Leibniz on China
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Leibniz on China,
from the Preface to the
Novissima Sinica (1697/1699)

East West Dialogue


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a great German philosopher and universal thinker, lived during the period following the Thirty Years War, that had destroyed central Europe. This war, which was ostensibly fought over religious differences, wiped out half the population in some areas of Europe. Leibniz worked to promote a dialogue of different religions and cultures.

&1 I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation
and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two
extremes of our continent, in Europe and in Tshina (as they call it),
which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the earth.
Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as
the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each
other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of
life. I do not think it an accident that the Muscovites whose vast
realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep
barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should
be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of
their present ruler and their Patriarch, as I understand it, in
agreement with him.

&2 Now the Chinese Empire, which challenges Europe in cultivated area
and certainly surpasses her in population, vies with us in many other
ways in almost equal combat, so that now they win, now we. But what
should I put down first by way of comparison? To go over everything,
even though useful, would be lengthy and is not our proper task in this
place. In the useful arts and in practical experience with natural
objects we are, all things considered, about equal to them, and each
people has knowledge which it could with profit communicate to the
other. In profundity of knowledge and in the theoretical disciplines we
are their superiors. For besides logic and metaphysics, and the
knowledge of things incorporeal, which we justly claim as peculiarly
our province, we excel by far in the understanding of concepts which
are abstracted by the mind from the material, ie., in things
mathematical, as is in truth demonstrated when Chinese astronomy comes
into competition with our own. The Chinese are thus seen to be ignorant
of that great light of the mind, the art of demonstration, and they
have remained content with a sort of empirical geometry, which our
artisans universally possess. They also yield to us in military
science, not so much out of ignorance as by deliberation. For they
despise everything which creates or nourishes ferocity in men, and
almost in emulation of the higher teachings of Christ (and not, as some
wrongly suggest, because of anxiety), they are averse to war. They
would be wise indeed if they were alone in the world. But as things
are, it comes back to this, that even the good must cultivate the arts
of war, so that the evil may not gain power over everything. In these
matters, then, we are superior.

&3 But who would have believed that there is on earth a people who,
though we are in our view so very advanced in every branch of behavior,
still surpass us in comprehending the precepts of civil life? Yet now
we find this to be so among the Chinese, as we learn to know them
better. And so if we are their equals in the industrial arts, and ahead
of them in contemplative sciences, certainly they surpass us (though it
is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is,
in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and
use of mortals. 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, so that men shall be disrupted in their relations as
little as possible. Certainly by their own doing men suffer the
greatest evils and in turn inflict them upon each other. It is truly
said that "man is a wolf to man." Our folly is indeed great, but quite
universal. We exposed as we are to natural injuries, heap woes on
ourselves, as though they were lacking from elsewhere.

&4 What harm, then, if some nation has found a remedy [for these
evils]? Certainly the Chinese above all others have attained a higher
standard. In a vast multitude of men they have accomplished more than
the founders of religious orders among us have achieved within their
own ranks. So great is obedience toward superiors and reverence toward
elders, so religious, almost, is the relation of children toward
parents, that for children to contrive anything violent against their
parents, even by word, is almost unheard of, and the perpetrator seems
to atone for his actions even as we make a parricide pay for his deed.
Moreover, there is among equals, or those having little obligation to
one another, a marvelous respect, and an established order of duties.
To us, not enough accustomed to act by reason and rule, these smack of
servitude; yet among them, where these duties are made natural by use,
they are observed gladly. As our people have noticed in amazement, the
Chinese peasants and servants, when they bid farewell to friends, or
when they first enjoy the sight of each other after a long separation,
behave to each other so lovingly and respectfully that they challenge
all the politeness of European magnates. What then would you expect
from the mandarins, or from Colai? Thus it happens that scarcely anyone
offends another by the smallest word in common conversation. And they
rarely show evidences of hatred, wrath, or excitement. With us respect
and careful conversation last for hardly more than the first days of a
new acquaintance--scarcely even that. Soon familiarity moves in and
circumspection is gladly put away for a sort of freedom which is
quickly followed by contempt, backbiting, anger, and afterwards enmity.
It is just the contrary with the Chinese. Neighbors and even members of
a family are so held back by a hedge of custom that they are able to
maintain a kind of perpetual courtesy.

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