The Ambitions of Curiosity

by G.E.R. Lloyd

This book is a comparison of classical Greek thought with classical Chinese thought by a scholar of vast erudition on both subjects. While he found many similarities, he also found some striking differences. The most important of these differences lay in the basic motivations of scholars in the two civilizations. In Chinese civilization, knowledge of classic literature was the key to entry into the Chinese bureaucracy and vast erudition usually led to promotion. The Chinese government supported scholarship institutionally. 

The Greeks, however, offered no state support for scholarship. Instead, scholarship was sustained by the lucrative fees that eminent scholars could charge students. Reputation was crucial to this success, which led to intense competition, acrimonious debates, and intense intellectual conflict.

Thus, where Chinese scholarship served the state, Greek scholarship served the individual. Because Chinese scholarship existed solely to help the Emperor, it was not confrontational; argumentation was considered ungentlemanly and political rivalries had to be prosecuted with considerable subtlety. The Greek style led to lots of drama, but it also sharpened Greek thought. In particular, the Greeks zeroed in on the concept of proof, something that China never developed. Chinese argumentation relied heavily on metaphor.

Moreover, Chinese scholarship was limited in several ways. First, intellectual inquiry was confined to matters considered useful to the Emperor. Research into improving agriculture or water works was rewarded, but inquiries into the nature of matter or other esoteric subjects were strongly discouraged. Moreover, certain inquiries were outright forbidden: casting the Emperor’s horoscope was a capital crime.

Greek scholarship, by contrast, looked at everything under the sun. Greeks were curious about just about everything they could see. 

One realization that I got from contemplating this book was that the Greek resistance to empiricism was not due to any pig-headedness on their part. Instead, for them, proof was the acid test of any inquiry. If an idea could not be proven by logical methods, it wasn’t worth serious consideration. Empirical methods can disprove an idea but they can never prove an idea, so the Greeks considered such methods to be of secondary value. The value of empiricism became apparent only much later, when Europeans convinced themselves that logic by itself could not answer many questions. I wonder if Europeans had to go through the whole scholasticism debacle to appreciate the value of empiricism?