Ideals of Leadership in Ancient Greece, Rome, and China – International Workshop

Home / News and Events / Seminar Series / Ideals of Leadership in Ancient Greece, Rome, and China – International Workshop


Organised by Christine Habbard and Bart Van Wassenhove


Both in the Ancient Greco-Roman World and in Ancient China, philosophers of different schools attempted to construct an ideal of a just ruler and a just society. They did so not only by writing treatises and educating future leaders, but even – as Plato and Confucius did – by advising rulers directly. Our purpose in this mini-conference is to examine how philosophers in East and West constructed ideals of political and moral leadership, how they tried to influence those in power, and what we can learn from their political philosophies today.


08:30 – 09:30: Breakfast

09:00 – 09:15: Introductory remarks (Christine Habbard, SUTD)

09:15 – 10:00: Christina Tarnopolsky, Yale-NUS College
Leadership and Noble Lying in Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Plato’s Republic
Dramatically set (Republic) or staged (Philoctetes) during the Peloponnesian War, both Plato’s Republic and Sophocles’ Philoctetes interrogate the notion of noble lying during wartime. The unprecedented character of the war with Sparta and a series of devastating military defeats had caused Athenian democrats to question whether a certain amount of Spartan deception might not be necessary for the very salvation of their city in a war with an enemy so ready to use both trickery and deceit. Deception, however, contrasted with the Athenian and particularly Achillean ideals of openness and honesty as qualities requisite for leadership. Accordingly, both Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Plato’s Republic turn to the figure of Odysseus, renowned for his tricky speech, in order to interrogate notions of the just and unjust uses of lying by leaders. I argue that by understanding 1) the relationship between Plato’s Republic and Sophocles’ Philoctetes; 2) the figure of Odysseus; 3) the ways in which Plato uses and problematizes the notion of gennaion (noble or well-bred) throughout the Republic; and 4) the immediate context of, and preliminary remarks to, the noble lie (gennaion pseudos) itself; it becomes clear that Plato is not the authoritarian or anti-democratic thinker he is often take to be. In fact, I argue that Plato’s gennaion pseudos actually exemplifies a form of democratic rhetoric that is meant to counter the tyrannical tendencies of his contemporary and future readers (and leaders), and to instill a salutary ethos of philosophic suspicion into this audience.

Bio: Christina Tarnopolsky is Associate Professor of Humanities at Yale NUS College. She is currently working on two book manuscripts. The first manuscript, provisionally entitled, Plato’s Mimetic Republic, explores Plato’s theories of ethical cultivation, exemplarity, and mimetic pedagogy in the Republic. The second manuscript, provisionally entitled, Rashomon Republic, examines Plato’s engagement with the ancient Athenian genres of satyr-play, tragedy, history, comedy and medicine in the Republic. She is the author of Prudes, Perverts, and Tyrants: Plato’s Gorgias and the Politics of Shame (Princeton University Press, 2010).  The book examines the positive and negative roles played by shame in democratic politics, both in ancient Athens and in contemporary democratic polities around the world.

10:00 – 10:45: Loy Hui Chieh, National University of Singapore
Getting Through to a War-loving Ruler: The Mohists and their Elite Audiences
Standard accounts of the Mohists portray them as presenting cool, rational arguments to make the case for their various ethical and political proposals (see e.g., Nivision, Hansen). While there is a lot of truth in the portrayal, it misses the crucial persuasive dimensions of the arguments preserved in the “Core Chapters”. In addition, it also overlooks the possibility that the Mohists calibrated both the aims and the means of their persuasion to the specific audiences. In this talk, I will explore how the Mohists sought to reach out to two distinct audiences — moralistic members of the social elite (“the gentlemen of the world”) as opposed to the actual warlike rulers of the states — on the issue of war.

Bio: Hui-chieh Loy is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy, National University of Singapore. He received his PhD in Philosophy from UC Berkeley, with a dissertation on the moral philosophy of the ancient Chinese thinker Mozi. His articles can be found in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Monumenta Serica, Philosophy East and West, Oriens Extremus, and Dao. He has also contributed to the Dao Companion to the Analects, and other volumes on Chinese Philosophy.

10:45 – 11:00: Break

11:00 – 11:45: Steven Green, Yale-NUS College
Seneca’s De Clementia: (Revised) Instructions for an Empire
Seneca’s De Clementia (AD 55-56) masquerades as private, philosophically-oriented tuition on leadership from official tutor (Seneca) to young imperial ruler (Nero). But its publication at a time of imperial scandal – the murder of the Emperor’s half-brother, Britannicus – suggests more complex intentions on the part of the author, and a correspondingly larger target audience. Indeed, this is a work which mixes advice with warning, abstract optimism with imperial reality.

Bio: Steven Green specialises in Roman literature and culture in the 1st centuries BC and AD, with particular attention to the reigns of the Emperors Augustus and Nero. His major publications have so far focused around the love poet Ovid, the astrological poet Manilius, Roman didactic poetry, the interaction between Roman literature and religious experience, and the reception of the classical world in 21st century Hollywood film. His latest monograph, Disclosure and Discretion in Roman Astrology, was published by Oxford University Press in June 2014. Dr Green has also published a commentary on Book 1 of Ovid’s religious poem, Fasti (Leiden 2004), and has co-edited a number of other volumes as well as contributing articles to leading journals. He is currently working on a text, translation and collection of essays on the neglected hunting poem of Grattius (due with Oxford University Press in 2017).

11:45 – 12:30: Máté Veres, University of Hamburg
Sceptics and tyrants: Conformism and Ethical Responsibility in Cicero and Sextus Empiricus
Sextus Empiricus famously advocates a conformist approach to leading one’s life, renouncing the sort of beliefs – including beliefs about objective values – that his dogmatic peers considered necessary for a successfully examined life. In reply to the objection that a sceptic would not have what it takes to face up to a tyrant, Sextus replies that sceptics could go along or resist in accordance with the customs and laws of their given societies.

This stance is often taken to be thoroughly unattractive, as it seems to lead either to a seemingly dogmatic commitment to traditional views, or to thoughtless, perhaps hypocritical, acquiescence in the existing moral and political order. At the other extreme, some intepreters argue that scepticism does in fact allow for acting in line with genuine normative commitments, including the construction of an individual moral outlook, and perhaps the advocation of revisionary ideals.

In this paper, I argue for the following claims. First, the scepticism propounded by Sextus does not lead to dogmatic commitments. Second, readings that allow for a specifically Pyrrhonean morality or politics go beyond both the spirit and the letter of the extant evidence. Finally, I argue that it is Cicero who puts a political spin of the sceptical project, which was familiar to him from Academic, rather than from Pyrrhonean, sources. As part of his project of introducing Greek philosophy to the Roman world, he had to justify his adherence to the Academic cause, arguing that it is compatible with his stature as a Roman statesman actively involved in the political struggles of the day.

Bio: Máté Veres is a junior research fellow at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Hamburg. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy in November 2016 from Central European University, Budapest, with a dissertation on sceptical argumentation and philosophical theology in the Hellenistic age. During his studies, he was a visiting student at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, a Fulbright visiting graduate researcher at the Sage School of Philosophy, Cornell University, a junior bursary recipient at the Fondation Hardt, and a junior fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, Vienna. His paper on the interpretation of Epicurean theology is forthcoming at Ancient Philosophy. He is currently preparing various articles on Sextus Empiricus, Cicero, and classical influences on David Hume’s philosophy of religion.

12:30 – 13:30: Lunch

13:30 – 14:15: Chad Hansen, Hong Kong University, Emeritus
Contrasting Conceptions of Leadership: The Pathfinder Model in China
The Chinese political value structure starts with metaethical naturalism. Naturalism shapes Chinese theories of moral psychology and of normativity–normative status. Ethical naturalism, I’ll argue, is inherent in Classical Chinese focus on a path metaphor, 道dàoway-path, in addressing normative issues. The parallel role in the Indo-European West is a command-obedience metaphor, law. Both dàos and laws emerge in natural, social-political and ethical-moral contexts. The command or law metaphor invokes supernatural authority (God), reason, obedience, language and thought — and the belief-desire psychology of rational beings is “in the image of God.” Chinese moral psychology, by contrast, is less about the laws of thought than about a capacity to find and follow path-like structures – appealing to non-performative authority (sage kings) unlike the performative authority implicit in a command metaphor. Drawing on Mark Johnson’s theory of reason as grounded in gestalt structures of bodily metaphors, I will trace how Chinese naturalism’s structure impacts Classical master’s notions of social order and the morality of punishment. Chinese conceptions of psychology complicate their discussions of natural equality and goodness. In normative theory, the dominant use of the path metaphor to refer to social practices puts the emphasis on roles and performance. It elevates the issue of morality to the level of social choice, and social engineering. Deontological attitudes about punishment, inherent in the law metaphor, are hard to find in classical Chinese teachings. However, Chinese punishments were notoriously abundant & cruel — Confucius’ opposition to punishment suggests that its existence must be explained naturally. I will analyze Confucius, Mozi, Mencius and Xunzi on the role and status of punishment.

Bio: Chad Hansen has lived in Hong Kong and worked for the University of Hong Kong for most of his professional life. He earlier had taught for 7 years at the University of Pittsburgh and for 12 years at the University of Vermont. He has also had visiting professorships at several other international universities including NUS, UCLA, Stanford, The University of Michigan and the University of Hawaii. His books include Language and Logic in Ancient China, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, and Laozi—Tao Te Ching on The Art of Harmony. His published research has ranged from Chinese philosophy of language and mind to metaethics, human rights and the rule of law. His distinctive research has drawn extensively on philosophical semantics and theory of language and his approach to Philosophy through Mohism—particularly the later Mohist dialectics and Daoism. He has just produced an online course on the EdX platform HKU03x: Humanity and Nature in Chinese Thought. He is presently Honorary Professor and Chair Professor of Chinese Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Hong Kong.

14:15 – 15:00: Winnie Sung, Nanyang Technological University
The heart/mind of ceyin and Mencius’s conception of ideal leadership
In a famous dialogue between Mencius and King Xuan (1A:7), Mencius tries to persuade the king to govern with ren (benevolence) in order to realize the king’s desire to strengthen the state of Qi. In Mencius’s view, it is because the king is endowed with the heart/mind of ceyin 惻隱 (sympathy), as evidenced by his sparing an ox, that he is able to extend kindness to his people and govern with ren. Since, in Mencius’s view, possessing the heart/mind of ceyin is what makes ideal leadership possible, this paper attempts to analyse Mencius’s understanding of ceyin. It will be argued that ceyin is a kind of unmediated painful feeling for the object. For one to have ceyin is for one to engage directly with and focus attention on the circumstances of others. The proposed interpretation of ceyin can help us better understand the kind of ideal leader Mencius has in mind and the kind of effort the ideal leader needs to make in order to overcome moral failure.

Bio: Winnie Sung’s main research interests are in Xunzi’s thought, pre-Qin Confucian ethics, moral psychology, and self-knowledge. She holds a Ph.D. from University of New South Wales in Australia and is currently assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Her recent publications are on Xunzi’s conception of the heart/mind, desire, ritual, and ethical transformation. In addition to Xunzi’s thought, she has been working on early Confucian conception of hypocrisy, loyalty, trustworthiness, and resentment.

15:00 – 15:45: Matthew Walker, Yale-NUS College
Non-Ordering Rule in Confucius and Aristotle
Throughout the Analects, Confucius articulates a non-coercive, non-doing (wu wei) model of political rule. On this model, the virtuous ruler does not bring about order through coercive restraint on his subjects. Instead, the virtuous ruler’s goodness generates a kind of spontaneous order among his subjects. Thus, in Analects 2.1, Confucius elucidates the virtuous person’s non-ordering rule with an astronomical analogy: “One who rules through the power of Virtue is analogous to the Pole Star: it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars” (trans. Slingerland). Meanwhile, in Eudemian Ethics VIII.3, Aristotle distinguishes (1) prescriptive, ordering rule from (2) non-prescriptive, non-ordering rule. Thus, the human soul’s rational element issues orders for the sake of god (i.e., it prescribes actions that we might take to contemplate and imitate god). But god does not issue orders: “for god is not an ordering ruler (οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτακτικῶς ἄρχων ὁ θεός), but that for the sake of which phronêsis issues orders” (1249b13-15). In Metaphysics Λ.7, Aristotle’s god sparks the circular motion of the celestial bodies not by actively moving them, but as an Unmoved Mover and object of desire. Aristotle’s picture of the Unmoved Mover’s non-ordering rule, at first blush, bears a certain resemblance to Confucius’ model of how the virtuous ruler and the Pole Star lead their respective subjects. But Aristotle seems less sanguine than Confucius about non-ordering rule in political contexts. In this talk, I examine how Confucius and Aristotle conceive non-ordering rule. Through what mechanisms do good rulers, according to these thinkers, bring about order? In what ways are these mechanisms similar and divergent? And how might a Confucian/Aristotelian dialogue on non-ordering rule in political contexts go?

Bio: Matthew D. Walker works primarily on Ancient Greek philosophy and cross-cultural virtue ethics. His research has explored Aristotle and Plato; Mengzi and the Confucian tradition; and Hume’s reception of Hellenistic philosophy. His recent work has been published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, and the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

15:45 – 16:00: Break

16:00 – 17:00: Round-table and concluding remarks

Moderator: Bart Van Wassenhove, Yale-NUS College
Bio: Bart Van Wassenhove is a Lecturer in the Humanities Core at Yale-NUS College. He received his Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Chicago in 2016 with a dissertation on Moral Admonition and the Emotions in Seneca’s Philosophical Works. His research interests include Hellenistic and Roman philosophy, ancient rhetoric and historiography, and the history of the emotions. He has published an article on Suetonius’ representation of Galba, and is currently preparing articles on the problem of moral solipsism in Bernard Williams’s Shame and Necessity and on the conception of the sublime in Seneca and Longinus”.