason philosophy. Chinese philsophy, a blend of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Legalism, is something that Chinese people are still suffering the consequences of. It still leads to a culture that focuses on a focus on others and one's status and duties relative to others, a willingness to accept contradictions, a negative ethical judgement of profit, self-interest, and individualism.

Be that as it may, the Chinese in spite of what we Westerners would consider mysticism or a lesser philosophy were technologically -ahead- of the West until about the fourteen or fifteenth century c.e. Consider what they invented, some of which was invented a thousand years before the West caught on. The technological pre-eminence suggests that the Chinese were thinking soundly. Reality is a harsh mistress. She must be obeyed in order to be used. And the Chinese managed to figure out what the material world was and act accordingly, and a damn sight sooner than the West. Technologically China was miles ahead of the Greeks, too!

In -The Travels of Marco Polo- Marco describes cities with nearly a million inhabitants, clean and health. That is ten times larger than any city (at the time) in Europe. While the Chinese had streetlights, clean water, good toilets most Europeans were covered with doo doo and suffered ill health.

Philosophy is nice, but so are toilets that work and clean water sources. Good thinking has practical consequences, does it not?

Bob Kolker

Edited by Robert J. Kolker
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Bob, one could say the same thing about early Islamic culture, one of your favorites of course. But then, they were studying Aristotle...

Will it be the same aspects of the culture that had clean toilets then, that will make China a superpower today? Hardly.

Edited by KendallJ
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Be that as it may, the Chinese in spite of what we Westerners would consider mysticism or a lesser philosophy were technologically -ahead- of the West until about the fourteen or fifteenth century c.e.
What technology did they develop, which the west failed to develop for years, that resulted in clean streets? Are you comparing China with classical Greece (please read the first post in the thread), or with Europe just after the Dark Age?
Philosophy is nice, but so are toilets that work and clean water sources.
So in short, you're saying that it doesn't matter if you're a slave, as long as you're a well looked-after slave.
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Bob, your example simply illustrates devastating impact on the West of following Christianity and essentially forgetting Aristotle and Greek philosophers for 1500 years. Had the Aristotelian path been chosen and pursued without interruption, Western civilization, technology, etc., would have been vastly different.

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Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, had 200,000 inhabitants in the 1400s, when London had fewer than 50,000 people. Tenochtitlan had a functioning sewage system and running water, when Western Europe had none.

Tenochtitlan also had human sacrifices, and the Aztecs, despite tens of thousands of men in their army, allowed themselves to be defeated by a few hundred dirty Spaniards [the Spaniards did not believe in bathing, while the Aztecs did].

As for China, why did it sink in stagnation while the West rose from the Renaissance era onward? For that matter, why was China unable to resist the Western pressure to trade in opium and other goods, and for Western enclaves to be established on its soil? Why did the Industrial Revolution happen in the West and not in China, despite China's impressive technological advances such as gunpowder and steelmaking?

These are some questions I would ask.

In the modern era, equivalent questions are worth asking. Why are the Asian countries rising so quickly now? What accounts for it? Why is Africa so backward? Why can't Latin America get ahead? Why is Ireland the Celtic Tiger today when it was a basket-case a decade ago?

I would suggest that the presence or absence of certain *ideas* explain these differences. Specific ideas lead to specific institutions (or lack of them), with specific political and economic consequences.

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hmm, this argument amounts to a numbers game. Do you think the best way to tell which culture is arguably better is to see how many people live under it? Or maybe might it be better to see how that culture has impacted those people.

Read the context. It was in response to David saying that Chinese culture is essentially irrelevant to "our" lives. Unless by "our", he meant only "white people", it is obviously an ignorant statement. And to be clear, "culture" consist of more than just philosophical principles -- and as I said, it is obviously very relevant to a lot of people world wide.

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Irrationally, you say? Or maybe it's because Western Civilization is the one that brought a little thing called individual rights into the picture, and to have massive, rights-trampling slave states move up in "the pecking order," as you so flippantly put it, is a rationally scary concept.

Really? I see it differently. The very reason your "massive, right-trampling slave state" is moving up in the pecking order is because they have adopted capitalism and, to some extent, began to embrace individual rights. To me it is very clear that if they ever overtook the United States, it would be because they have adopted similar values to the United States.

So no, it's not a very scary concept at all, rationally speaking.

If they are, then they would be interested in WESTERNIZING China, not holding onto or celebrating their deficient and backwards culture.

The fact is they are Westernizing China, in the sense that they are clearly moving toward a capitalistic society and hence inevitably becoming a freer society. Everything else though remains very much Chinese -- and that's as it should be. Whatever its fault, China remains by far the oldest and one of the most dominant civilization on Earth.

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I agree with Kendall's point about property "rights" in the Tang dynasty. Those weren't property rights. To the degree they weren't, economic growth was slower than it could have been in China. That is true even though China at that time was much wealthier than the West. Fact is, the West had even less respect for property rights in that era, which was called the "Dark Ages".

But that's precisely the point. You cannot compare the Tang dynasty to say, the modern day United States. My point was relative to the rest of the world, China at that point in time was far freer than the rest of the world (that also very much promoted trade, art, and science). The whole idea of the original thread was comparing ancient China and ancient Greece.

As for the Tang system, I would call it or the modern day variation of primogeniture practiced in Latin America, a system of property grants, not rights, since a true property right implies the complete freedom to dispose of one's property how one chooses. That includes selling it to anyone, or not, without restrictions. Calling it property grants keeps in mind the distinguishing point that these grants are bestowed at the pleasure of the state, who can restrict them or revoke them at any time. Interestingly, that appears to be a good description of property "rights" in China today. Any property owner holds his property at the discretion of the local Communist official who can expropriate it any time. Of course, that same terror, to a much lesser degree, exists in America in the post-Kelo world.

The fact remains that during that point in time, a Chinese man can still choose to sell or buy his property at anytime for the price he wishes -- that is, barring force. But as you've pointed out, that is inevitably even in modern societies, and is only a difference in degree.

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So in short, you're saying that it doesn't matter if you're a slave, as long as you're a well looked-after slave.

No, he's saying that while Greece had sounder philosophy, China instead turned to mastering their environment. Both cultures obviously had a great number of slaves, as did virtually all cultures for almost the totality of recorded history.

The difficulty in making a comparison between Greece and China is that while the Greek civilization lasted only a short while, the Chinese civilization existed continuously into modern day.

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