What was the cultural and intellectual exchange like between Early Modern Europe and China?
In the West, Chinese philosophy was very much in vogue among the intellectual elites of the Enlightenment. The trend was not without its critics, many of Europe’s “sinophiles” were accused as propagators of Oriental despotism, an allegation that was to an extent not far off the mark. Voltaire, François Quesnay, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were three prominent figures that were a part of this trend (there were others, but I’ll just cover three for now).
Voltaire: Voltaire’s sinophilism was based on two aspects, religion and politics. He often used Confucianism as a platform to attack what he didn’t like about Catholicism (and there was much he didn’t like). The existence of Confucianism in his view was a powerful argument that the Church didn’t have a monopoly on the moral universe. Voltaire admired what he interpreted as deism in Confucianism. This is technically not accurate, Confucianism is actually explicitly agnostic about God, but to Voltaire it represented a reification of his own beliefs in deistic monotheism, humanism, and religious tolerance. He was attracted to the political dimension of Confucianism. Chinese politics was, from his understanding, an enlightened monarchy. Voltaire dismissed critics that labeled it a form of despotism. His defense was that the system was based on benevolent absolutism, a paternal monarchy, led by what the Jesuits returning from the Chinese court had informed him was a “philosopher king” (no conflict of interest there!).
Leibniz: Like Voltaire, Leibniz was receptive towards Confucianism, but also towards the metaphysics of Taoism. He detected that there was a mathematical quality to Taoism, something which gelled well with his own understanding of mathematics and theology. Leibniz also believed that Chinese characters represented a characteristica universalis, an ideal language that could be understood universally because it was ideographic (it actually isn’t). He wished to form his own characteristica, but gave up when he realized it was impossible to devise.
Quesnay: Quesnay was called the “Confucius of Europe”, and for good reason. Quesnay and the Physiocrats believed an in agrarian-based economy, so a philosophy exported from the agricultural society of China fit neatly into their world view. And like Voltaire, Quesnay was a proponent of benevolent absolutism, a political system he thought was substantiated by the practice of Confucianism in the East.
- “Voltaire, Sinophile” Arnold H. Rowbotham. PMLA. Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec., 1932), pp. 1050-1065
- Le Despotisme de la Chine. Francois Quesney (1767).(pdf)