restricted access 4. The Natural Theology of the Chinese: Leibniz and Confucianism
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80 4.  The Natural Theology of the Chinese     Leibniz and Confucianism Is goodness indeed so far away? If we really wanted it, we would find that it was at our very side. —Confucius In introducing their translations of Leibniz’s writings on China, David Cook and Henry Rosemont Jr. observe: The vision of Leibniz for a close understanding and communication between China and the West has not yet come to realization. The growth of knowledge of Chinese culture in the United States and Europe has not been matched by a similar growth in its dissemination, especially at the public level; and the respectability of narrow specialization in the academic disciplines provides a ready-made excuse for all but China scholars to professionally ignore the world’s oldest continuous culture, inherited by one quarter of the human race.1 These comments, penned more than a decade ago, are even more pertinent today. Let me start with a brief anecdote. Not long ago, at the annual meeting of one of the largest American social science associations , I attended a panel featuring distinguished experts in the field of international relations and politics. One of these experts, after alerting listeners to the deep frictions troubling our world, began Leibniz and Confucianism  81 to hold forth on the United States’ need to prepare for a coming war with China, spelling out in detail the steps required to meet this challenge. Listening to the speaker, I grew increasingly alarmed and dismayed; looking around, I expected to find a similar dismay among the rest of the audience. To my consternation, this was not the case: most people were listening passively or complacently, with some occasionally nodding their heads in approval. Seeking solace in my distress, I left the room and went to another panel dealing with political theory, where, to my chagrin, I found the panelists completely aloof from contemporary problems, entertaining themselves instead with postmodern wordplays and recondite paradoxes. It was at this point that I remembered the lines written by Cook and Rosemont, and I recalled discussions I had had with Rosemont some time back, when he had deplored the enormous distance—or naïveté—separating much of American academia from the world in which we live. It seems to me that this distance is likely to lead to two equally unpalatable outcomes: unreflective hegemonic ventures seeking to eradicate difference, or modes of parochial retreat that are unable to cope with global challenges. In my view, Henry Rosemont is one of those rare individuals who is willing to swim against the tide both as a professional specializing in Chinese thought, and thus able to correlate Western and Chinese traditions of philosophy, and as a public intellectual committed to building bridges between East and West and fostering a more peaceful and harmonious global order. As I have come to realize, it was this oppositional stance, and especially the commitment to global peace, that led Rosemont, early in his career, to the writings of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, that rare philosopher of the Enlightenment who was keenly devoted to improving relations between Europe and China as a gateway to more peaceful relations among societies and cultures around the globe. In this chapter, I first sketch Rosemont’s approach to Leibniz and his perception of the latter’s philosophical and political role in his period. Next, I briefly recapitulate some main arguments in Leibniz’s writings on China and especially his famous “Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese .” Finally, I offer some afterthoughts on the prospects of a global ecumenism as envisaged by Leibniz and Rosemont (as well as other contemporary thinkers). 82  Prominent Searchers in the Past Rosemont and Leibniz “If Erasmus of Rotterdam was the ‘Universal Man’ of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a major candidate for the title two hundred years later.” With these words, Cook and Rosemont open their study on Leibniz’s writings on China.2 These words are entirely apt. Like Erasmus before him, Leibniz was a Renaissance man, combining an incredible range of talents and competences: philosopher, scientist, mathematician, diplomat, public official, and indefatigable writer of letters. No one approaching his oeuvre can avoid being awestruck by both the amplitude of his interests and the depth of his insights. Yet, something more is needed to explain Rosemont’s particular fascination. Surely, as a student of Chinese thought, he could have confined himself to the translation, reediting, and explication of ancient Chinese texts or to...