Friday, August 8, 2008

The Stoic Path: Stoicism in China

Westerners were surprised to recently learn that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has supposedly read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius over one hundred times. As a result there is at present a Marcus Aurelius reading craze in China. The real question of course is what appeal would Stoicism have for a communist leader and why might Wen Jiabao rate Marcus Aurelius so highly?

I am not at all surprised that Marcus Aurelius would be appealing to this intellectually oriented Chinese Premier who, like the Emperor Aurelius, might well also see himself as a "philosopher king." There are several central elements of the Stoic philosophy held by Marcus Aurelius that Wen Jiabao would likely value.

First, Stoicism is inherently materialistic. Unlike many religious systems the spirituality at the heart of Stoic practice never appeals to revelation or faith. Stoicism is a philosophy and as such is thoroughly rationalistic. From the Stoic perspective reason is at the heart of all action in life be it political or personal. On a theoretical level Stoic philosophy relies heavily on arguments based on natural law and physics. This materialistic approach would conform to communist ideology insofar as it conforms to the theoretical atheistic materialism at the heart of communism.

Second, as reviewed in my previous post, Stoicism is functionally social. Human beings are meant for each other and morality within this context is based on doing what is right for the community or the state. In addition, personal satisfaction or happiness in Stoicism does not flow from the gratification of self centered desires or from the avoidance of hard work or pain. True happiness in life comes from living "according to nature." This means acting exclusively in the best interests of the social family, the state, or the body politic. Human beings act "contrary to nature" when their actions are directed toward self-interest. This too would make Stoicism attractive to a Marxist.

Third, Stoicism is both egalitarian and rigorously non-elitist. From a Stoic perspective all human beings are truly considered as equals. We differ in talents of course, but those differences do not make us better than others. Each of us has a critical social role to play in achieving life's purpose and, as Marcus Aurelius repeatedly reminds us in his Meditations, the talents that each of us has are fitted perfectly for the working role that each of us is meant to play. No working role is better than any other. In Stoicism the king (and Aurelius was a king) is no less or no more important than the lowest member of any social group. A communist might read this as a conformation of the equal status each of us holds within the confines of the proletariat. As I mention in my book, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained, one of Karl Marx's more memorable slogans is, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" Karl Marx, like Marcus Aurelius, believed that our labor belongs to the whole community, and losing it to moneyed interests diminishes us. Aurelius would call this an evil. Ironically capitalist societies have also derived a great deal from Aurelius, particularly on the importance of and inevitability of change as well as the importance of hard work. I would not be at all surprised to discover that Karl Marx was influenced by Marcus Aurelius.

Finally, Stoicism is cosmopolitan in the very widest sense: broadly based, multi-ethnic and multi-national. In political terms a Stoic would see the world as a single political entity. Aurelius places the highest regard on the cosmopolitan nature of humanity. In conformity with this principle a true Stoic rejects racism, sexism, and classism in all of its forms.

While these are ideals professed by theoretical Marxists and Stoics alike, they are rarely fully implemented in real world communist experiments. We need only reflect on the turmoil over Tibet to test this assertion. We can only hope that the Premier's interest in Stoicism signals a change in direction for communist society.


Mandi said...

I've just been reading Aurelius and never would have thought of the Stoics in company with the Chinese and yet it does make such perfect sense in a way. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Carl said...

There is some evidence in Chinese court records that visitors during the reign of Marcus Aurelius came to offer gifts. (v. A. Birley) The gifts, like tortoise shell and precious myrrh, being somewhat esoteric from a Roman point of view, may reflect a grooming process at the court of the Chinese emperor.

Reef said...

u are confusing reason with the greek word "logos" logos can be translated as reason but the stoics gave a second spiritual dimension.
In stoicism "logos" was both the source and the fundamental order of the universe, the divine principle that moves the universe into being.
So in fact stoicism is much more spiritual than materialistic

Russell McNeil said...

Stoicism is founded on Stoic physics. In this physics the universe is a "material" reasoning "substance" divided into two classes, active and passive. The active substance called Fate or Universal Intelligence or Universal Reason or Logos is an intelligent aether or primordial fire. In the New Stoicism - or Stoicism updated to allow for modern physics - I identify this substance with the forces and fields of physics which - like the primordial fire in the ancient scheme - acts on the passive animating it bringing about the changes and evolution of the cosmos. Logos is material, but is a reasoning material with perfection and invincibility. This gives Logos its divine character which is what the Stoics identify as spiritual.