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Why are Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome idolised so much in Western Culture and how did this admiration start? Do other cultures have their own equivalents?(r/AskHistorians)
I’m going to specifically compare Churchill’s notion about Greco-Roman thought to the importance of Chinese classics in East Asia. I’d say it is comparable, but distinct from the Roman/Greek case, especially colored by the very recent history running up to where Churchill was.
In the Chinese case, on-and-off dynasties were run according to the precepts of the “four books and five classics.” The four books were a set of texts written (or at least compiled by) Confucius and Mencius. While composed as mostly anecdotes, they established a system of propriety, morality, and “right action” that extended upwards and outwards from the home to the government. The classics were the basis of ancient Chinese religious, poetic, and ritual thought. They established a huge amount of the underlying aesthetic, religious, and cosmological worldviews that you see for millennia. These were seen as seminal to almost all literate Chinese individuals, right up until the reforms and upheavals towards the end of the Qing empire as the 19th century ended.
A specific example of their importance is the “Imperial exam system.” Set up in the 600s, it determined participation in government work was based almost exclusively on these texts. Specific forms varied and, as time wore on, some texts and requirements were added or subtracted based on which dynasty was giving the test. The underlying basis, though, was always the four books and five classics.
The thought (and, specifically, the Four Books/Five Classics) was also extremely important to the Imperial forms of government in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam (to varying degrees based on place, time, and who in particular was running things).
Chinese Dynastic succession kept up at a reasonably fast pace and established successive, stable empires, with only a century or two of chaos in between–even foreign invaders like the Mongols or Manchu would acquire Han-educated advisors and set up governments based largely on Confucian tenets (Yuan and Qing were both ‘foreign’ dynasties). The thought of ancient China wasn’t seen as something of a bygone age–it was immediate and current, seen as a lineage. As the Qing declined throughout the 19th and early 20th century, however, many saw it as clear to them that the entire worldview was flawed. Western nations, with their own notions of the world, were militarily superior and bullied the Qing Empire (dealing with its own massive internal issues, including a civil war that left more dead than 20 American Civil Wars). As a result, the ancient thought was discredited and a variety of Western ideologies took root. The one that eventually triumphed, Maoist Communism, explicitly sought to utterly destroy Confucian thought in the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese Communist Party has significantly moderated that stance since then, though, and the classics are once again revered. This is at least partially to set up a credible competing nationalist ideology to “the West,” and one which isn’t based on the now also largely discredited (and also, really, Western) Communist thought.
In Europe, you have the fall of Rome in the 400s and largely, there’s chaos thereafter (Things are different in the East with the continuation of Byzantium, but Churchill speaks to a specifically Western European mode of thought). There were various Renaissances (many more than most people give credit for, I don’t mean to get any Medievalists on me for downplaying the achievements in the period too much)–Charlamagne, the Ottonians, and others. Still, though, none of them succeeded in achieving anything close to the political hegemony of the Romans, much less in physical, engineering terms. Importantly, also, none of them had the control or longevity to be compared to really any of the dynasties that followed the Roman-comparable Han in our contrasting Chinese example. Rather than the living, functional, developing ideology that informed Empire after Empire, Rome was an ancient wonder. It was present–they could see it around them in the roads and aqueducts they used, the Christian religion they practiced, and the cities they lived in–but they couldn’t match it. While pretensions to being “successors” to Rome and many aspects of Roman culture had remained, much of the specific text and practice had long passed by the wayside to be rediscovered during the Renaissance.
In the ‘Renaissance that stuck’ in the 1400s and onwards, they looked on Roman thought and art as something ancient and wonderful. Statues dug up, texts acquired from the Islamic world (where they had been continuing study of Plato/Aristotle for many of the intervening centuries), and other aspects of greco-roman thought created an idealized past of the “ancients” for the “moderns” to compare their world to. Since there was such distance, I would editorialize, it allowed for way more idolization. As the Renaissance and Enlightenment spread, modern nation-states still based a great deal of thought and practice rooted in this source of cultural legitimacy: A perfect empire that existed an untold amount of time ago.
This is where Churchill is coming from; an agent of a modern empire that, still, desperately wanted to cast itself in the mold of the source of ancient legitimacy. Rather than seeing ancient thought as shackles on modernity, it was (mostly rightly) seen as the seed from which the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, and subsequent ability to dominate most of the globe had sprung.
To sum up the difference: In China, you have a constant lineage of social and political thought that was in operation in an Empire torn to shreds and thus discredited, though later redeemed as a source of cultural/nationalist pride. In the UK, you have a strain of thought, the specifics of which were lost, held in reverence as a golden age before centuries of intermittent warfare and chaos. Its rediscovery sets off, in part, a sequence of events that sets the UK up as a truly global empire–reflecting on the idealized past, the British Empire is lionized as a “new Rome,” necessarily owing much to the ideas from the “old Rome.” Nothing legitimizes your social and political thought (in your mind, anyway) than literally conquering most of the planet with it.
Edited to add sources of where I formed these views–by no means exhaustive, mainly what I can remember off the top of my head/can pull off a bookshelf:
- Fairbanks– www.amazon.com/China-New-History-Second-Enlarged/d…
- De Bary– www.amazon.com/Sources-Chinese-Tradition-Vol-1/dp/…
- Hsu– www.amazon.com/Rise-Modern-China-Immanuel-Hsu/dp/0…
- I also have read through most of Confucius — Analects and (Mythically Fu Xi, true author debated) — I Ching at various times
- Plutarch, Caesar, Livy
- Arnold– www.amazon.com/Knighthood-1050-1300-University-Aca… (Used basically as the background text for the 1000-1500 class I took, basis to build around “dark ages”)
- Machiavelli- Discourses on Livy (while it’s more complicated than simple idolization, he definitely looks back on the Romans as a period starkly different and superior to the one he lives in)
- Jonathan Swift: Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (Focus is mainly on literary tradition, but does add the complication that, especially as time wore on, not everyone agreed that Roman thought should be idolized. It highlights this, while also reinforcing the distinction–this was not seen as “Western” or “European” thought that evolved and developed down the ages–there are ancients and there are moderns)
- Levine — www.amazon.com/British-Empire-Sunrise-Sunset/dp/05…
- Mokyr– www.amazon.com/Gifts-Athena-Historical-Origins-Kno…