Sometimes in this globalised world interesting connections occur. When I was in early high school, the ABC (Australian public broadcaster) ran a BBC-produced version of a Japanese TV series called “Monkey Magic”. The English overdubbed version was very popular in Australia, New Zealand and the UK at the time and the show was also popular in Japan where the lead actors became household names. For those who haven’t seen it, you can have a look at some episodes here – https://archive.org/details/monkeymagic1.
The soundtrack for Monkey Magic was done by Japanese rock band, Godiego, and the closing credits featured their song “Gandhara”. As I used to religiously watch the show, this is one of those songs that I still know by heart. As a 12 year old, I had no idea what Gandhara referred to. Nor did I know anything about the larger context for the story itself. And that’s the way it stayed until about fifteen years later when I landed a job that involved travel to China.
China is a big country, so it’s a coincidence that the city I happened to travel to for work was the old capital Xi’an. On one of my weekends off, I did the usual touristy things and high on the list of tourist attractions in Xi’an is the “Big Wild Goose Pagoda”. It was there that I found an exhibit telling the story of the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who left Xi’an in around 629 AD to travel to India to bring back scriptures. I immediately recognised that this was the same story as Monkey Magic and after some investigation I learned that the Japanese TV show was based on the classic book of Chinese literature, “Journey to the West”, which was a work of fiction written in the 16th century. Journey to the West in turn was based on the travels of the famous monk a millennia earlier. So, there I was standing literally in the place where the Journey to the West started. I saw that the destination for Xuanzang in India was Gandhara. Hence the name of the song from the TV show. Gandhara was a region bordering the Indus river which was famous for its sages and monasteries. The area once called Gandhara is in modern day north-west Pakistan and across the border into Afghanistan.
So that was cool. I finally learned what Gandhara was all about and remarked how strange it was that a boy from Australia who used to watch a Japanese TV show would end up travelling to the exact place that the Journey to the West depicted in the show started. But just to make things even stranger, I realised I had several months earlier travelled to the other end of Xuanzang’s journey. About six months before my trip to Xi’an, I was invited to a wedding in the north of India on the exact route that Xuanzang must have gone through. The wedding itself was held only a few hundred kilometres from the former Gandhara. That was the first connection to Gandhara. I recently realised there was another.
As my trip to India came to an end, I found myself in New Delhi airport with some left over rupees to spend and several hours to kill waiting for the flight. Fortunately, there was a fantastic bookstore at the airport with an extensive selection in English and, after perusing the shelves for a couple of hours, I decided to buy some Indian works which I knew nothing about but which I figured I would not be easily able to find elsewhere. One of those books was The Arthashastra.
The word artha means “wealth” in Sanskrit while shastra means, among other things, “treatise”. So, The Arthashastra is a work of political economy quite similar to The Wealth of Nations but written almost two thousand years earlier in the 2nd century BCE. The beauty of such books is they reveal the timelessness of certain questions. Taxation naturally figures heavily. So does the world’s oldest profession. As was usual for most of history, prostitution was not just regulated by the state but managed through the state. What’s more, prostitution was a skilled profession where the women were required to know how to play music, dance and make conversation with their clients. Meanwhile, the madams of the higher end establishments held positions of significant power (yep, the Ghislaine Maxwells and Jeffrey Epsteins of this world are nothing new).
Recently, I pulled The Arthashastra off the bookshelf to check something and decided to look up the author, Kautilya, who I realised I didn’t know anything about. While reading up on him, I learned that he was born – guess where? – Gandhara. It’s quite possible that the Chinese monk, Xuanzang, came across The Arthashastra on his pilgrimage to Gandhara some 8 centuries after Kautilya died. Maybe he even took a copy back to China with him.
Kautilya was a teacher in Gandhara when Alexander the Great invaded the area. Just like Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander, Kautilya was a tutor and advisor to the emperor, Chandragupta, in India at the time and The Arthashastra is a textbook of statecraft which presumably formed the basis of his teachings. Thus, Kautilya was a philosopher-sage in the same category as Aristotle and also Confucius, who advised the great rulers of China a few centuries earlier.
These days you can find out about all this with just a couple of clicks on a computer. But for most of western history, Europeans were completely ignorant of the history of China and India. It wasn’t until the late 18th and 19th centuries that intellectuals in the West first started hearing about the great works of Indian and Chinese culture mostly via translations done by missionaries. It must be said that a lot of the western intellectuals at the time seem to have been attracted to such texts by their inherent dissatisfaction with institutionalised Christianity and the feudal system in general. They were looking for ideas to change the status quo in Europe and one of the main things that caught their eye was the teachings of Confucius. In particular, the Confucian bureaucracy, which used entrance exams to decide who to hire and was therefore a meritocracy, appealed to thinkers such as Voltaire who despised the hereditary, nepotistic nobles of the European courts.
The desire to break the power and corruption of an established nobility is another of those perennial topics of politics. Confucius faced the same problem way back in 500 BCE. However, the idea of entrance exams for public servants was older than Confucius and was only made the norm in China several centuries after Confucius’ death. Furthermore, the entrance exam as we know it in modern society has a lot more to do with a school of thought which was opposed to Confucianism known as the “legalist” system.
Confucius believed that society should not be governed through law and rules but through virtue. He stated that if the king and the aristocracy behaved correctly and upheld the shared morals of society then the public would be governed by their conscience which was a deeper and more binding mechanism than just following the laws. The irony is that Confucius’ philosophy had a lot more in common with the feudalism that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were trying to get rid of because feudalism is based more on virtue than on rules. Voltaire also believed in virtue. His main problem was with the corrupt court officials (including Church officials) of his time. He thought that virtue could be better attained through education and reason and that a meritocratic public service would ensure that the best and brightest were elevated into positions of power.
The early bureaucracies of the 1800s in western nations were similar to the Confucian model in emphasising not just academic learning but also character assessment. In practice, this fell out naturally because the higher education institutions of the day also taught non-academic traits such as etiquette and manners. Everybody who graduated university was expected to have an understanding of the classics and through them morality. In this way the public service should be populated by not just the academically gifted but the morally upstanding. This meritocratic notion of free access to education and by extension the public service contradicts the noble ethic of “high birth” which is another perennial of political history and which is present in The Arthashastra where it is stated that if you have two people of equivalent academic capability, the one of high birth is to be preferred as the public is more likely to follow them. The idea of high birth was also prominent in European culture prior to the wars and was a remnant from feudal times.
Interestingly, one of the arguments the legalists in ancient China used to justify their system was that a bureaucracy founded on rules would enhance the power of the king because turning bureaucrats into nothing more than pen pushers and paper shufflers would make them more easily manageable. Legalists noted that an established bureaucracy always becomes an impediment to the power of the King because, just like modern bureaucracies, it comes to serve its own interests ahead of the state or citizens. The problem is exacerbated to the extent that the bureaucrats commanded moral authority. Thus, an intelligent king should implement a rule-based order to reduce the power of the bureaucracy.
I have mentioned James C. Scott’s work “Seeing like a State” multiple times in this blog. His notion of “legibility” is the one pursued by the legalists in ancient China. A State that seeks centralised power prefers rules over virtue. Legalism (or legibility) increases the power of the state while virtue-based systems such as Confucius’ reduce it (at least in the short term). The Arthashastra provides an interesting counterpoint to this because the Indian society at that time was ordered according to the Vedic philosophy. Thus, even the king was expected to prostrate himself before the Brahmins, the highest caste and guardians of the Veda. State power was subordinated to virtue.
It’s notable that Mao Zedong explicitly tried to weed out the remaining Confucian ideals from Chinese culture and replace them with a legalist framework when he was in power. It’s also noteworthy that Maoist China has a special chapter in Scott’s book because millions of people died of starvation under that regime. These two things are not unrelated. A rule-based bureaucracy eventually loses all contact with reality.
We have seen this development in our own societies in the last two years and yet we are in a predicament in modern society which is at least different in terms of scale from anything the ancients dealt with. The element that was missing in the ancient world was modern technology. The machine-obsession of the West is a natural fit with the legalist framework and tilts society in that direction by default. Combined with modern capitalism where the average business manager is not expected to be a paragon of virtue but simply to maximise shareholder value and post-war education where any “moral” or “character-based” pretentions are explicitly rejected, we see a social system almost entirely predicated on rules to the exclusion of virtue. This is pretty much the opposite of what Confucius and Voltaire had in mind. As we watch the latest round of lockdowns in China, where it is reported that over 100 million people are imprisoned in the latest series of “public health measures”, we see the victory of the legalist philosophy taken to horrific heights when combined with modern technology.
Meanwhile, the bureaucracy in the modern west, what we might also call the deep state, has ended up becoming exactly the kind of weight around the neck of the executive branch that the legalists in ancient China were trying to avoid. This was especially obvious during the Trump presidency where the deep state was actively subverting the power of the president. The rules-based order was supposed to solve that by making bureaucrats replaceable so it’s noteworthy that the modern deep state enacts its power through virtue-signalling. But virtue-signalling is the exact opposite of the Confucian ideal. Confucius said that the leaders, including the public service, should not preach morality but uphold morality. If they did so, the public would notice and they would follow of their own accord. In other words, leading by example. The modern aristocracy preaches one thing and does the opposite. Virtue-signalling is nothing more than a power play. Thus, in the modern West we have combined the worst aspects of the rule-based system with the worst of the virtue-based system; an impressive achievement.
Over the last decade or so, whenever somebody in the West wanted to try and claim that “progress” was still happening they would point to China and say “look how many people have been lifted out of poverty in China”. I doubt anybody will point to China as a symbol of progress any more, but the larger question of poverty also comes up in the ancient texts such as The Arthashastra. In that time (and still today in parts of India and China) there were entire categories of people deliberately living in poverty, mostly different grades of religious ascetics. The religious ascetics were leading by example and practising what they preached. They were following Dharma, which can be translated as virtue. The Arthashastra notes that the king’s job is to create the conditions where his people follow Dharma. To do otherwise is to invite the destruction of the state.
Confucius had said much the same thing several centuries earlier. He noted that given a choice between defunding the military, failing to provide food or allowing the state to come into disrepute (not following Dharma), the ruler should choose the first two before the third because without the moral acceptance of the state by the public, the state is finished.
If this is true, it does not portend well for the modern West. We follow an extreme version of the legalist framework while practicing the opposite of virtue. Most of the leaders of our society have no claim at all to virtue. They do not lead by upholding Dharma but simply because they acquired positions of power. Meanwhile, we “trust the experts” not because they are virtuous but because they are supposed to know the rules (of the universe). But experts who know rules are just part of the legalist framework and do nothing more than gain legibility for more centralised control. All of this is just will to power i.e. the desire of the state to increase legibility in order to intervene in society to pursue its own ends. The lockdowns are the ultimate example of that and perhaps the ultimate example of what happens when a legalist framework takes over to the exclusion of virtue.
It would be interesting to know what Voltaire would have made of it. I suspect he would have been horrified. Nevertheless, the modern cheerleaders of “Enlightenment values” have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of what has happened in the last two years and also happy to praise modern China’s rise too. The assumption of Voltaire and others like him was that virtue could be derived from rational thinking and therefore if you improved the rationality of society you would get “more” virtue into the bargain. We can see the practical results for ourselves in the modern world. We got rid of religion (the traditional foundation of virtue/Dharma) and what happened was the state became all powerful. As the state only cares about power, all society gets tilted in that direction.
With corona, the state has breached the very thing that Confucius warned against: it has allowed itself to come into disrepute. Confucius believed people could be governed entirely by virtue. I doubt that’s true. But if the state is going to govern by law only then it must uphold the law at all costs. Once the state starts acting outside the law, it has brought even the law into disrepute and people will only follow the law to the extent that it suits them, exactly the thing Confucius warned about. Everything is then reduced to a power game meaning government will need to continue to exercise raw power outside the law to get anything done. It’s a slippery slope and I think most western governments in the last two years have started the long slide down the slope. In the years ahead, we can expect more and more laws to get broken as the state tries to hold things together.
Of course, all this ties in with Spengler and the theory of historical cycles. The ancient Indian culture already had a sophisticated theory of cycles within the Vedic tradition as did the Chinese with Taoism. The Arthashastra was written at a time when India was very similar to the feudal era of Europe. There were many small kingdoms and society was held together far more by informal relations than laws. In Spenglerian terms, it was a time of culture. But culture gives way to civilisation and rule by law rather than virtue. Eventually the rule of law breaks down when the government itself starts breaking the law and you return back to a virtue-based system. That looks to be exactly where we are in the cycle.