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Stoic Cosmopolitanism and Confucian Cosmopolitanism:
Four centuries after the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, an inter-state system with
national sovereignty as its fundamental principle, spread from Europe into the entire world.
While the nation-state system has always been the core element in practice, reflections of
cosmopolitanism which go beyond the nation-state have never disappeared in human
thought, thoughts ranging from serious philosophical works to romantic poems.1 Since the
discipline of international relations was established in the early 20th century, however, most
IR theorists have centered on the concept and limit of inter-national. They regard the
existence of nation-states as a prerequisite of their analysis, showing little interest in
cosmopolitanism.2 At the same time, cosmopolitanism is still vivid in the disciplines of
political science, sociology and philosophy. Ulrich Beck, Robert Fine, Martha Nussbaum and
Thomas Pogge are only a few names among the modern cosmopolitanism scholars, who
have influenced IR studies, especially on normative theories. Many of them, in their
discussions on cosmopolitanism, trace the cosmopolitan tradition back to Stoicism and even
Cynicism.3 The Stoic movement is indisputably the first among the three major moments of
cosmopolitan thought prior to the current re-engagement with its problematic and
disposition (Beardworth 2011, 17). Stoic cosmopolitanism provides the modern
cosmopolitan researchers not only the notion of cosmos in which human kind might live
together in harmony, but also, to some extent, the idea of world citizenship (Held 2005,
18; Couture and Nielsen 2005, 183).
Chen Yudan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Politics at Fudan University. 1 It is interesting that in 18
th and 19
th centuries, when the institution of nation-states was fixed in
Europe, great figures as Kant, Goethe and Schiller were keenly calling for an idea of world
citizenship. (See for example, Francke 1927, 183-190) 2 There are, however, some exceptions (Brown 2000b, 7-26; Bartelson 2009; Beardsworth, 2011, etc.).
3 It is noteworthy that Martha Nussbaum herself is a well-known Classicist.
At the other side of the earth, China has witnessed the rise of its own cosmopolitanism
under the name of Tianxia Zhuyi(The doctrine of Tianxia) since the mid-1990s.4 Some
scholars have tended to employ this conception - which is generated from a Chinese classical
tradition - to transcend the imported idea of the nation-state. Li Shenzhi, one of the most
prominent Chinese IR scholars in the last century and the former president of the Chinese
Academy of Social Science,5 declares in his article Globalization and Chinese Culture (1994),
that a vulgar nationalism, is totally against the trend and spirit of globalization as well as
Chinese traditionThe traditional Chinese idea is Tianxia Zhuyi and not nationalism (Li
1994, 7-8). Another important article which raised enthusiastic discussion and even disputes
on Chinese cosmopolitanism was by Sheng Hong, published in a leading Chinese social
science journal under the title From Nationalism to Tianxia Zhuyi in 1996. The author
argues that since China is the only civilization in human history that once ended a warring
states period (with the establishment of Tianxia Zhuyi culture), its cultural tradition may
become a spiritual resource for us to establish Tianxia Zhuyi culture today (Sheng 1996,
19). From then on, quite a few Chinese scholars have tried to view the world from a
traditional Chinese cosmopolitan perspective.6 Like their Western counterparts, Chinese
researchers often look back upon the Classical period, picking up phrases from Confucian
classics dating from two thousand years ago, and which have been regarded as the main
source of traditional cosmopolitanism. When China put forward the conception of
harmonious world in 2005, some scholars tended to connect classical cosmopolitanism
with the harmonious world idea, to prove that the latter is based on the uniqueness of
Chinese culture and can benefit from its traditional cosmopolitanism.7
Since both modern Western and Chinese cosmopolitanisms appeal to some extent to
something beyond nation-state, it would be interesting and helpful to compare their
respective ancestors, that is, Stoic cosmopolitanism and Confucian cosmopolitanism.8 Are
they essentially different and incommensurable? Or do they share something common that
4 Tianxia is a concept widely used in ancient China which means the Universe, or under the
Heaven literally. Zhuyi simply means -ism. I will retain Tianxia Zhuyi if it is in a citation, but use
cosmopolitanism otherwise for the reason of easy-reading. 5 Li participated in Chinas foreign affairs actively in 1950s with Premier Zhou Enlai and in the late
1970s, with Deng Xiaoping. He was also the founder of the Institute of American Studies in the
Chinese Academy of Social Science (in 1980s). 6 The most influential figure is Zhao Tingyang, a professor in philosophy. He published the book The
Tianxia System: A Philosophy for the World Institution in 2005, which has been widely spread among
IR scholars in China. 7 There are numerous books, papers and articles on this topic, among which, I have to say, only a few
are serious and profound academic works (See for example, Yang 2008). 8 While there existed diversity within both Stoicism and Confucianism, this article will consider them
as unified theories, or it would be too much for the capacity of a single paper.
might benefit contemporary reflections in a changing world? The comparison between these
two cosmopolitanisms in this article includes two aspects: the political space for people in
the world to dwell in, and the way they live harmoniously in such a space. The article then
turns to modern theories in the conclusion, with a brief discussion based on consideration of
these two ancient philosophies.
I. Cosmos and Tianxia: The Space to Dwell in
During the Classical period (5th-4th century B.C.), both political thought and political practices
in Greece reached their climax within the form of polis (city-state). Beyond the level of polis,
there were senses of ethnos and even Greek identity, but the latter referred to common
religion, culture and blood, not a political community.9 However, the 4th century B.C.
witnessed the conquest of Greek poleis by Macedon, a peripheral kingdom, and it was
Alexander the Great who led the Greeks to destroy the most typical barbarian figure in their
minds: the Persian Empire.10 The city-state system then began to collapse in political practice.
Meanwhile, ideas beyond city-state and even beyond the distinction between Greeks and
barbarians appeared in political thought.
Diogenes, the renowned Cynic philosopher in the 4th century B.C., as a homeless exile, to
his country dead, might be the earliest to put forward a cosmopolitan idea when he said, I
am a citizen of the world (cosmopolits) (Diogenes Laertios 1972, VI. 38, 63). 11 However,
he has no works surviving today, and it is difficult to make clear the real meaning of his
words. It might be rather a rebellious reaction against every kind of coercion imposed by
the community upon the individual than a true philosophic implication of
cosmopolitanism (Hadas 1943, 108).12
The Stoic school created in late 4th century B.C. is always seen as the real origin of Western
cosmopolitanism. The early development of the school was in the Hellenistic period, when
9 Recent studies in Classical Greek inter-state relations are shared by classists and political scientists
(cf., Arnopoulos 1999; Low 2007; Giovannini 2007). 10
We should keep in mind that the Macedonians were seen by the Greeks as semi-barbarians.
Demosthenes in his famous Philippic III held Philip, the king of Macedon in strong contempt: not only
is he no Hellene, not only has he no kinship with Hellenes, but he is not even a barbarian from a
country that one could acknowledge with credit;he is a pestilent Macedonian, from whose
country it used not to be possible to buy even a slave of any value(Pickard 1912, 31). 11
See also VI.72 in the same work: The only true commonwealth was, he said, that which is as wide
as the universe. Both the Greek and English texts I cite here are from R. D. Hickss text in Loeb
Classical Library. 12
For a brief but detailed discussion on Diogenes cosmopolitanism and its relations with Stoic
cosmopolitanism, see: Schofield 1991, 141-145.
Greek civilization spread into the non-Greek world. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was not
an authentic Greek. The center of Stoicism in the middle phase began to transit outside the
Greek world, resulting in the late Stoa finally having its headquarters at Rome. Therefore,
Stoicism was born with the characteristics of universality and tolerance. We are not
surprised to read from the works of late Stoics, some of whom were Roman politicians, an
ethical tendency to evoke the world citizen.