Green Antiquity: Sino-Hellenic Environmental Philosophy

This project is about ancient views of the environment and their ethical implications. So it is about environmental ethics broadly construed. But since it will investigate the subject by comparing two traditions of thought, ancient Greece and early China, with their own views on human-nature relationships, it is also a project about comparative philosophy, in particular comparative environmental philosophy. It is, moreover, the first systematic study on environmental thinking in Sino-Hellenic philosophy. Common to these two traditions of thought is the insight that there is an intimate connection between the kind of life one should pursue -the good life- and the understanding one has of nature. How this relationship was cashed out, however, was a matter of dispute. Research on ancient Greek and Chinese practical thought has focussed on the implications of this connection for the common and individual good life; one’s own life and life with other human beings. So it has gone largely unnoticed that there is huge potential in these two traditions to reflect upon what many environmental philosophers take to be the most pressing question in the face of the current ecological crisis: before even attempting to find environmentally responsible public policies to protect the environment, we urgently need to change our conception both of the environment itself and of the role that men play in it. Now the crucial question is, of course, what kind of thinking each tradition offers, and why each is relevant beyond purely historical considerations.It has been suggested that it is impossible to understand our present ecological ethos without first understanding how we came to adopt it in the first place. As a result, environmentalist philosophers have found themselves needing to look into the remote past of Western civilisation to make sense of our present predicament by finding where and why exactly things went wrong. More often than not, and for several reasons that the project will address in greater detail, ancient Greek philosophy does not appear in a favourable light. To the extent that the main concern of ancient moral philosophers was the good life of human beings, it has been argued that there is no room in ancient ethical theory for a genuine, non-anthropocentric, concern with the natural environment that accordingly ascribes value to it irrespective of its contribution to the good life. Such an ecological disappointment with our Western philosophical past has in turn encouraged environmental philosophers to look to Eastern traditions in the hope of finding new frameworks to understand the man-nature relationship. Unlike Greek polluted (and polluting) anthropocentrism, so a familiar story runs, some traditions of Eastern thought actually erase the man-nature relationship. To put it boldly, there is no such relationship precisely because they are not two different things in the first place that can then be related to each other. As far as environmental ethics is concerned, the East can give us what the West is deprived of: different thinking which remains friendly to the environment.

At the most general level, this is a project that sets out to investigate how individual thinkers belonging to these two traditions conceived of both the role of human beings in the preservation of nature, however exactly this is conceived of, and the role of nature in the good life of human beings. In so doing, it also promises to deliver a considerable academic impact on several grounds. To begin with, this is the first project on Sino-Hellenic comparative philosophy that centres upon environmental thinking. Secondly, the project is also an attempt to challenge the common picture just sketched, and thus drive forward the current state of the question in modern environmental philosophy: it will challenge the widespread assumption that Greek environmental thinking was only anthropocentric, and hence hostile to the environment, whereas the Chinese predominantly non-anthropocentric. But most importantly, a truly philosophical engagement with these two traditions of thought, rather than a purely historical one, can also teach us alternative ways to approach the current debate. For example, environmental anthropocentrism -that is no doubt present in both traditions- is not only compatible with pro-environmental thinking but actually a sine qua non condition of it. For the crux of the matter is that we humans must act. This not only serves as a common ecological motto that brings these two traditions together, despite some substantial differences, but it also challenges various assumptions in modern environmental ethics, the main one being that anthropocentrism cannot accommodate a non-instrumental view of the value of the environment.More specifically, on the other hand, the project also seeks to improve our understanding of ancient views of the environment by expanding the textual corpus which is typically discussed in each area. As far as environmental ethics in China is concerned, the project focuses on one source which has been completely, and surprisingly, neglected in this respect: Xunzi, whereas our work with ancient Greek sources will concentrate on Plato and Hippocrates. Unlike in earlier research, it is of paramount importance that these ancient sources are read in their own terms by specialists in the corresponding field that have the necessary philosophical and historical background. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case, especially when it comes to the rather hostile attitude of modern environmental philosophers towards Greek ethics. Similar considerations apply to the typical idealisation of early Chinese environmental thought by non-specialists.




This project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.