Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wen Jiabao and Marcus Aurelius

At the top of the page it says this blog is about promoting "global citizenship." It was, in fact, my reading of Marcus Aurelius that inspired me to so dedicate this blog. Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher, was one of the first -- and among the most prominent persons of all time -- to articulate the ideal the unity of all the peoples of the world.

Fareed Zakarai recently interviewed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (transcript). It seems to me that something hopeful emerged from the interview: we discover that the Chinese premier is a fan of Marcus Aurelius. Here are two interesting excerpts from the interview:
FAREED ZAKARIA: You have said that you have read the works of Marcus Aurelius 100 times. Marcus Aurelius is a famous Stoic philosopher.

My reading of him says that one should not be involved in the self and in any kind of pursuits that are self-interested, but should be more for the community as a whole.

When I go to China these days, I'm struck by how much individualism there is, how much consumerism there is. Are you trying to send a signal to the Chinese people to think less about themselves and more about the community?

WEN JIABAO: (voice of interpreter): It is true. I did read the "Meditations" written by Marcus Aurelius Antonio many occasions. And I was very deeply impressed by the words that he wrote in the book to the effect that, where are those people who were great for a time? They are all gone, living only a story, or some even just half a story.

So, I draw the conclusion that only people are in the position to create history and to write history.

I very much value morality. And I do believe that entrepreneurs, economists and statesmen alike should pay much more attention to morality and ethics.

In my mind, the highest standard to measure the ethics and morality is justice.

It is true, in the course of China's economic development, some companies have actually pursued their profits at the expense of morality. And we will never allow such things to happen.

We will not allow economic growth at the expense of the loss of morality, because such an approach simply cannot be sustained. That's why we advocate corporate, occupational and social ethics.
At end of the interview, Zakarai summed up some of the highlights of his talk with the Chinese Premier:
FAREED ZAKARIA: [. . . ] in our conversation, China's premier cited with ease Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations." It is, by the way, a great book.

And it made me think that perhaps it would be a good idea to suggest a book that is worth reading, every week on this program. Let's start with Wen Jiabao's real favorite, the "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor in the second century A.D.

Aurelius' "Meditations" define what is often called a Stoic view on life. It really is worth reading to get a glimpse of a world totally removed from the consumerism and instant gratification of modern-day America - and China, as well.

To desire anything, Aurelius wrote, is to be permanently disappointed, since what we desire is empty, corrupt and paltry. Death is to be welcomed, because it marks an end to desire.
Zakarai is correct to suggest that the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius offers an alternative to the consumerist worldview. And it was this ethics which Wen extolled in the interview.

However, just as noteworthy, perhaps, is the fact that the particular classical author favored by the Chinese premier advocated a notion of global citizenship. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus believed that we are all members of the kosmopolis or "universal city." In Book Six of his Meditations, Marcus wrote:
My nature is rational and social; and my city and country, so far as I am Antoninus, is Rome, but so far as I am a man, it is the world.
If you read the Meditations carefully, you will see that cosmopolitanism is not peripheral to the ethical worldview of Marcus. According to this philosophy, the unity of human beings is based on our common capacity to exercise reason.

To extent does Wen Jiabao genuinely embrace the teachings of the Roman statesman and philosopher? It is difficult to say. But the Chinese premier's professed interest in Marcus Aurelius must certainly be regarded as a positive sign. Perhaps it is even cause to hope that the Chinese will come to embrace the cosmopolitan ideal in the years to come.
Hat-tip Fallows

1 comment:

  1. Wen Jiabao, a notorious humanist...


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