Eric Nelson

The Political Theology of the Chinese in Early Modern European Philosophy

My thesis is that the interpretive encounter with non-Western cultures played a crucial role in the formation of European modernity. The ethical-political and political theological notions of autonomy and rationality, interpreted as unique achievements of modern Western civilization, arose through processes of exchange and struggle with non-Western ideas, cultures, institutions, and practices. I will explore through archival research and close reading of primary and secondary materials a test case for this thesis: the engagement of early modern European philosophy with China and Chinese thought. There are three phases of the philosophical encounter with China that I will trace: Initially, Chinese philosophy was condemned as pagan and the Chinese were seen as a people in need of Christian salvation. In a second phase, proto- and early Enlightenment thinkers looked at non-European cultures and China in particular as sources of learning and wisdom in ethics, politics, and natural religion. In a third phase, late Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers interpreted Chinese culture and thought through the interpretive lens of “Oriental despotism" that indirectly represented the politics and theology of the old regimes of Europe. It was contrasted with "European liberty" achieved through Enlightenment rationality and autonomy (Kant) or a renewed notion of "Christian liberty" for thinkers associated with Romanticism (Herder, Schlegel). I examine these shifting attitudes towards China and Chinese philosophy through a contextual analysis of the sources for key figures in Early Modern European Philosophy (Leibniz, Wolff, Kant, Herder, and Hegel). Through a review of their historical contexts and sources, my research shows that the accounts of European travelers and missionaries in China are a primary factor in explaining the shifting attitudes about China from the positive enthusiasm of the early Enlightenment (Leibniz, Wolff, Diderot, and Voltaire) to the negative assessment of the late Enlightenment (Kant) and post-Enlightenment period (Herder, Schlegel, and Hegel). This study elucidates the category of “political theology” to explain how European thinkers interpreted the Chinese political system and Confucian political thought as providing a model of benevolent enlightened kingship rooted in natural theology in the early Enlightenment (Leibniz, Wolff, and Voltaire) and then became an example of the abuses of absolute power and obedience. The idea of China is shaped by disputes over the appropriate relationship between politics and religion and enlightened kingship and popular self-determination. The construction of the “West” and “China” as its other during this period continues to shape the later Western reception of Chinese culture and thought.