What the United States Can Learn from China and Greece

by George Anastaplo


My first exposure to the Chinese (aside from enjoying their restaurants in this Country) was (shortly after the Second World War) during an Air Corps mission flying out of Guam (where our air crew was temporarily stationed), searching for one of our planes that had gone down into the Pacific Ocean far to the west. Our flight (on which I was the navigator) was uneventful, except for a troubling hour when it appeared that our own plane (a B-29) was literally coming apart at high altitude, a prospect which led me to calculate our position for the radio operator to use. The area we were assigned to search did take us to the edge of Formosa, which was the name by which that beautiful island was then known to us.

An experience that evening at our air base on Okinawa, where we spent the night, proved enlightening for the twenty-year-old that I was. I could not help noticing one of the participants in a lively card game, in our officers’ quarters, an exasperated officer who was the foulest-mouthed man I ever encountered during more than three years of military service. I was astonished to learn, upon inquiry, that this was an Air Corps chaplain, which proved a quite useful lesson for a youngster that things may not always be what they seem, even among those in apparent authority.

My first substantial exposure to the Chinese was, a quarter century ago, during my study of the great Confucian texts in translation, texts which can sometimes seem to be still as fundamental to China as the Declaration of Independence is to the United States. A critical difference here is that this American founding document could invoke “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”   Nature, as it came to be known first in the West, did not figure explicitly in the thought of Asians before they were systematically exposed to the influence of Ancient Greek thought.


Of course, the ability of a people to maintain a recognizable continuity on so large a scale for some three thousand years, as the Chinese have done, suggests (unless the Divine is posited as having been at work there, as It is said to have been with the Israelites) that the Chinese have long had a somewhat reliable sense of the workings of Nature. This can include the empowerment of an instinct for recognizing and developing “one’s own.” This may be seen most pervasively, perhaps, in the fundamental role instinctively assigned by the Chinese to the family in the truly civilized community (with the family name coming first, as among many Asians, in any personal identification).

In the United States, however, family ties can be far less intense, reflecting perhaps the fact that ours is still a highly mobile society, having been populated for the most part by millions who have been willing, if not even eager, to abandon their ancestral homes thousands of miles away. Within a couple of generations after their settlement here, the language and customs (including eventually the religious sentiments) of their forebears tend to become far less important than they had been, if they are not even forgotten. Much in the social and economic circumstances of Americans encourages, if it does not require, even more mobility among those settled here, mixing up thereby peoples that can have only an ever-dimmer awareness of what “the Old Country” meant.

Americans can be reminded by the Chinese of how deep, and obviously rich, family ties can be. We, on the other hand, must wonder what the long-term effects of the current “single-child-per-family” policy of the Chinese government will be if it can indeed be sustained. Is there about such a policy something as unnatural, at least in appearance (if not also in what it eventually means for the care of the aged), as that extraordinary mobility upon which the United States seems to depend?


Americans can be reminded by contemporary China of what a “market economy” can be and may do. We see dramatized among the Chinese today both the encouragement of personal economic initiatives and the legitimation of an intense self-centeredness. But the Chinese do not seem to be as determinedly (or, at least, as obviously) suspicious of pervasive governmental regulation as Americans tend to be – and in this, perhaps, the lingering influence of Confucian thought may be seen.

Even so, the Chinese can help us see how our European ancestors acted for three centuries in taking over much of North America. That is, the ethnic Chinese, too, steadily displaced “aboriginal” people all over Asia – and (it seems) continue to do so, by mandating large-scale Han Chinese migration into their Western territories. The Chinese, however, do not seem ever to have had (on a large scale) the system of chattel slavery once insisted on in much of the United States.

On the other hand, as I have indicated, Americans do not seem ever to have had the toleration that the Chinese have long had for steady, heavy-handed, governmental regulation. This has been exhibited even in the severe measures announced from time to time these days against foreign businessmen who are encouraged to operate in China. Such a recent repressive measure drew, in a New York Times editorial of July 18, 2009, the rebuke of “thuggish behavior.”


The Chinese can be said to have learned from the Americans how a continent-wide regime should be preserved, no matter how it may have been acquired. The horrendous domestic casualties that someone such as Mao Zedong was willing to endure in order to consolidate his regime may seem, for some, to have had a respectable precedent in the steady casualties Abraham Lincoln  was willing to endure during the American Civil War. In both cases, noble sentiments could be invoked as multitudes “had” to be sacrificed.

Much of what the Chinese government evidently still considers itself both obliged and entitled to do in order to preserve “the Nation” can seem questionable today, at least to outsiders. Americans are challenged thereby not only to reassess their own past but even more to see truly what they themselves are doing in the present. Thus it can be wondered by patriotic citizens among us what genuine national interest it was that justified the heavy damage inflicted by us since 2003 both on the people of Iraq and on the worldwide reputation of the United States as a humane regime.

But is not such a “national interest” even more suspect when it cannot be freely discussed by people at large? Should not the way that the Chinese government conducts itself at times remind us of how critical “freedom of speech [and] of the press” may be for a modern empire, especially if both rulers and people are truly to understand and to deal sensibly with what is happening from time to time? Such troubling governmental conduct, when extended (for example) to the determined suppression in China (as was once attempted to be done in the United States with the Mormons) of the innocuous-seeming Falun Gong movement, can remind us as well that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” also is both a fundamental right and an indispensable need for a truly self-governing people.


China, in its controversial one-child-per-family policy, could be said to draw upon teachings that may be found even in venerable Western authors such as Plato and Aristotle, teachings that consider the community as prior in principle even to the family. Still, it is said that China will soon have to minister to one-fifth of the world’s population. What does such a size do to the possibility of self-knowing as a condition for self-governing, especially if genuine freedom of speech cannot be relied upon?

The United States, itself approaching now a population of a third  of a billion people, has come a long way (both up and down?) from the three million that were proclaimed a sovereign body by the Declaration of Independence. It is not generally recognized, however, that the Constitution of 1787 tended to leave the selection of public servants to election or appointment by those most likely to be able to assess the candidates (an arrangement that I have called “coordinated electorates” [ The Constitutionalist [1971], p. 31]). Thus, for example, eligible citizens at large did not vote (in the earliest years of the Republic) for the President of the United States but rather for those fellow-citizens among themselves involved in public life who could be expected (as Electors) to be better equipped than the general public to assess the Presidential candidates of the day.

Here, too, Plato and Aristotle can be instructive, especially in their taking for granted the polis (the city, in its full extent) as the political habitat most suitable by nature for human beings. Thus, the Aristotle who argued that the mammoth metropolis of Babylon was not a polis also observed that putting a wall around all of the Peloponnesus (that part of Southern Greece roughly equivalent in area to our State of New Jersey) would not make it a polis. Does not the gigantic modern state tend, even with the best of intentions, toward a repressive totalitarianism (and hence toward the inefficiency, if not sometimes toward both the callousness and shameless deception on a large scale [and periodic eruptions of deep, mindless anger] associated with not-truly-knowing-oneself)?


The dreadful alternative to totalitarianism in the modern super-state all-too-often seems to be anarchy. The technology that permits the control of ever-larger human aggregations may also promote a virtually instantaneous awareness of what seems to be happening “everywhere.” But it can be wondered how reliable (and hence human) is either such control or such awareness.

Confucianism offered cautions to those inclined to take on more than they could either understand or control. The rival Taoism approach seemed to suggest that even Confucius was not cautious enough in assessing human prospects. Critical to all such assessments should be an awareness of what human mortality truly means.

Particularly to be guarded against among us in our modern super-states is ruthlessness. There is not only the sporadic ruthlessness that desperate mobs resort to when civil order breaks down, but there is  also the sustained ruthlessness that apprehensive rulers may feel obliged to rely upon whenever the breakdown of civil order seems to be threatened. In neither case may the actors involved recognize how the objectives they have pursued (grounded in an ever-growing industrial productivity) have unleashed forces that are hard either to identify or to control.


Americans who study the remarkable Chinese experience may be fortunate, therefore, in what they can learn about themselves. Thus, it can be wondered (as one result of such study) whether modern China needs (as the United States may still need) both a “Canada” and a “Mexico.” Both of those countries here in North America have population similar in critical respects to significant elements in the United States.

Canada has always reminded Americans of noble elements in their common heritage. This was seen most dramatically, before the Civil War, in the recognition that a fugitive slave became permanently free if he managed to cross over from the United States into Canada. Mexico assumes (with Puerto Rico and Cuba) ever-greater significance as the proportion of people of Spanish-speaking origins in the United States grows.

It seems to be partly a matter of chance that Canada is as independent of the United States as it is and that Mexico is still as large as it is. There was, after all, a place left in the Articles of Confederation arrangement of the 1770s for an automatic acceptance of Canada in the newly-independent American Union. Also, there was a place in the Southern Secessionists’ plans of the 1860s for much of Northern Mexico and all of Cuba, territories regarded by the Secessionists as “naturally” suited for an extension of slavery.


I may seem to be questioning here tendencies exhibited by Chinese governments in recent decades, particularly as they contemplate their relations with Taiwan and with Tibet and Xinjiang (and other territories in the West). But I can be seen to be questioning as well, if not even more, observations and judgments I myself  made in my first book (some forty years ago). That is, I presumed to say there (in remarks which I did hint at, even then, as arguably “demented”) the following:

Some Americans continue to be confronted with the modern version of the Thucydidean question, “Shall we go to Sicily?” Union with Canada sometimes seems inevitable, it can be argued, and after that, union with Mexico is likely. The Canadian union (for which there is already considerable support – especially among those Canadians who see their lives determined more and more by decisions in Washington in which they have no effective voice – and to which the farsighted French-Canadian isolated in an English Protestant setting should be receptive) should bring the United States and Great Britain (with perhaps France) even closer together and should help establish on even firmer ground among us the principle of the rule of law. This sixty-state culmination could… provide not only a firmer basis for some kind of union with Mexico – partly because of the incorporation in the United States of Roman Catholic Quebec – but also the time and resources needed to raise the Mexican economy to the level needed to sustain free institutions today. The North American republic would then have both the experience and the moral stature for the gradual establishment both of closer ties with South America and of an Atlantic Union. (Is not Cuba’s natural tie with the United States, even more so than Puerto Rico’s?) It is along such lines that the founder of a federated world republic may direct his efforts. [Anastaplo, The Constitutionalist (1971), p. 774]

The expedition against Sicily referred to at the outset of those 1971 remarks, we recall, contributed significantly to the undoing of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. In some ways, it can be suspected, Sicily was then with respect to the great Athenian empire somewhat like what Tibet, say, is now with respect to the great Chinese empire. Had Athens succeeded in Sicily, it might thereafter have been able to do in and for Europe what the Romans eventually did.

But, it can be wondered (especially from a Taoist perspective) whether such an Athenian ascendancy would have been at the cost of the intellectual tradition promulgated especially by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. That great tradition developed and took permanent root in an Athens which could no longer (after its Sicilian debacle) expect to dominate the world politically. Surely, there are thoughtful Chinese observers today who wonder what is put at risk (especially in their precious heritage) if their country should indeed become as dominant, politically as well as economically, as some of her current leaders seem determined to make her.


Three rules of perhaps general applicability (anticipated by what has already been said on this occasion) should be taken to heart by any nation aspiring to become or to remain a “superpower” respected by decent human beings everywhere and for years to come, whether it be China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, or the United States. The first of such rules would have it noticed what the impact of a nation’s criminal justice system “has” to be. Thus, Americans should find disturbing the grim report noticed in the New York Times of June 29, 2009 (Editorial, p. A18) (however comforting it can be both that such an account, reminiscent of slavery, can be safely published by our press and that even grimmer reports [for example, about numerous executions] come out of other penal systems these days) – Americans, I suggest, should find disturbing the report, “The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has almost one-quarter of its prisoners.”

The second of our modern rules testing for true greatness in a nation would have it noticed how freely its “press” can indeed routinely speak about how the life of the community is governed and developed. Such freedom assures people at large that they can safely have their say, that “a decent Respect [is maintained] to the Opinions of Mankind.”  But, perhaps even more critical here, the rulers of a very large country (however they  may seem to be selected) are more likely (if their press is truly free) thereby to learn what is really happening nationwide, and to do so in time to take, and to explain properly, the measures needed to make the best of sometimes unavoidably disturbing circumstances.

The third (and perhaps the simplest) of our rules contributing to and testing for true and sustainable greatness (at least in our time) would have it noticed whether a country has to make far greater efforts in order to keep people out than it has to make in order to keep people in. The infamous Berlin Wall that the Soviet masters of Germany “had” to build (in 1961) testified, day in and day out thereafter,  to the existence of a deeply repressive system that proved incapable of truly knowing and hence properly developing and maintaining itself. It testified, that is, to the limits of the determined (if not even suicidal) illusions by which both the rulers and the ruled of a supposed great power may be trapped.



I have drawn on Ancient Greece and the Ancient Greeks in an effort to examine what the United States can learn today from China. Those lessons have been reinforced by reminders of the earliest experiences of Americans in establishing their Republic.

The British learned from their experience with their American colonies how to deal more sensibly thereafter with other restless colonies, especially those with the same ethnicity and language, and hence with the same constitutional heritage and political expectations, as themselves. The British also did, with colonies of different races and languages, generally better than other Colonial powers in the Twentieth Century.

The control given up by Great Britain in the Twentieth Century included that over Cyprus. The independence was proclaimed in 1960 of that island, a place with a majority of Greeks but with a significant minority of Turks. There has long been in Greece an element agitating for the Union of Cyprus with Greece. This prospect has always troubled Turkey, which is much nearer geographically to Cyprus than is Greece. The acceptable alternative, for Turkey, was an independent Cyprus, even if dominated by its Greek majority. Such rule would be secure, of course, only so long as the Turkish minority there was seen to be treated fairly.

In 1967, however, a cabal of ambitious Greek Army Colonels took over the Government of Greece. But they proved so obviously incompetent that they became desperate for some success that might rehabilitate them in the public estimation – and this they believed a takeover of Cyprus would provide. Their move to do just that in 1974 justified, or at least provoked, the Turks immediately to take over part of the island for its Turkish minority. The issue of reunification of an independent Cyprus has agitated Greek politics ever since – and has poisoned relations between Turkey and Greece.

The Greek-American community in this Country has long been vigorous in its insistence that Turkey should give up the part of Cyprus that it has controlled since 1974. It is not usually remembered in this Country, however, that the most influential Greek-Americans forty years ago had been critical in insisting that the United States support the usurpation of the Colonels in Greece. So eager were these influential Greek-Americans for the enosis (the union) of Cyprus and Greece that they were willing to have the relatively free Greeks of Cyprus subjected to the rather repressive military dictatorship ruling Greece at that time.

In what ways, it can be wondered, are comfortable Chinese-Americans following, in their “reunification” demands, that program of successful Greek-Americans which has subjected all the Cypriots to decades of turmoil. That turmoil has continued to this day, that is, long after the regime of the Greek Colonels collapsed (as it did in 1974) when it became evident to everyone what a mess had been made even of their Cyprus gamble.

Sensible Greek military officers, not caught up in the Colonels’ usurpation, always recognized the strategic folly of any effort by Greece to take over Cyprus by force. It can be wondered whether there are, among sensible Chinese on the Mainland as well as abroad, observers who are likewise dubious about the deprivation for the Chinese people as a whole that would result from a suppression of salutary examples in political/social openness provided by Chinese communities in places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Indeed, the more astute Chinese leaders on the Mainland, and especially those imbued somewhat by the spirit of Confucianism, should welcome the opportunities for social and economic experiments provided elsewhere for people with a similar heritage and similar inclinations.  Indeed, it could be argued, if there were not already in Asia somewhat independent regions populated by thriving Chinese – it could even be argued that it might be prudent to establish some. We can be reminded that Americans do learn how to conduct themselves by watching what Canadians, among others, experiment with.

The Greeks (both ancient and modern), I have suggested, learned that there is all-too-often something to be said for “leaving well enough alone,” even when “well enough” may be far from “the very best possible.” It is useful to be reminded in such circumstances of still another familiar saying among us, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”


[These remarks were prepared for The Chinese Reunification Forum, John Marshall Law School, Chicago, Illinois, August 28, 2009.  It has been published in The Greek Star, Chicago, Illinois, September 24, 2009, p. 7.

George Anastaplo is Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago; Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. He examines Confucian thought in his book, But Not Philosophy: Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought (2002) and Taoist thought in his book, The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (2010). He examines Greek thought in his book, The Thinker as Artist: From Homer to Plato & Aristotle (1997).]

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