Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought. Lee Trepanier, ed.. Lexington Books, 2020
As humans, we have always been confronted with a perennial question, i.e., how to engage with a foreign culture. It is a problem that in our time has gained more prominence thanks to the increasingly integrated global economy. The rise of Asia and particularly China challenges the dominant Western framework. Not that the Western philosophical tradition somehow lacks resources to answer the question of the other, our age prompts us to go beyond a purely introspective perspective, i.e., to investigate the other not based on Western biases but on its own terms. This is of course an impossible task because no one can jettison his or her own cultural formation at will. If we cannot rid ourselves of our cultural biases, how can we engage with another culture meaningfully and respectfully? Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought is a welcome contribution to this perennial question. With its ten chapters—each one of them is worth a prolonged philosophical meditation—this book walks us through a variety of Asian cultures (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, and Indian) through a Voegelinian lens and highlights for us the value of both the Western and Asian frameworks. In what follows, I will offer a brief summary of each chapter and some comments on two broad themes (the rise of China and cross-cultural engagements) that stand out in the book. As a person who knows little about Eric Voegelin’s work, I find this book to be a fascinating and stimulating read and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in cross-cultural engagements.
In Chapter 1, Jorslaw Marek Duraj critically evaluates China’s current effort to widen and deepen its influence over the world through the Belt and the Road Initiative. For Duraj, China should not relinquish its ancient ideal of tianxia (all under heaven) by opting for a nationalist outlook. Rather, the right pathway for China to spread its influence is to reclaim its cultural heritage and use it to inoculate itself from the malaises of industrial modernity.
In Chapter 2, Jin Li and Li Ma interpret the avowedly secular ideology of the CCP as a theological one through a Voegelinian lens. For the authors, what CCP offers is not a materialist philosophy but a political theology that distorts the populace’s perceptions of reality, masks the hardships and oppression experienced by the populace, and legitimates the rule of the CCP.
In Chapter 3, Caylan Ford and Stephen Noakes remind us not to look at the CCP’s crackdown of Falungong, a popular spiritual movement in the late 1990s in China, merely as a political attack. They argue that Falungong represents a theological outlook that challenges the CCP’s ideology on a fundamental level. It is unacceptable to the communist regime that aims for complete spiritual domination over its populace.
In Chapter 4, Jin Jin applies a Voegelinian perspective on Shang Yang’s political theory (as recorded in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian), which was instrumental to the founding of the first Chinese empire, Qin. For Jin, Sima Qian’s account of Shang Yang’s political thought echoes a Voegelinian belief that historians are seekers and preservers of truth that can never be fully grasped by human beings.
In Chapter 5, Jonathan Ratcliffe problematizes Voegelin’s understanding of the Mongols’ political theology. He contends that the Mongols were interested not in safeguarding or promulgating their religious truth by political and military means, as it is the case among Abrahamic religions. Rather, the Mongols allowed religious pluralism within their realms and only required these religions to recognize that the Mongolian rule was ordained by God.
In Chapter 6, Todd Myers draws a sobering lesson from Voegelin’s investigation of the historiography on Timur, one of the most well-known military and political leaders in the world. Even before the tragedies of the 20th century, Timur’s politically motivated and theologically justified massacre of 17 million people warns us about the dire consequence of attempting to realize a transcendental ideal on earth, even though human flourishing requires an anchor in an ideal beyond material existence.
In Chapter 7, Lee Trepanier examines a trilateral conflict among China, Korea, and Japan in the Imjin War (1592-1598) through a Voegelinian perspective. Trepanier’s analysis reveals that this intra-East Asian conflict, which was initiated by a newly unified Japan, resulted from three nations’ competing desires to realize their own spiritual visions politically. The take-away lesson for Trepanier is that civilizational conflicts are mostly likely avoided if nations refrain from imposing their own spirituality onto others.
In Chapter 8, Timothy Hoye explores a Japanese literary artist Natsume Soseki’s attempt to preserve the common consciousness of Japanese civilization (joushiki) when confronted by the alien Western civilization. According to Hoye’s analysis, Soseki represents the conservationist kind of artists who consider their literary tasks as a duty to preserve and transmit the remnants of their own native culture under the assimilating pressure of an alien one.
In Chapter 9, Brendan Purcell offers a Voegelinian reading of the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the most famous meditative poem in the Hindu tradition. According to Purcell’s reading, the Gita does not differentiate humanity from divinity. Instead, it offers a cosmic reality integrating philosophy and myth for the community from which the Gita was composed.
In Chapter 10, the last chapter, John von Heyking expounds the true meaning of liberal education, which is not a means to material prosperity but a Socratic undertaking to care for one’s souls. For von Heyking, such a pursuit is not completely alien to the Confucian tradition. He cites several passages from the Analects to illustrate that Confucius would have been sympathetic to Socrates’s undying loyalty to philosophizing, i.e., truth and justice, which is naturally threatening to any political regime that single-mindedly focuses on economic development and imperial expansion.
Each chapter contains much food for thought, which means an exhaustive discussion of all the stimulating ideas contained therein would be unrealistic. Instead, I will focus on two themes that interest me the most: 1) the potential inter-civilizational conflict with China and 2) how individuals can or should comport themselves in a pluralistic era. Both themes are rooted in my own work, which seeks to identify the cultural receptacle for democracy within Confucianism.
Several chapters (e.g., Chapters 1 and 7) touch on one of the most pressing questions faced by the West, i.e., how to accommodate a rising China that at times behaves in a way fundamentally contradicting Western values. The danger, as seen by several authors, is that a great power like China seeks to impose its own spiritual or cultural values onto the world through military and political means. To counteract China’s imperialist ambitions while avoiding inter-civilizational conflicts, a multilateral framework is necessary. Yet, China is not interested in such an international framework, as evident in its misconduct within many international organizations (e.g., WTO and WHO). In some sense, today’s China is more like the Mongols (as depicted in Chapters 5 and 6). That is, it is interested only in world domination, not multilateral collaboration.
To deter China’s imperialist ambitions, what the West needs is more than a willingness to refrain from imposing its own liberal democratic values on others (as Trepanier suggests in Chapter 7). Nor is it enough to call on China to soften its imperial expansion with the spread of its own cultural values (Chapter 1). Instead, the West needs a clear and firm stance that it will not compromise its core values (e.g., freedom of inquiry) to appease China or any other great power. In this sense, the West has to amalgamate its spiritual and pragmatic aims in international relations. The West is quite economically integrated with China and, in some respects, has made itself even vulnerable because of such integration or dependence. Pragmatically, the West has done its part to accommodate China, which has not led to the kind of global spiritual integration that was hoped for in the late 1990s. The overriding concern in our time is an escalating spiritual conflict already initiated by China.
If China sincerely upheld Confucian values, which is what Duraj recommends China to promote in Chapter 1, it would certainly be possible to achieve a kind of spiritual peace with China. As demonstrated by von Heyking in Chapter 10, Confucianism has a lot in common with Western philosophy. The problem is what if China simply desires what the Mongols desired in the medieval era? That is, what if China wants to impose its communist theology (as exposed in Chapters 2 and 3) onto the world through its economic and military prowess? Is today’s West still capable of fighting back with a spiritually coherent response, in addition to its still formidable economy and military strength? This book is valuable precisely because it reminds the reader that politics is never devoid of a spiritual dimension. When China or any other great power wants to pick a fight, the West must know not only that it is capable of fighting but also that it knows what it is fighting for.
One thing I think that is worth fighting for is freedom of inquiry, which is cherished in the West but inimical to China’s communist theology. Von Heyking’s depiction of Socrates (and Confucius) as a wonderer in Chapter 10 is a good illustration of what a free inquirer might look like today. Both Chapters 8 and 9 have demonstrated to us that an engagement with a foreign culture, even from a Western (Voegelinian) perspective, can be fruitful and rewarding. However, studying foreign cultures does not mean that one must seek to denounce or change one’s culture necessarily. Instead, one should be open to the possibility that a meaningful dialogue with another culture could both increase one’s respect for it and reinforce one’s sense of belonging within one’s native culture. After all his intellectual questioning, Socrates died an Athenian citizen politically and culturally.
How are we to construct a polity where individuals are free to pursue truth across cultures? Von Heyking offers a compelling answer in Chapter 10:
“[T]he paradoxical figure of Socrates … shows our humanity is somehow rooted in a realm of being beyond any particular regime which means that the human person transcends the collective good of whatever regime in which he or she lives. As citizens we are parts of the greater whole of our political regime; as persons we are wholes greater than our regime. Politics as a differentiated realm whereby we actualize our humanity can only be constituted when our humanity is actualized by a transcendent source of being beyond politics” (p. 207).
I can think of a regime that can realize this Socratic ideal better than liberal democracy, where both the spiritual dignity of the individual soul and the pragmatic need for communal coordination are valued. We have seen in East Asia that a liberal democratic regime can thrive in non-Western cultures, even though no East Asian regime is perfectly aligned with the Socratic ideal yet. Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan all stand out as workable models, where freedom of inquiry is politically and legally upheld.
In other words, I am left with a sense of spiritual optimism after reading Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought. Perhaps the right kind of political ethos needed for our pluralistic planet is a Voegelinian type of universalism where political communities may still be organized around their own common cultures, but these cultures should be infused with an inquisitive spirit that allows individuals to wander and wonder beyond their cultural homeland. However, such spiritual freedom is not self-realizing, as the book rightly reminds us. It requires a kind of international politics that is willing to push back against those opponents who are hellbent on eradicating freedom of inquiry not only from their own territories but also from the world.
This excerpt is from Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2020). Thompson-Uberuaga’s reviews is available as are the introduction and chapters by Lee Trepanier, Todd Myers and John von Heyking.