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1368 by Ali Humayun Akhtar

1368 by Ali Humayun Akhtar

Author:Ali Humayun Akhtar
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Published: 2022-08-15T00:00:00+00:00


The answer can partly be found in how Enlightenment-era thinkers extracted ethical principles from ancient figures of wisdom without necessarily adopting all of the spiritual practices and doctrinal beliefs associated with their followers. For Thomas Paine, this meant believing in representations of Jesus in the broad sense of his ethics and virtues without accepting the entirety of Christian doctrine. Of Jesus, Paine wrote: “He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.”35 In this context, Paine represents Confucius and Jesus as wise philosophers in a sense. There were parallels in the case of Voltaire (d. 1778).

In Voltaire’s work, one finds representations of both China’s imperial history and the story of Confucius. In the former case, Voltaire wrote a play in 1755 on the Chinese clash with the Mongols, which represented Genghis Khan as the villain. The play, called The Orphan of China (L’Orphelin de la Chine), was based on a Chinese play titled The Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao by Ji Junxiang (d. ca. 1279). Voltaire was introduced to it by the Jesuits, and by 1755, his version was being performed by Paris’s premiere acting troupe: La Comédie Française. The Parisian acting troupe was established in 1680 by royal decree and was the product of a merger between Paris’s only two acting troupes: Guénégaud Théatre and Hôtel de Bourgogne. Throughout the eighteenth century, attendance at the Comédie Française shows was an important pastime of the French nobility. The French, thus, became one of the first and most prominent groups of Europeans after the Dutch who were on the receiving end of Jesuit-transmitted representations of Chinese political and intellectual history. Beyond rearticulating these originally Jesuit-formulated images through his playwriting work, Voltaire wrote other works that curated these images of China according to a metanarrative about Confucianism’s merits and China’s overall cultural advancement.

The currency of Chinese intellectual culture once identified by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century, in other words, was being identified by influential European philosophers and playwrights in the eighteenth century. In Voltaire’s grand narrative of world history, titled An Essay on Universal History: The Manners and Spirit of Nations (Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations), Voltaire represents China as historically advanced in its ethical philosophies, especially Confucianism. Confucius “unveiled the light of reason to mankind,” he claimed, and the example of a government run by Confucian literati represented the unachieved possibilities in Europe where philosophers ought likewise to serve as political administrators.36 In the context of his interest in the possibilities and limits of rational thinking, Voltaire was impressed by how Chinese history makes “no mention of a college of priests,” explaining that their ethical philosophies “brought morality to perfection.”37

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