Two Thousand Years of Democracy
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The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 Apr 1941, p. 456-469


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Peterson, Henry, Speaker
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Mankind today searching for a better way of life. Becoming enlightened by the sage of the Chinese people. Why and how this way of life has worked for so long. Why other old civilizations were ploughed under. Examining our belief that our ills are basically economic, transcending political and social factors. The Chinese sage that points to a different conclusion: that both political and economic good are merely the means and not the end to man's adventure, which is social contentment. A look at China's political history. Our present search for a good definition of democracy. Democracy as given to the Chinese people by Confucius. Sun Tzu's philosophy of war. Spiritual factors that have maintained democracy in China. The five Cardinal Virtues of the Chinese. The role of education. The Confucian ethic. A recognition of an absolute moral authority in human conduct.
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3 Apr 1941
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
TWO THOUSAND YEARS OF DEMOCRACY
AN ADDRESS BY HENRY PETERSON.
Chairman: Mr. J. C. M. MacBeth, K.C.
Thursday, April 3, 1941

A call for registration for service of all automobile drivers at their nearest Police or Fire Station, so that arrangements might be made to have them available for Air Raid Precaution transportation by the Civilian Defence Committee in case of necessity, was read out emanating from Mr. Tracey D. LeMay on behalf of the City of Toronto.

MR. J. C. M. MACBETH: Gentlemen, in the continued absence of the Honourable Mr. Ferguson, the members of the Executive Committee have been passing around the honour of presiding at the weekly luncheon and today the lot has fallen to me. It is quite an unusual instance that we should have the privilege of listening to an address on China by a gentleman born in that country.

He has, however, added to that Oriental origin a long residence in England and many years of travel elsewhere--a fit subject for a profound controversy for international jurists on the question of domicile. I strongly urge him never to allow the issue to come before the courts for decision in a matrimonial cause.

It is not to be wondered at that he has made a special study of his country or origin, its political, social and economic affairs and its literature. He spent the years 1938 to 1940 in China as the guest of the Government and is well qualified to speak with authority on recent developments there, if indeed, 1940 can be said to be recent in this swiftly-moving world.

He is a writer of note. One of his articles "Singapore" appeared in a recent issue of a Canadian magazine, another entitled "Hitler Will Attack Russia" appeared just last week, and there is promise of another shortly on the characteristic signs of Hitlerian strategy which point to such attack. He is the author of Honourable and Peculiar Ways--the title suggests Pacific diplomacy-and in 1923 he collaborated with the Earl of Halsbury, son of the doughty law lord, in publishing the novel 19¢¢, in anticipation of the then next "World War".

Gentlemen, I have much pleasure in introducing the guest-speaker, Mr. Henry Peterson, the subject of whose address is "Two Thousand Years of Democracy".

MR. HENRY PETERSON: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: May I say how much I appreciate the privilege and how much I welcome the opportunity to address a club with so pregnant a name today as the Empire Club.

Not only in the British Empire but in every vital spot on earth, mankind today is searching, is passionately searching, for a better way of life.

Throughout his stubborn career, man has been able to learn only by the hard way. Today, a greater area of our golden earth, a greater multitude of souls, is drenched in tears than ever the friendly sun has ever mocked at before. Therefore, we are arrived at one of man's humbler periods, when he is not too proud to look beyond his short nose, when he will go abroad to search for a new salvation.

But where and how to start? One of the greatest men that ever walked this earth, the Emperor T'ang T'ai Tsung of China, who at eighteen founded the most glorious of her dynasties by putting his father on the throne with his sword, threw off many penetrating sayings concerning man. Said this giant who ever subordinated his sword to the Moral Law, thirteen hundred years ago: "In a mirror of brass you may see to adjust your head-dress, but in a mirror of antiquity you can see the rise and fall of empires."

In my own humble search in the history of many peoples to find some sane, some workable solution to our modern wants, I must confess I have been most en lightened by the saga of the Chinese people. It gives us, at least, authentic evidence, evidence we can touch, see and hear, taste and very much smell. The ways of life of Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome, even of recent Byzantium, have all been mercilessly ploughed under by Nature.

But China, old before even Greece first saw the light, still strides the golden earth, still enjoys the friendly sun, still finds rejuvenation when hammered by a neighbour less civilized. Here is a way of life that works. Why and how has it worked?

I venture to think that the other old civilizations were ploughed under because they evolved a way of living which was not adapted to man's nature. They all had a religion which satisfied the heart but not the head, and a philosophy which satisfied the head but not the heart. Confucius gave the Chinese people a way of life which satisfies both head and heart.

Significantly today, in that other land of tough survival, in that deep-thinking land, joyous in adversity, England, a body of honest men and women are meeting, at the Malvern Congress, to bridge this very gulf in its life between head and heart. They are searching for nationality, which shows up clear and steady in Tang T'ai Tsung's mirror as Nature's first demand of man if he wants to survive.

Here one vital aspect of our modern extremism should be examined-our belief that our ills are basically economic, transcending political and social factors. The Chinese saga points to a different conclusion-that both political and economic good are merely the means and not the end to man's adventure, which is social contentment--personal liberty coming before the rice bowl, and not the stomach before human dignity. So let us see what China's political history is. From the misty horizon of legend until four thousand years ago the people were ruled by priest-kings, semi-elected by themselves. Then, primitive morality decaying, rugged individualism was born-the man with the biggest fist snatching most power and handing it down to descendants, until the mighty Chou dynesty tried to safeguard kingly power by creating the feudal system, which lasted nine hundred years, from 1150 B.C. until 249 B.C.-its exact replica appearing in Europe over two thousand years later.

Rotten with petty pride, it was destroyed by the world's first totalitarian regime. In its last four hundred and fifty years while thirteen of the fourteen states were slaughtering one another, the fourteenth, the Ch'in State, in the west, kept to itself behind its mountain ranges, developing a continuous policy free from idealism, intensely exploiting its rich natural resources. To it had flocked brilliant men from the other states, disgusted with slaughter. By 270 B.C. a perfect machine of government and an invincible war machine had been produced, and a generation later a man of monster proportions was on the throne. One by one he conquered his cretinous squabbling neighbours and styled himself the First Universal EmperorCh'in Shi Havng Ti--but was prouder of another title, the Great Modern.

All books, except those on agriculture, war and economics, science, engineering and medicine, were ordered to be burnt, and some four thousand scholars, refusing to give up the books by Confucius, went up in their flames. Having killed the feudal system by abolishing the nobility and confiscating their lands, the great destroyer sought to found a modern empire by creating a civil service of modern-minded young men culled from every class of the conquered. So he instituted competitive examinations for selected candidates-good party men. And suppression of individual liberty was even more thorough and inhuman than that practised by today's hasty imitations of totalitarianism which are but gangsters' rackets, whereas the Ch'in breaking of souls was carried out by a civil service of impeachable integrity.

Here history gives one of its ironic chuckles. In creating competitive civil service examinations, the totalitarian had put China on the first step to democracy, had given the first limited trial of the very first tenet of just government propounded by his arch-enemy, Confucius, though dead two hundred and fifty years-that there should be even reward of merit throughout the land.

Unwilling to be bent into machines, the people utterly destroyed the system in a universal revolt fifteen years after the universal conquest, suffering ghastly punishment, pitchforks against chariots. And this invincible surging up of the human spirit established another of Confucius' fundamental tenets of just government--that the people have the right to revolt under injustice, substituting a good ruler for a bad one, even by the executioner's axe. Since then the Chinese people have persistently exercised that right. While England, France and Russia have each had only one epoch-making revolution, China has had twenty-five since Confucius, each destroying in order to create.

In our present search for a good definition of democracy have we yet found a better one than a system of government which is circumscribed by these two inalienable rights of the common man-fair opportunity to rise to the highest offices in the land and power of execution of a bad ruler? Do these two rights not form the very roof and foundation of the mansion we today call democracy? China has seen the death of her early playmates on earth primarily because of these safeguards of the common man.

What happened when the totalitarian system collapsed? The conquering dynasty, the Han, while recreating noble rank, also expanded qualifications for the civil service examinations to embrace the whole nation, yet, of course, it was not until printing was invented a few centuries later that large numbers of sons of peasants rose and stepped into an aristocracy of talent. For the last seventeen centuries this aristocracy of talent has been the cement binding together the Chinese organism.

But the search for political and economic panaceas did not die two thousand years ago. Between 9 B.C. and 25 A.D. a usurper seized the Han throne and tried to put into practice a most astonishing system-a stark socialism based on a revival of feudal forms. All land was seized and was called "royal land", which the usurper then divided among those willing to follow him. Next came complete state control of the country's economy-control of production and sale of all commodities and their distribution. Reform followed reform to make this combination of feudalism and socialism work. After thirty-four years of it, of growing chaos, the people turned and rent it to pieces, stuck the head of the king of "isms" on a pole and stoned it until it fell to the ground for scavenger dogs to finish off.

After that, for two hundred years the even reward of merit went on under autocratic rule, hand in hand with savage rebellions when taxes became oppressive. Then for four hundred years rugged individualism went completely mad, taking in its stride the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which produced perhaps the most intense fighting the world has even seen, for over a period of eighty years.

We are now getting nearer Confucius, to what democratic morality must be, yet I am afraid we must first look into still another grand attempt at an economic panacea. It took place around 1066, and can best be described as "Communism and All That". The conditions were ideal. A brilliant Minister of State laid before his Emperor a scheme which would modernize the state. It was as simple as it was promising. To quote his own words: "The State should take the entire management of commerce, industry and agriculture into its own hands, with the view to succouring the working classes, and preventing their being ground to the dust by the rich." Convinced, the able and honest Emperor gave his support. Land, seed and implements were given away free of charge, and boards of experts criss-crossed the land giving advice free and organizing free state transportation. In only a score of years this peaceful revolution which aimed at "preventing there being any poor or over-rich persons in the State" came to an end. His heart broken, but not his honesty, the Emperor admitted that it had only been a cruel dream. The weaknesses of human nature, he had learnt, were stronger than the most perfect system pen could put on paper.

Individualism had now lost its rugged savagery, for it now firmly grasped in its right hand the sword of the civil service examinations, and in its left hand the shield of the right to revolt under injustice. The internal conditions of survival had been established.

Yet even Utopia itself cannot survive unless its frontiers can be maintained against external attack. Here one of the myths concerning the Chinese people needs attention--that they have been conquered many times and have always absorbed their conquerors.

The Chinese are not so simple, and one has only to ask what would have happened to them had they developed the habit of being conquered? No nation has fought so long and therefore so well as the Chinese against aggressors. The absorption idea has truth only in so far as that, until the Western Powers appeared, every aggressor had been of an inferior culture and could not come in contact with Chinese civilization without falling a willing victim to it.

War was a ripe art in China before that shining handful of Greeks stood at Thermopylae. In fact, five full centuries before Thermopylae, her frontiers had been guarded by a standing army; organized warfare alone saved her from the ceasless and merciless invasions of the Huns for seventeen long centuries, and there were a dozen other marauders skirting the frontiers with their senses aflame with tales of Chinese silks, luxuries and the beauty of the women.

As Confucius gave the Chinese people democracy, so a general--fatefully enough, living in the same generation has given them the gift of generalship in war. For twenty-five centuries the Chinese have had his treatise, called the Art of War, at their side, which contains no more than seven thousand crisp words. I believe I have only to quote a few sentences and your minds will leap to Hitler's smashing of the French Army. First, I must tell you that the German Staff College has been studying this ancient treatise ever since 1919 when it set out to search for the causes of the German Army's defeat in the last war-and went back to first principles. I had better also say that for these twenty-five centuries every one of China's great soldiers has been a disciple of this man, Sun Tzu. And in these twenty-five centuries Chinese fighting can show a score of generals every bit as gifted as Napoleon.

First I will quote you what may be called the three chief props of Sun Tzu's philosophy of war, "All warfare is based on deception." In no other treatise on war any where is this very breadth of generalship stated in this categorical manner. The second prop is: "In war the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak." The third: "Rapidity is the essence of war." Nothing can be more obvious, yet we clever moderns on both sides in the last war reversed all three precepts nearly all the time, and I don't have to remind you that Hitler's victories have been due to a scrupulous obedience to all three.

I am much tempted to quote more on the purely military plane, but I shall spare you that, yet I believe you will be interested in something on the political plane, an uncanny description of how Hitler built his corner-stone in capturing Czechoslovakia-the slipway that launched the blitzkrieg in France.

"When a warlike prince attacks a powerful State, his generalship shows itself in preventing the concentration of the enemy's forces. He overaws his opponents, and their allies are prevented from joining against him. Hence he does not strive to ally himself with all and sundry, nor does he foster the power of other States. He carries out his secret designs, and keeps his opponents in awe. Thus, he is able to capture their cities and overthrow their kingdoms."

Yet is corruption of the enemy on Hitler's scale not totally new in warfare?

Sun Tzu says: "Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them; make trouble for them, and make servants of them. Hold out specious allurements, and make them hasten in our direction."

Twelve hundred years ago one of Sun Tzu's several hundred commentators, a scholar by the name of Chia Lin,' expanded this passage thus

"Entice away the enemy's best and wisest men, so that he may be left without councillors. Introduce traitors into his country, that the government policy may be rendered futile. Foment intrigue and deceit, and thus sow dissension between the ruler and his ministers. By means of every artful contrivance, cause deterioration amongst his men and waste of his treasure. Corrupt his morals by insidious gifts leading him to excess. Disturb and unsettle his mind by presenting him with lovely women."

Is this not a telling example of the breadth, depth and continuity of the Chinese mind? It has to do only with war, but one can imagine how like dripping water has been the search for rational solutions to political, economic and social problems, wearing out the hardest obstacles.

I have taken the risk of boring you to emphasize the Chinese capacity for war for two vital democratic reasons: to show that a people must be virile concerning war if it is to survive; and that excessive fighting alone can give birth to democracy. Because the people get tired of being cannon fodder-because the inalienable right of civilized men is just freedom to maintain his small rhythm of survival, which cannot be made up of cruelty, corruption and conquest, but of love, labour and leisure. That inalienable right was what killed the Great Modern's totalitarian system and will kill Hitler's, for it is armed with the most destructive weapon at all times-the Moral Law-which the German General Staff may be remembering Sun Tzu indirectly puts at no less than six to one as against the physical factors in war.

So now we can turn to the spiritual factors that have maintained democracy in China.

The first is a very remarkable one. The Chinese appear on the pages of history a highly moral (agricultural) people. Up to the present no traces have been found of their having ever been nomads; but, far more important, there is no trace of their having ever glorified Might as being over Right, and there is the evidence of their written language. Even in the middle of their bloodstained feudal period, in the year 597 B.C.-forty-six years before Confucius was born-Prince Chuang of the State of Ch'u, proclaimed: "The ideograph for 'prowess' is made up of the signs 'to stay' and a 'Spear'--in other words, the cessation of hostilities." He goes on, "Military prowess is seen in the repression of cruelty, the calling in of weapons and the preservation of the appointment of Heaven, the firm establishment of merit, the bestowal of happiness on the people, the putting of harmony between the princes, and the diffusion of wealth." War has always been defined by these long-livers as punishment, being one of the functions of government.

It is now time to approach the very yellow earth of this persistent race, something on which even Chiang KaiShek's New Life Movement today has to be founded the five Cardinal Virtues of the Chinese, which have come down from the very dawn of the race and may be called the five commandments of the Chinese people.

The first is Humanity or Benevolence; the second is Uprighteness of Mind; the third is Self-Respect, Self-Control or "Proper Feeling"; only number four is Wisdom; and the fifth is Sincerity or Good Faith.

You will observe that every one is ethical, there is no mention of morality. But do these five ethical demands not make up the best definition we can have for the Moral Law?

Yet there is something strange, I believe, unique, in this matter of moralty about the Chinese. They gave up religion as a moral force thirty-five hundred years ago and have since welcomed every religion from without seeking their hospitality, so long as proselyters remain good citizens of the land.

What did Confucius teach? Confucius sought the rational organization of the world and based his whole system on the natural sympathy of men for one anotheron love. Man, he argued, is born good and only goes wrong when he doesn't listen to his own conscience, that most honest thing known to men.

Four steps were necessary to the rational organization of the world: 1. Cultivation of the Individual; 2. Organization of the Family; 3. Administration of the State; 4. Pacification of the World.

The whole system was founded on the individual, whose conduct must rest on the precept: "Do not unto others what you would not have done unto you."

The obligations natural to the family should be extended to the state, and the obligations natural to the state extend to the world. But how is this universal duty to be achieved? By means of education. The aim is wholly ethical, its end the highest good for the greatest number--there always being black sheep.

But how is even the very first step to be attained-the responsibility of the individual, which is the all-embracing principle, the unbroken thread that runs through the system ? By the correct definition of names.

Now, a name is not an empty word. It has a distinct, clearly-defined meaning, for accident has given reality fixed associations, through names. Basic names like father and son, husband and wife, prince and minister, when correctly defined, fix fields of duty. Only then do individuals enjoy the rights implied in their names. Hence the sum total of clearly-defined names makes up a clearly-defined system of human society, since every individual has a position corresponding to his name, he enjoys a personal inviolable dignity within the limits of the rights and duties of that name.

Yet because of backsliding, there must be rules to determine the individual's behaviour proper to his position. These rules are to be made clear in the rites. Neither compulsion nor persuasion must be used to enforce their performance. The idea of these ceremonies is that habit based on the free recognition of their justification automatically brings fulfillment of duty.

I would like to stop a moment and ask if this isn't very much the principle of the English public schools--from Eton to Eastbourne--with their quiet but inviolable ritual to produce good form?

Yet how are relative ranks to be fixed in society? By an absolute moral authority, so that there need be no dispute between high and low. Thus each individual, by first obeying this absolute moral authority, next by basing his relation with his neighbour on love and then keeping within the rights and duties of his name, will bring harmony to human society.

This, in a few inadequate words, may be called the Confusian ethic. Yet, a question must be on your lips--what is the authority behind the absolute moral authority? Confucius was alive to such a need. He was too sceptical to believe that the metaphysical world, which he privately revered spending days on end alone in prayer, worshipping Heaven, could influence human conduct. Religion or force was also out of the question, for the conduct of his princely man, or gentleman (in the proper broad use of that term) must be based on no ulterior motive-either hope of reward or fear of punishment nor on compulsion, but only on pure reverence of the good, as a thing in itself. So Confucius made his absolute moral authority something which could give no scope for objections-on the conduct of the long-idealized rulers, Yao and Shun, the elected Emperors of antiquity who had wrought wisely and unselfishly two thousand years earlier.

Now I think we can see why totalitarianism, socialism or communism, or even degenerate despotic emperors have been unable to kill democracy in China since its birth two thousand years ago. Not only did Confucius give his people individual liberty but he took pains to safeguard that liberty by the only two means that can safeguard individual liberty-not only the right to revolt when his rulers, forgetting their rights and duties, made social injustice indecent and intolerable; but by education, to see that individual liberty shall not degenerate into individual licence. The common man has his duties as well as his rights.

One more concrete factor of China's survival must be proclaimed, a tremendous factor-for twelve hundred years democracy there could not be sold to profiteers.

During that glorious Tang dynasty, which threw up four thousand first-class poets in three hundred years, a most astonishing law was passed, the wisest law that man ever made. At that time alchemy was a raging science -that beginning of man's inquisitive search into Nature's laws and properties. Abruptly scientific research came to an end. It went to Arabia, whence it travelled on to Europe. What had happened? That law had proscribed it. It stated that any man inventing any machine or instrument which went faster than the pace of human life would be put to death, and was.

I venture to think that those T'ang rulers saw what the end of science might be-the destruction of man. today Europe, having fashioned out of Chinese alchemy Western science, would give a great deal to have had that law made universal throughout the world even a quarter of a century ago.

It is now too late for the world to adopt China's backward law of survival, but should we not take to ourselves the spiritual kernel of that survival and give up our iconoclastic concept of relativity in human morality?

Let modern democracy reflect on this passion for relativity in human affairs and remember that the world's one deathless democracy has survived through the recognition of an absolute moral authority in human conduct. (Applause.)

PROFESSOR C. T. CURRELLY: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Peterson and Gentlemen: I have been asked to say a few words to express our gratitude for this very wonderful and very delightful resume of four thousand years of history and the philosophy that lies behind it. It has been a wonderful thing to have put before us in these very few minutes such an enormous epoch of history and to have explained that philosophy which is the basal thing underlying the outcome of everything.

I felt so much pleased with the final part where the ' question came up of discipline. I was very much impressed when a very prominent statesman in England said some time ago: "After this war the common boy of England will have the same chances of education as the boy at Eton." I think he has now but he hasn't the discipline, and you will never get an Eton boy until you get Eton discipline, and we will never get it in Canada nor anywhere else until we get that discipline, perhaps most easily based, as it is in China, on the family, or as it so often is in England, on the school. But it has to be there.

I am so glad that you have been able to put forward to us at this time, in such a perfectly charming manner, this most important side of life, for we will have to face it during the next quarter of a century. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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Two Thousand Years of Democracy


Mankind today searching for a better way of life. Becoming enlightened by the sage of the Chinese people. Why and how this way of life has worked for so long. Why other old civilizations were ploughed under. Examining our belief that our ills are basically economic, transcending political and social factors. The Chinese sage that points to a different conclusion: that both political and economic good are merely the means and not the end to man's adventure, which is social contentment. A look at China's political history. Our present search for a good definition of democracy. Democracy as given to the Chinese people by Confucius. Sun Tzu's philosophy of war. Spiritual factors that have maintained democracy in China. The five Cardinal Virtues of the Chinese. The role of education. The Confucian ethic. A recognition of an absolute moral authority in human conduct.