As a specialist in both ancient Greek and early Chinese philosophy, I plead for a global, cross-cultural approach to ancient philosophy. My contention is that differences between Eastern and Western philosophies – in terms of the assumptions they make, the questions they ask and the methods they use – have been overrated at the expense of salient similarities between geographically distant philosophical traditions of the ancient world. For instance, thinkers in both Chinese and Greek traditions maintained that a credible ethical theory should not only deliver criteria for what we ought to do, but also a viable account of self-cultivation, including a practical curriculum for becoming a person that is fit to flourish.
In recent years, I have published on themes in Greek and Roman ethics, mainly in Aristotle and the Stoic tradition. In my forthcoming monograph, The Life Worth Living in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (CUP), I take a more panoramic approach and reconstruct debates of two interrelated questions from Socrates to Plotinus: does human life have a non-instrumental value, regardless of its quality? What does it take to have a life that is worth living, in contrast to being dead or never having been born? Both these questions are in important ways different from the more familiar question of ancient ethics, i.e. what makes a life good or happy. The problems surrounding the value of life have been discussed in contemporary bioethics and the ethics of procreation, and the project highlights the continuities and contrasts between ancient and modern discourses.
Currently, I am working on a book project about self-cultivation theories and practices in Greek and Chinese traditions, provisionally entitled Nourishing of Heart and Mind (under contract with Bloomsbury Press). The main hypothesis is that for philosophers in both traditions, including Plato, Aristotle, Mengzi or Zhuangzi, the main principle of self-cultivation is to satisfy the desires of the best element of our self – “heart” in China, “mind” in Greece. This satisfaction is the key for helping to establish the best part as the strongest and thus ruling element, which in turn is a necessary or even sufficient condition for our flourishing. Within this shared framework, pertinent differences between the self-cultivation theories in both traditions, as well as their underlying motivations, stand out.