BMCR 2006.06.22

The Delusions of Invulnerability: Wisdom and Morality in Ancient Greece, China and Today

, The delusions of invulnerability : wisdom and morality in ancient Greece, China and today. Classical inter/faces. London: Duckworth, 2005. 1 online resource (176 pages).. ISBN 9781849667852 £12.99 (pb).

This book continues a series of studies by Lloyd comparing Greek and Chinese ancient cultures and drawing lessons for the modern West. The present work belongs to the publisher’s ‘Classical Inter/faces’ series, which focuses on intercultural views of contemporary issues; but Lloyd’s approach hardly differs from his last work, Ancient worlds, modern reflections, reviewed in this journal at Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.23, which already had a more explicit emphasis on drawing lessons for today.

In earlier comparative works, Lloyd defended comparing Greece and China against the theory of unique ‘mentalities’ in different cultures. But in Ancient worlds he expanded that methodological stance by considering a wider range of contemporary philosophical debates.

Lloyd’s manner of investigation is familiar from his earlier masterpieces on Greek science as well as these recent cross-cultural comparisons. At a time when literary studies are problematized by doctrinaire theory and some ancient historians are inclined to regard their discipline as a branch of archeology, his characteristic balance of erudition and judgment is refreshing. His method is that of a historian with sharp analytical skills, particularly for formulating suitable questions to isolate issues of intercultural import which cut across genres both ancient (e.g., philosophy vs. rhetoric) and modern (in this book, ethics, social studies, and jurisprudence). Another skill at which Lloyd excels here is crafting concise surveys of the respective cultures on different issues. Despite a clear focus on a given issue, he manages to pack into few pages a clear and comprehensive picture of the overall intellectual development.

The scope of Delusions extends, on the Greek side, to the Roman period, but with the emphasis on the Archaic and Classical; and on the Chinese side, up to (but not including) the advent of Buddhism, but with an emphasis on the classical period before Unification. The first three chapters investigate the intellectual elites who determined the society’s ideals: how they were chosen, and whom they addressed. The remaining chapters examine the quest for security (‘invulnerability’), justice and happiness.

Chapter 1. The pluralism of philosophical traditions

Lloyd shows how Presocratic Greece, like modern Western philosophy, displayed various models of wisdom; even medical writers might concern themselves with theories of the elements, and the very vocabulary referring to wisdom and learning was evasive. The Hellenistic philosophical schools institutionalised, rather than eliminated, this pluralism. Their aim, however, was always the happiness of the individual, whereas the common goal of Chinese thinkers was good government for the collective welfare. Lloyd regards modern academic philosophy, however, as a careerist pursuit unconcerned with both public and personal happiness.

The lesson drawn for modern academia comes as something of a surprise. One might have expected a comparative assessment of Greek individualism and Chinese collectivism; instead, the academic reader is scolded for indifference to both aims.

Chapter 2. Learned elites: their Training, Openness and Control

In this chapter, Lloyd examines Mesopotamia as well as China, and finds in both a complex hierarchy of officials studying canonical texts and passing knowledge on through only partially hereditary lines, although only China developed written examinations. Greek intellectuals were more independent — and consequently also lacked official financial support. Lloyd praises the modern university system for combining pluralist freedom with financial support, but warns that military and commercial involvement, as well as academic conservatism, pose threats requiring constant vigilance.

Chapter 3. Audiences and assemblies

The introductory pages of this chapter deftly compare Greek rhetoric and modern media and communications. Greeks, especially in democratic cities, had to convince their audience, and Lloyd’s survey shows how audience sophistication was conditioned in various ways by authors as diverse as Plato and medical writers, as well as by the orators. Although parallel situations were not unknown in China, the emphasis there was on advising monarchs. Today, in spite of greater technological access to information, we are a relatively powerless, passive audience, with the media even less accountable than politicians.

Chapter 4. The delusions of invulnerability

The Greek preoccupation with the frailty of human life and the capriciousness of the gods induced various proposed solutions, including Plato’s belief in immortality and ultimate justice, and the Hellenistic schools’ quest for peace of mind ( ataraxia). But the philosophers’ disagreement on how to attain peace of mind left paganism at an impasse, of which the Christians took advantage.

The discussion of China is brief, and largely negative. Classical Chinese lacked Plato’s dualism and obsession with the afterlife, and disregarded any quest for invulnerable security as unrealistic. The Yin and the Yang change, and the Sage adapts. The implied message (which is probably true) is that delusions of invulnerability have been rather an affliction of the West.

Lloyd precedes his assessment of modern life with a stark presentation of Mediaeval Christianity and its dramatic differences from both Classical and modern cultures (otherworldliness, etc.). He then criticizes the modern West for uncritical consumerism, and particularly the United States, as seeking security only through wealth and power. The global injustices of the Bush administration, Lloyd admonishes, are self-defeating as a path to security, and he gives the last word here to the Chinese concern for the welfare of “all under heaven”.

In spite of Lloyd’s keen understanding of ancient Greek psychology, and the comparison — telling not only for Greece but also for the West — with China, the argument of this chapter seems weakened by the digression on Mediaeval Christianity. Few educated readers will disagree with Lloyd’s criticism of American hegemonism, but it is oversimplified, precisely because Lloyd contrasts America with Christianity, after discussing the latter only as a mediaeval phenomenon. (Even such a recent doctrine as the nineteenth-century dogma of papal infallibility — which undoubtedly merits discussion among delusions of invulnerability — seems to be classed as mediaeval.) Unfortunately, the Republicans’ reliance on wealth and power is driven not only by uncritical consumerism but by the serious political ideology of American Christian Fundamentalism, the importance of which Lloyd and many Europeans have not yet apprehended.

Chapter 5. The Frailties of Justice: Debates and Prospects

This chapter treats thought on justice and law, but especially the ‘mismatch’ between philosophy and reality, in ancient and modern societies.

Since essentially all philosophies of law and justice were expressed in Archaic and Classical Greece, the Greeks receive the longest treatment. Relevant thinking is described from Homer, the cosmologists, Solon, Sophocles, the sophists, Thucydides’ Melian dialogue, Socrates and Plato, always noting the mismatch with the realities of warring city-states. A detailed picture of the Athenian political and legal system shows the high level of sophistication achieved.

In China too, before Unification, wars formed the background for philosophers’ efforts to influence rulers. Disputes as to how to provide good government turned partly on different assumptions about the natural goodness or badness of human beings, but virtue and harmony with the universe were generally desired. Lloyd notes a mismatch in that actual law codes made liberal use of such penalties as amputation and death, were indifferent to civil law, and could punish a convict’s entire family. He does not, however, draw the obvious conclusion from comparison with Greek and Western democracy, viz., that it is naive to take too seriously expressions of concern for the people by a type of government in which they had no say.

The modern concept of human rights has, Lloyd admits, provided a foundation for an idealistic conception of international law, but he sees a mismatch with political realities. Once again the United States is singled out: “None of the lessons of the perils of hegemony seems to have been taken to heart” (p. 141).

Chapter 6. Models for living

Lloyd points out that although the personal life-styles which Greek philosophers advocated were certainly more reasonable than today’s obsession with economic success, they were impracticable for most people, particularly women and slaves. Chinese philosophers allowed a dao, a right or natural way, for everyone (e.g., the carpenter’s dao), and concerned themselves with the general welfare more than personal happiness. Among a number of lessons drawn in this chapter for the modern West, this sense of collective responsibility is paramount. However, Lloyd says little about the condition of the servile class in China, and nothing at all about the status of Chinese women.

The continued application of Lloyd’s historical method, together with the frank discussions of modern issues and Lloyd’s observations of a “mismatch” between ideals and reality make excellent reading for Hellenists, sinologists, and students of any discipline.

However, those who have read his previous sinological studies may begin to tire of the repetition of much of this material. The contrast between Greek individualism and Chinese concern for collective welfare has, perhaps unavoidably, been pervasive. But even the extensive discussion of the problems of modern universities, the criticism of American unilateralism, and some more specialized themes, such as Lloyd’s view of the Aristotelean ideal of deductive demonstrative science as not only philosophy’s alternative to rhetoric, but the ultimate weapon in the Greek arsenal of adversarial argumentative techniques, were already presented in Ancient worlds.

On the other hand, the arguments might have been more effective had the book provided more context for the range of ideas from each tradition that it surveys.

Hellenists may find the sections of each chapter on ancient China hard going without some appreciation of the revolutionary changes under way in China that gave sense to ideas as divergent as, say, those of Confucius (551-479BCE) and the essays incorporated into the 2nd century BCE Huainanzi. Confucius’ emphasis on ceremony and deportment may seem less quaint, for example, when set against the transformative changes under way in his day, the late Spring and Autumn era. Confucius witnessed a deteriorating Eastern Zhou aristocratic order giving way to rising centralized states possessing powers of regulation and mobilization no previous political order had achieved. By Confucius’ day, Zhou-era chariot-based aristocratic combat that recalls the aristeia depicted in Homer had given way to general warfare that was waged on a scale unimaginable in the preceding Shang and Zhou times and, like the rise of hoplite warfare in Greece, that mobilized infantry from among farmers now able to afford basic weapons thanks to the spreading use of iron. The social order of Confucius’ time was unsettled by a revolution in agricultural productivity, bringing an emergent merchant class and the rise of land tenancy and freeholders. And Confucius’ ethical humanism responded to a wrenching secularization of culture accompanying the decline of Zhou political authority vested in a feudal warrior aristocracy and shored up by shamanistic priestly rituals in favor of competing bureaucratic territorial states increasingly governed by rational-legal criteria indifferent to traditional claims of patrimonial status.

In this context, Confucius’ conservative veneration of previously sacred Zhou ceremony, ritual, and music was intended as a secularized, humanistic basis for reordering a society he saw sliding into amoral chaos and whose future — the creation of an altogether new imperial political and social order he could not foresee. Three centuries later and worlds away, the questions debated in the 2nd century BCE Huainanzi make sense in a context of the ongoing consolidation of Han imperial power, the contention among still unsettled social and intellectual elites accommodating themselves to the politics of empire, and the effort to recover and reconstitute classical traditions obliterated in the Qin revolution some 75 years earlier.

By the same token, sinologists would undoubtedly benefit from at least some sketching of the transformations that span Greece’s archaic and Hellenistic periods and that make intelligible the ideas that Lloyd surveys in abstract so ably. Regrettably, specialists of China are these days unlikely to be able to distinguish the hard realities of archaic Boeotia that Hesiod addressed from the richer possibilities of Homer’s Ionia, a world apart even while nearly contemporary, much less from the concerns that moved Plato and Aristotle centuries later. Perhaps most regrettable of all, given the book’s purpose, is the fact that general readers are not likely to have much appreciation of either setting, Greek or Chinese. Some effort to root the ideas of each tradition in their evolving context may go a long way toward inhibiting the essentialism that the comparative “history of ideas” sometimes invites. It not only may deepen the cross-cultural comparisons that the book attempts, but it may also strengthen the book’s evaluation of their relevance for the dilemmas we face today.

Finally, in that regard, the concluding sections of each chapter devoted to contemporary issues are not as systematic in drawing out the parallels and contrasts of ancient responses to perennial dilemmas as they might have been. In some cases, important and even tantalizing questions seem to be sloughed off or ignored. For example, the issues treated in the first three chapters on the organization of learning, the credentials of learned elites, and the transmission and social and political roles of learning in ancient Greece and China are positively riveting and immediately relevant to dilemmas arising today with the homogenization of language and culture nationally and globally, the fragmentation of learning and knowledge, the proliferation of formats of communication with electronic media and the internet, etc. But aside from dead-on comments about the lamentable state of universities, there is little effort to sketch the foundational quality of many of the issues we face today — such as the shift back toward the spoken word from written word, noted in passing on p.64 — to which the responses by Greek and Chinese traditions in the past are inspiring and relevant.

It is not that Lloyd’s observations on the present are disagreeable, false, or eccentric. Lloyd’s comments are provocative and entertaining, and they may serve as useful conversation starters in undergraduate seminars and discussion precepts. In the absence of a more concerted effort to survey present predicaments in light of the ancient Greek and Chinese responses to comparable dilemmas, however, they disappoint because they seem more an idiosyncratic recitation of off-hand complaints than an exposition that provokes reflection on delusions of progress, invulnerability, certainty, and the other questions.

I spotted only four writing errors in the entire book: p. 56 “at least in some certain quarters”; p. 133 “they had some difficult justifying”; p. 142 “in the countries effected by those operations”; and p. 152 “in gaining to access to rulers”.