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The New Ancient World: Leibniz, Vico, And China

Given the present trend toward global communications, more attention has focused on the origins of concepts of society, especially in the works of pioneering scholars in the relations between East and West. The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) did not simply rehearse Christian views of Chinese society. Like Giambattista Vico (1668–1744), Leibniz was impressed with the Confucian view of benevolence and the harmonious society that it spawned. Like Vico, he distrusted René Descartes's and Isaac Newton's image of a mechanical universe. Leibniz was indebted to the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who was similarly open-minded about Chinese philosophical and religious life. Leibniz embraced a Chinese notion of society as a living organism and popularized this image in Europe. His description of matter applies to society as well: "Thus every portion of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants or a pond full of fish. But every branch of the plant, every limb of the animal, every drop of its humors, is again such a garden or such a pond" (1965, p. 159). For Leibniz, society was a thoroughly interdependent living entity whose every fiber was connected. Every societal institution was dependent on each other and necessary for a harmonious balance. Since every entity was composed of matter, then matter itself was infinitely interconnected. His idea of monadology was clearly linked to the Confucian idea of li (principle, form, pattern) as a primary substance that generated qi (primordial vapor or life-energy force), both of which acted upon every aspect of the life-world. He correctly perceived Chinese society as holding to a cosmology that ensured harmonious relations: "Indeed, it is difficult to describe how beautifully all the laws of the Chinese, in contrast to those of other peoples, are directed to the achievement of public tranquility and the establishment of social order" (1994, p. 47). Leibniz so much admired China's "public morality" and "natural theology" that he referred to it as an "Oriental Europe."

Whereas Leibniz was influenced by Matteo Ricci, Vico was influenced by another religious friend, Father Matteo Ripa (1692–1746). Ripa had lived for many years at the court of Kangxi, the emperor of China's Qing dynasty. When Ripa returned to Italy, he brought with him copper engravings of world maps and garden vistas complete with Chinese poetry. Ripa introduced many Chinese scholars along with an abundance of knowledge to Naples, where he established the Collegio dei Cinesi (The Chinese institute). This cross-cultural milieu greatly influenced Vico's formulation of Scienza Nuova (The new science) and his image of society that aimed to give birth to the ancient past in the present.

Vico was interested in myth and language, especially in tracing etymologies of words to their ancient roots and then awakening them in modern contexts. In other words, language was a conduit for the past to become the present. It is language that gives life its poetic character. Hence Vico characterized society in terms of a "poetic cosmography," a mapping of the world of gods, heroes, and humans. As a humanist, Vico did not believe in the dominance of rationalism through physical and mathematical sciences to the exclusion of the arts of philosophy and history. Through each of these vehicles, humans could attempt to recover the essence of society. This fundamental societal essence is what Vico called "conatus," a primordial beginning or striving "proper to the human will" (p. 101). Vico endeavored to discover this beginning through various stages of history: the age of gods, the age of heroes, and the age of men. Each held its own nature or birth: divine imagination, heroic nobility, and modest conscience. Likewise, each represented a kind of government: theocratic, aristocratic, and human. Finally, each offered a language: divine poetic, heroic blazoning, and articulate speech. In his linguistic configurations, Vico is clearly indebted to both ancient Chinese and Greco-Roman thought. Divine written characters (hieroglyphs) were used "by all nations in their beginnings" (p. 341). These "poetic universals" were followed by heroic "imaginative universals" that spoke of noble events and then by human words.

The Chinese, for example, retained the number of pictographs in circulation for daily use from the large lexicon of classical and literary characters. Like the Egyptians, the Chinese maintained "the vanity of their imagined remote antiquity" (p. 21). This included the elevated speech of heroic singing reflected in the tones of the Chinese language and the recording of their first histories in verse. In many ways, Vico tried to emulate this style in his own works. He describes the Greek use of the dragon Draco, probably one of Gorgon's serpents attached to Perseus's shield (later Athena's shield) and eventually the writer of Athenian law in blood, as that which "signifies the rule of the laws" (p. 228) in the time of heroic aristocracies. He then compares this with the Chinese dragon used as a royal emblem and a symbol of civil rule, while marveling at the poetic convergence of East and West.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySociety - Ancient Views Of Society: East And West, Early Modern Views Of Society, Society: Consensus And Conflict