Reading Strauss in Beijing - China’s strange taste in Western philosophers

A few years ago, when I was still teaching at the University of Chicago, I had my first Chinese graduate students, a couple of earnest Beijingers who had come to the Committee on Social Thought hoping to bump into the ghost of Leo Strauss, the German-Jewish political philosopher who established his career at the university. Given the mute deference they were accustomed to giving their professors, it was hard to make out just what these young men were looking for, in Chicago or Strauss. They attended courses and worked diligently, but otherwise kept to themselves. They were in but not of Hyde Park.
At the end of their first year, I called one of them into my office to offer a little advice. He was obviously thoughtful and serious, and was already well known in Beijing intellectual circles for his writings and his translations of Western books in sociology and philosophy into Chinese. But his inability to express himself in written or spoken English had frustrated us both in a course of mine he had just taken. I began asking about his summer plans, eventually steering the conversation to the subject of English immersion programs, which I suggested he look into. “Why?” he asked. A little flummoxed, I said the obvious thing: that mastering English would allow him to engage with foreign scholars and advance his career at home. He smiled in a slightly patronizing way and said, “I am not so sure.” Now fully flummoxed, I asked what he would be doing instead. “Oh, I will do language, but Latin, not English.” It was my turn to ask why. “I think it very important we study Romans, not just Greeks. Romans built an empire over many centuries. We must learn from them.” When he left, it was clear that I was being dismissed, not him.
This conversation came to mind recently after I returned from a month of lectures and interviews in China. I had heard that Strauss was popular there, as was, to my surprise,Carl Schmitt, the Weimar anti-liberal (and anti-Semitic) legal theorist. The New Yorkerhad even run a piece that spoke of “the new generation’s neocon nationalists,” mentioning the interest in Strauss as some sort of disturbing development. What I discovered, especially among the many young people I spoke with, was something much more interesting and important. Strauss and Schmitt are at the center of intellectual debate, but they are being read by everyone, whatever their partisan leanings; as a liberal journalist in Shanghai told me as we took a stroll one day, “no one will take you seriously if you have nothing to say about these two men and their ideas.” And the interest has little to do with nationalism in the nineteenth-century sense of the term. It is a response to crisis—a widely shared belief that the millennia-long continuity of Chinese history has been broken and that everything, politically and intellectually, is now up for grabs.
My conversations in China reminded me of political discussions I used to have in Communist Poland in the mid-’80s, after the coup and while Solidarity’s power was at its nadir. To my surprise, the people I met then—academics, journalists, artists, writers—were more anxious to talk about Plato and Hegel than about contemporary affairs, and not as a means of escape. For them, the classics were just what dark times demanded. I was particularly impressed with the publisher of a small samizdat magazine printed on terrible, waxy paper, who referred everything back to the Platonic dialogues. When post-Communist Poland failed to meet his high expectations, he became a minister in the right-wing Kaczyński government, somehow confusing Kraków with Athens, and Warsaw with Syracuse.
I don’t remember if my Polish friends were reading Schmitt at that time, but they did rely on Strauss as a guide to the political-philosophical tradition they were rediscovering outside the confines of the Communist university system. In a sense, they were retracing Strauss’s own steps. Faced with the “crisis of the West” he saw in the weak response to Nazism before World War II, and to Communism after it, Strauss set out to recover and reformulate the original questions at the heart of the Western political tradition, which he did by leading his students and readers on a methodical march back in time, from Nietzsche to Hobbes, then to medieval Jewish and Islamic political philosophy (he avoided Christianity), and finally to Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Thucydides. Faced with the poverty, incompetence, and weak tyranny that real, existing socialism had delivered, many Poles I knew had begun a similar intellectual journey. And today, it’s the turn of some young Chinese, who are witnessing not the collapse of Communism but its metamorphoses into a form of despotic state capitalism. Their response has been to learn Greek, Latin, and German.
What distinguishes these young men and women from my Polish friends is that none would describe themselves as “liberal.”.. Read more:

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