28 May 2015

Re-thinking the nation-state: a re-Orientation

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall:

Dr. Wang Hui’s book China: From Empire to Nation-State, for which I have a brief review written here, is nothing else if not provocative, and I do mean that in the best possible sense. Wang’s argument that the Chinese nation-state has certain non-teleological Confucian political-philosophical elements deeply embedded in its ‘constitution’, broadly stated, that are pre-modern and anti-modern even though they support a modern structure, is not only itself well-argued. Along the way, though, he also demonstrates (and effectively explodes) the orientalist, creation-mythological nature of the modernism that underpins the rise of the nation-state generally, and how the empire/nation-state dichotomy has (mis)informed both liberal and Marxist thought about China. He demands of Western scholarship and society a rethinking of its relationship to the nation-state.

In certain quarters, it now seems passé to talk about nation-states, whereas in others it is starting to seem necessary and downright urgent. Global finance has made it so that practically all sectors of the manufacturing economy enjoy full mobility of capital across any and all national borders, even though labour does not – thus allowing global financiers and large corporations to exploit low labour costs and standards of living to produce as cheaply as possible. In some quarters, it seems a return to the nation-state now seems to be the rule of resistance. China and Russia, along with a handful of other nations worldwide – notably Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Belarus, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay, Greece – have returned over the past decade to a kind of red-tinged, semi-populist nationalism as a means of protecting what gains they have managed to secure from globalism, and as a means of preventing any further losses. Other nation-states, particularly in central and southern Asia – Iran, Bhutan, Cambodia – have governments which equate the nation-state with alter-liberal or even anti-liberal religious positions.

It isn’t my place or my intent here to criticise either of these particular strategies. All resistance to hegemonic ideologies, and particularly to liberal capitalist modernity, will of course be piecemeal and will have to be tailored to the conditions and needs of local communities. But Wang Hui demonstrates more than argues that the building of the nation-state has necessarily involved the dissolution of local, mediated and traditional forms of authority and knowledge. In China’s case, even though the re-tailoring of the imperial Qing state into a modern nation-state was founded on Confucian moral-political-institutional categories and concepts foreign to the teleological modern mindset, the same re-tailoring meant ending the administrative power of the patriarchal clan and curtailing, often quite significantly, the traditional self-government and communal rights of various tribal and theocratic peoples (Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Hui, Qiang, Zhuang, Miao) within China’s borders.

In Western Europe most obviously, we have been witnessing the outcomes of an experiment in technocratic empire-building, based on a set of secular, democratic and neoliberal capitalist rules. The resistance on the periphery to this experiment – in Hungary, in Greece, in Slovakia – has been almost entirely couched in nationalist and populist terms. But it seems to be a measure of how much has been lost already with regard to local authority and knowledge, and how little the technocratic capitalist European empire feels the need to regard or value such, that the nation-state is now considered the go-to site of localist resistance to the capitalist, mass-cultural logic that gave rise to it in the first place.

Wang Hui’s thorough dismantling of the various warping Western, development-theoretical glosses on Chinese nationhood does serve a very useful purpose: it forces us to re-think and re-evaluate some of our basic political categories. China’s adoption of nation-state rules on terms foreign to the European context, can be taken to show either that the normative basis for the nation-state is more flexible than it is generally conceived to be, or alternatively that the nation-state is not an inevitability with regard to government.

The Roman Catholic academic Johan de Tavernier of the Université Catholique de Louvain, who studies both Orthodox and Catholic social doctrine, has pointed out that – for all the similarities between the two corpuses of social thinking, and for all the affirmation of certain Catholic social concepts by and within the Orthodox tradition – one of the more ‘surprising’ differences between Orthodox and Catholic social thought is that Orthodoxy does not link the nation to the state. This may seem counter-intuitive. The popular caricature (not unknown in Catholic or Protestant circles) of Orthodoxy as a ‘tribalistic’ creed, with each nation having its own autocephalous and territorial church, is sadly common and sadly bolstered by the fact that many Orthodox themselves believe their faith demands a commitment to a certain nation-state expression. This is a major problem within Orthodox churches today.

But Orthodoxy not only condemns extreme nationalism as heretical following the Ecumenical Council of 1872, it also tends to address the nation as distinct and separate from the state, and understands ‘nation’ in both a political and an apolitical sense. This does indeed stem from the Byzantine (and later Russian) imperial heritage of holding together a polity which includes many different peoples, a heritage which is not always to be considered healthy. But it is also an important ecclesiological and Christological distinction. It is the distinction between the political leadership of Moses and the religious-cultural leadership of Aaron, and also the dual embodiment of Our Lord both as a Jew by culture and as a citizen of Rome – and dutifully loyal to both. (And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the Jews and the Romans – His nation and His state – both conspired together to put Him to death!)

But this separation, far from weakening the Orthodox witness in an age of nation-states, actually gives Orthodox social thought the needed degree of manoeuvrability to be able to engage with Wang Hui’s challenge. The Basis of the Social Concept commands believers, in no uncertain terms, to have a positive, active love of nation – a self-giving attachment to one’s particular paternity and homeland – and also to be thoroughly obedient to the state as befits the rightful agent of earthly justice and charity. Yet Orthodox social thought has always very carefully avoided the one-sided logical identification of the nation with the state, and thus afforded itself the doctrinal resources to avoid an antinomy between the universal demands of the Church and the universal demands of the nation-state. The political ethics of Western Christendom have been badly warped by precisely this antinomy of Church and state dating back to the investiture controversies, with both Church and state caught up in making increasingly ‘deep’ and competitive demands on the loyalty of their subjects. The vertical formal universalism of Roman Catholic ecclesiology (and thus also of political and social thinking); the coagulation of Western nation-state politics; and the mutual distrust and competition for political, cultural and economic power between the two; all are in many respects the offspring of this antinomy.

The outward opposition between the cooptation by the state of various independent and informal folkways into a uniform mass culture to bolster its legitimacy on the one hand, and the vertical cosmopolitan integration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the other, masks a common outlook with regard to the ends and limitations of secular government. Through nationalism, a secular government essentially rationalises itself upon one or more contiguous and organic communities of people; as Western Christendom has reacted (often understandably!) against these stifling forms of nationalism with claims of universal jurisdiction and an antagonistic or competitive stance vis-à-vis the secular state, it has been long fighting a losing battle.

The sui generis example of China’s Confucian-tinged multinational nationhood, or anti-modern modernity as portrayed by Dr. Wang, could be read as an example of how Western political science and social theory could benefit by borrowing certain ‘Eastern’ (i.e. Chinese, Russian, Byzantine) distinctions between demos and polis. It is a natural tendency for Pilate and the Jerusalem crowds, thinking themselves self-sufficient in salvation and fearing the coming victory over death, to find themselves united in purpose against Christ. As followers of the last it isn’t our place to damn them or to confuse them, but instead to stand between them, sanctifying each and witnessing truthfully to both.

27 May 2015

Two Lewises, sounding very much alike

First off, Lewis Black here:
I don’t really like Hillary Clinton. But [Marco Rubio] is saying she’s the past. We need someone who is going to take us to the future. And he’s the one who is going to take us to the future. And I’m sitting there thinking he doesn’t get it.

Not only do we need to get back to yesterday, we need to get to the day before yesterday. That’s how far behind we are. Don’t tell me about the future. What are you going to do? Magically make racial tensions disappear, Marco? The future is to go back and pick up the strands that have been staring you in the face and start working on them.
Where have I heard something like this before?
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
I am an avowed fan of both Lewises, just for full disclosure. (Though I do have certain points of disagreement with Mr. Black, particularly when it comes to religion.) But it is truly fun to see a self-described ‘democratic socialist’ make an argument about the myth of progress and the future-pointing direction of American politics which sounds so classically conservative! Bonus points to him for taking Marco Rubio to task from just such a conservative perspective, and showing that the Republicans are just as (and in some ways, even more) susceptible to the calls of an errant and heretical myth of progress.

14 May 2015

An anti-modern modernity (with Chinese characteristics)

Cross-posted from The Lanchester Review:

One of the single most insightful scholars and most penetrating critics of modern China I have encountered so far is Wang Hui (汪暉), the professor of literature at Tsinghua University. Having read his book The End of the Revolution when working for PlaNet Finance in 2011, I was at once stricken by his unique, daoistic propensity for showing how two nominally-opposed intellectual, scholarly or cultural tendencies in fact share the same underlying principles and ontological orientations. (This is a technique I have myself tried somewhat clumsily, on occasion, to adopt as my own.) He is often cast, with strenuous reluctance on his part, into the role of the intellectual leading light of the Chinese New Left, but I have noted before certain strains running through his work which we might consider classically-conservative. Dr. Wang would certainly not call himself that either, but he does have a particular knack for retrieving, elucidating with unvarnished sympathy, and finding a place in considerations of contemporary questions for overlooked historical narratives, concepts and literary ways of being.

Wang Hui’s conservative streak comes readily to the fore in his excellent work China: from Empire to Nation-State, available in English on account of a recent translation by Michael Gibbs Hill, which is at bottom a critique of modernity and the assumptions by which the category of ‘modern’ is applied to China. He doesn’t question that China is a modern state, but he has very grave doubts about the entire narrative construct of modernisation by which China has come to be understood: both in terms of its normative character, and in terms of its analytical appropriateness. Instead, he argues that China’s modernity has been uniquely and indelibly shaped by certain key pre-modern, or even anti-modern political and moral concepts.

Wang demonstrates very deftly that ‘modernisation’ as it was theorised by Machiavelli, Smith, Montesquieu, Mill, Hegel, Marx and others depended upon positing a mythical primordial Asia, an ‘Oriental despotism’ characterised by rural-agrarian life, mystical obscurantism and a dialectic of tyranny and servility, out of which the modern, urban-bourgeois, scientific and republican European nation-state could emerge. The reflection of this mythical ‘modernisation’ construct through colonialism back upon Asia is therefore fraught with internal contradictions – these he explores, interestingly enough, by way of comparison with Russia. In discussing Lenin’s ‘Democracy and Narodnism in China’, he argues that both the Westerniser and the Slavophil tendencies share a concept of the empire/nation-state binary (which had then become also an East/West binary), and take different directions in reacting to, deflecting or appropriating the Western view of Russia.

As Wang sees them, both the reigning models of Chinese modernisation – the Marx-Fairbank model which posits Chinese modernisation as a reaction against European colonialism and the Opium Wars, culminating in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution; and the Kyōtō School model which seeks ‘sprouts of capitalism’ and evidences of a nation-state sensibility arising out of the Northern Song Dynasty – are overly simplistic, and both implicitly rely on a Whiggish locus of ideas about the substance of modernity. Instead, he argues, reformist political dialogues within China located the ideal society in the distant past, and focused their attention on the rupture between rites-and-music on the one hand, and institutions on the other. To do this, reformers within China referred to the ritual moral substance of political forms of Chinese antiquity – such as the well-field system and the patriarchal clan system – when advocating egalitarian measures. They made use of a front-loaded Confucian philosophical and political vocabulary that doesn’t neatly map onto the universalising ideologies of the Enlightenment, but rather draws upon a long tradition of reformist neo-Confucian thought based upon a naturalistic, contextual ‘heavenly principle’ (tianli 天理). ‘Song Confucians,’ Wang argues, ‘would find the way modern people link social change with a teleological view of time to be quite foreign: their criterion for evaluating change was not time, but rather an internal criterion—“the propensity of principle” (lishi 理事).’

His argument becomes really interesting when he argues that this internal Confucian political dialogue shaped the realities of the emergence of ‘modern’ Asian nation-states in ways which a Whiggish narrative of modernity cannot explain. How did it happen, he asks, that Tibet, Xinjiang, Dongbei and Inner Mongolia became part of ‘China’ when they do not share cultural and print-linguistic ties with the Han people? And how did it happen that some nations which have shared cultural and print-linguistic ties with the Han – Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma – did not join in the nation-building project of ‘China’? The standard explanations of how nations form, he argues, are not enough – nor are explanations which refer to colonial relationships within ‘China’, though those certainly existed.

Instead, he argues, in some ways echoing the intriguing cultural conservatism of Jiang Qing, the flexibility of ‘Chineseness’ which shaped its modern national experience was inherited directly from the morally-legitimating categories laid down by a political Confucian orthodoxy. Ethnically non-Chinese (Turkic, Mongolian, Manchu) claimants could and often did appropriate the moral-political Confucian resource of ‘Chineseness’ as a tool to maintain dynastic legitimacy. But that sword cut both ways: the ethnically-Han people they ruled could then appeal to their monarchs’ claims to ‘Chineseness’ in their appeals for social justice and equitable distribution of goods. This positive aspect of ‘Chineseness’ was supplemented by a negative, defensive idea of ‘China’ that emerged from the long Qing engagement with modernising colonial powers, and from the piecemeal but fully-conscious adoption of certain centralising facets of the nation-state by Qing reformers, precisely to prevent further fragmentation and colonial exploitation.

The picture that emerges from Wang Hui’s lengthy interrogation of the various cultural, political, legal and philosophical strands surrounding and penetrating a ‘modern China’ or a ‘modernising China’ is a subtle and complex one. The good professor uses his humane literary intellect to tease out the tangle of deadweight puppet strings that both hold up and hold back this ‘modern China’, and attempts to cut it loose from its false self-understandings. A ‘free’ China, for him, is emphatically not ‘free’ in a bourgeois capitalist sense, nor even ‘liberated’ in a Marxist sense. It’s fascinating to see an intellectual, reckoned a ‘leftist’ in Chinese discourse, defend certain non-teleological and anti-modern Confucian political ideas and understandings as necessary for China’s continued ‘modern’ reform and development. Dr. Wang himself is likely quite aware of the irony; the reason he eschews the term ‘left’ to describe himself, after all, is because he feels a terminology imported from a Western revolutionary context has very limited traction in a Chinese one.

China – and indeed, the non-Western world at large, as Pankaj Mishra might say – is a very interesting place at this moment in history on account of theorists like Wang Hui. Bright minds, that is, who aren’t afraid to take up the cultural and intellectual tools which some might deride as outdated, old-fashioned or backward, and use them to reconstruct paths which resist or run counter to the current neoliberal global order. Russia’s rediscovery of its own humane, personalistic, selectively-liberal and post-liberal philosophical tradition (Solovyov, Berdyaev and Il’in particularly) lies along this same trajectory. Dr. Wang’s brief but subtle interaction with the antecedents of that tradition shows that these two projects are needfully intertwined.

My own interest in China stems from the fact that an immensely long body of civilised tradition – a body which goes back, with few interruptions, for 3200 years – is brought into a constant, disruptive and disorienting contact with the most frantic, brutal and unvarnished forms of modernity. And unlike in other nations – like Japan or Korea – no serious attempt is made to paper over or downplay or explain away these violent juxtapositions. No soothing political noises are made to the effect that one can have a society grounded in Confucian values that is at the same time fully integrated into a value-demolishing global economy. Tradition has not yet been reduced to an ersatz of itself in the service of modern ideologies.

This state-of-affairs provides Chinese scholars of China from various intellectual strains – people like Wang Hui, Gan Yang, Zhang Xudong, Jiang Qing and Kang Xiaoguang – a unique and uniquely-interesting set of vantage points. These vantage points will of course be valuable to subsequent Chinese policy-makers and intellectuals going forward. But in a way, scholars like Wang Hui speak also to a modern world where contact with tradition has already, to a significant extent, been lost. We in the West need to be startled out of some of our assumptions, about our own loss of historical perpective and agency within a cloud of universalistic developmental myth-making, and about how we’ve gotten to where we are (and whether we are better for it).

11 May 2015

Be very, very careful about Patristic quotes…

… particularly if you don’t know whether or not they’re authentic.

The blog Byzantine, TX and the Acton Institute PowerBlog both posted, back in 2009 and 2010, respectively, a quote from S. John Chrysostom against public forms of charity, which sounds like it could have come out of a nineteenth-century Whiggish evangelical sermon or a Tea Party pamphlet. The quote’s authenticity was brought into question once by Richard Barrett at his blog Leitourgeia kai Qurbana, and also by Fr. John Sanidopolous at the excellent Mystagogy blog. Thus far, no one seems to have been able to trace a proper provenance for the quote back beyond a popular compilation of unsourced quotes by an Anglican vicar in Cambridge, Robert van de Weyer. But the quote still comes up quite regularly, particularly with links back to the Acton blog or Byzantine, TX on Google searches for S. John Chrysostom.

And the responses by these bloggers on having been corrected in a brotherly spirit have been somewhat… disappointing. The Acton blog has, to date, not even bothered to post so much as a caveat, and the poster basically told his commenters to do their own research. To his credit, the blogger at Byzantine, TX posted an edit saying the quote had been called into question, but he also complained multiple times that so much fuss shouldn’t be made over an ‘old post’, and several of the commenters to his blog basically took the position that ‘I don’t care whether or not S. John Chrysostom said it; it’s still right’. But, as Richard Barrett pointed out, obviously it does matter whether or not S. John Chrysostom said it, because it lends a heavy weight of Patristic authority to a point of view that looks like it might not, in fact, deserve it.

Again, as far as I can tell from what I have read so far in the Orthodox blogosphere, no one who has greater access to S. John’s work than I have has yet been able to find a direct attribution to one of his homilies or his other works, or even been able to tell where Robert van de Weyer found it. So, I must concur with the honourable Romulan Senator Vreenak on this.

05 May 2015

Four beginnings, or three?

I have to wonder if there is any good scholarship as yet devoted to bringing that great classical Chinese philosopher, Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mencius), into contact with modern Russian philosophy. I’m sure there is, and truth be told I haven’t had the willpower or the resources to really get digging for it yet. I wanted to offer here, though, a few loosely-organised thoughts comparing and contrasting Mencius’s theory of moral anthropology with that of Russian Christian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov – or rather, more specifically, the moral anthropology found in the Mencius with that found in The Justification of the Good – because the parallels I had noticed are incredibly interesting and offer a potentially deep window of overlap.

There is a lot I could write about Solovyov. His thinking, even in this one slim volume, is incredibly dense. But here it’s only his moral anthropology I’m concerned with – his understanding of human nature and how his ethical theory arises out of it. Solovyov’s moral philosophy begins with an exposition of the proclivities, grounded deeply within human nature, toward some end beyond the scope of natural human life.

His discourse on the ‘justification of the good’ begins with an assessment of the ‘primary data’, drawing on Darwin in particular, and discovers in human nature one fact which distinguishes it from all other forms of lower life: namely, the feeling or awareness of shame. Shame denotes a negative, alienating reaction to one’s own animal (in Solovyov’s telling, sexual) nature, one which cannot be accounted for by the brute evolutionary logic of self-preservation and transmission of one’s genome from one generation to the next. Shame directs human attention to an end outside of mortal existence, to the awareness that the human life was directed at some purpose outside of that life.

It excites and necessitates the accessory feelings of pity and reverence, and these Solovyov takes care to rank thus: shame regulates our moral interactions with our own ‘lower natures’; pity regulates our moral interactions with other human beings, those we recognise as our equals in likeness; and reverence regulates our moral interactions with our parents, and by extension all those superior and prior to us in age and wisdom. These ‘fundamental feelings… exhaust the sphere of man’s possible moral relations to that which is below him, that which is on a level with him, and that which is above him’, and all other virtues can be explained or examined in light of the proper development and orientation of these three basic moral feelings.

Solovyov carefully teases out his entire moral anthropology from these three threads. From them he fires broadsides both against utilitarianism and against the unreasonable psychological demands and shortcomings of the Kantian deontology to which his own philosophy owes so much. Utilitarianism falls short precisely in its confusion of ‘the good’ with pleasure, and in its need to derive moral principles solely from an account of human pleasure (no matter how refined). Kantianism, on the other hand, suffers in its divorce of an abstract, subjective form of the good from its fulfilment in human flourishing – this leads him to misunderstand the demands of the conscience and of moral feeling as foreign to actual moral decision-making. Though Solovyov might not expressly state his own ‘justification’ as in the virtue-ethical tradition, and though his thinking bears strongly the stamp of his German idealist influences throughout, his insistence upon a unity of means and ends, and of connecting lived experience with the project of ethical philosophy, do tend to place him somewhere within the virtue-ethical ‘stream’.

Solovyov’s emphasis on moral ‘feelings’ reminded me instantly of Mencius’s ‘four beginnings’. In the first part of the Gongsun Chou, Mencius says:
All men have a sense of compassion. As the ancient kings had such a sense, they had the compassionate system of government. Running such a government with such a sense, one would find it as easy to rule the world as to roll something on the palm of one’s hand. The reason why I say all men have a sense of compassion is that, even today, if one chances to see a little child about to fall into a well, one will be shocked, and moved to compass on, neither because he wants to make friends with the child’s parents, nor because he wants to earn praise from his neighbours and friends, nor because he hates to hear the cry of the child.

From this we can see that whoever has no sense of compassion is not human; whoever has no sense of shame is not human; whoever has no sense of modesty is not human; and whoever has no sense of right and wrong is not human. The sense of compassion is the beginning of benevolence; the sense of shame the beginning of righteousness; the sense of modesty the beginning of decorum; the sense of right and wrong the beginning of wisdom.

Man possesses these four beginnings just as he possesses four limbs. Anyone possessing these four and saying that he cannot do what is required of him is abasing himself. If he says that his ruler cannot do what is required of him, he is abasing his ruler. Let a man know how to develop fully all these beginnings he possesses, and it may be compared to the starting of a fire or the gushing out of a spring. If these are fully developed, he can protect the whole world; if not, he will not be able even to serve his parents.

Like Solovyov, Mencius recognises that human beings have the distinction of moral feelings to separate them from animals. And Mencius’s account of the ‘four beginnings’ bear an uncanny resemblance to Solovyov’s basic moral feelings. Mencius’s ‘sense of shame’ (xiu’e zhi xin 羞惡之心) and Solovyov’s are identical. His ‘sense of compassion’ (ceyin zhi xin 惻隱之心) is directly analogous to Solovyov’s moral feeling of ‘pity’. And his ‘sense of modesty’ (cirang zhi xin 辭讓之心) is somewhat culturally-coded into a Chinese mentality, deferring honours and rewards out of a knowledge of one’s place in the social fabric, but there’s enough of an analogy within that cultural coding to be drawn to Solovyov’s feeling of ‘reverence’ to be, at the very least, interesting.

Even more interesting: Mencius explains all other virtues, all other forms of morally-correct behavior from the very basis of ‘serving one’s parents’ to governing ‘all under heaven’, in terms of cultivating these ‘four beginnings’ into the virtues of benevolence (ren 仁), righteousness (yi 義), decorum (li 禮) and wisdom (zhi 智). Solovyov is likewise insistent both on the exhaustiveness of the possible scope of development of his three moral feelings to the point of moral perfection (involving the perfection of the world), and on the empirical awareness of human imperfection.

The parallels are not perfect, but they are indeed close enough to lead one to wonder if Solovyov took an inspiration from Mencius comparable to that Aquinas took from Aristotle. (That is unlikely except in an indirect fashion, on account of his somewhat unfavourable stated attitudes toward Chinese culture and civilisation.) Solovyov argues extensively for his three ‘beginnings’ in a way Mencius feels compelled to do only through his famous child-at-the-well parable, but otherwise they begin constructing their moral anthropologies in strikingly similar ways.

The one difference – the key difference – appears to lie in the Christian understanding of the Fall of Man, to which Solovyov subscribes fully. Solovyov is painfully aware of the vast gulf fixed between the human need for moral perfection, and the human reality of moral imperfection; he argues that this gulf can be crossed only by and through the God-man. On empirical grounds, he doubts precisely the attainability of human wisdom on its own terms, yet he knows any such wisdom has to make reference to all three natural moral feelings.

Mencius, as is to be expected, places a distinctly pre-Christian trust in the human wisdom of past ages and former kings (xianwang 先王), and does not necessarily posit such a gulf between Heaven and human beings. This difference is what underlies Mencius’s adoption of a fourth ‘beginning’ of the knowledge of right and wrong. For Solovyov this knowledge cannot be anything but problematic outside its religious context, and outside the content of the intrusion of the God-man into history. This is a discussion I haven’t the space to get into here, and which I have addressed in part elsewhere; suffice it to say, the question of human nature, the Fall and the relation between Heaven and Earth is still a thorny theological and cosmological question which continues to plague Confucian-Christian dialogues.

But the parallels between Solovyov’s thinking and Mencius’s, as might be expected when they start from fairly similar understandings of human nature, transcend moral anthropology even to the level of political philosophy and economics. Mencius’s main theme when talking to kings, and his primary concern about the function of government, is precisely benevolence, which as shown above proceeds from the ‘beginning’ of compassion. Likewise, Solovyov refers explicitly to the state as ‘collectively organised pity’, making reference to Vladimir II Monomakh’s compassionate defence of the Russian peasantry from the Kumans and Dante Alighieri’s impassioned call for a monarch in Italy.

Both Mencius and Solovyov, each almost uniquely for their times, likewise placed a particular emphasis on humane care for, preservation and husbandry of the natural world. Mencius placed his emphasis on timely harvests and wood-cuttings, responsible use of fisheries and seasonal breeding of livestock, to ensure that even the weakest and most vulnerable members of society – the elderly and young children – had enough to eat and wear. Solovyov likewise stressed the moral treatment of natural resources, and he even echoes Mencius’s belief that such moral treatment would result in plenty:
Decisive check must be put on the treatment of the earth as a lifeless instrument of rapacious exploitation… if land is treated in the moral way and looked after like a being whom one loves, the minimum amount of land sufficient for each person may become so small that there will be enough for those who have not got any, without doing injustice to those who have.
Mencius and Solovyov furthermore share a concern for a distribution of goods which allows for sufficient living across all groups, with a specific concern for those most vulnerable and subject to disadvantage. They each reject full egalitarianism; Solovyov’s critique of contemporary socialism doesn’t quite exactly mirror Mencius’s lengthy lambasting of Xu Xing, as the issues concerned are somewhat different. But more importantly, both share a deep repugnance for the capitalistic mentality whose first concern is profit. (Mencius goes so far as to blame monopolistic profit-seekers – ‘mean fellows’ 賤丈夫 – for the grim necessity of taxing commerce in markets.) Though the two thinkers use different terms and address different audiences – Mencius being primarily concerned with the behaviour of rulers, and Solovyov more with that of the average reader – both show deep scepticism regarding false universals, and evince political understandings which we would now recognise as communitarian, and place emphasis on the right treatment of those physically and relationally closest to us as being the appropriate and proper points of moral contact.

There is absolutely a far deeper analysis that can be made regarding the points of contact and the points of divergence between these the ancient Chinese and the modern Russian philosopher, but I did want to point out here several of the similarities.