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Empire and Politics in Eastern and Western Civilizations: Searching for a 'Respublica Romanosinica'

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To speak of “empire” today is to evoke the history of China and of Rome, two great empires that vastly influenced the culture and development of half the globe. The whole world has been touched by their powerful examples, so that even someone writing, as I do, in a distant corner of North America, feels the history and influence of the Roman and Chinese empires every day. Nor are they unique. Something like “empire” has arisen wherever there was wealth and stability to support it. Rome and China had numerous rivals in the East and West who aspired to empire and sometimes achieved it. But Rome and China will remain the focus here because they are the paradigms of eastern and of western empire that illustrate the broader proposition. The central and best (and worst) values of empire and politics are congruent and fully present in eastern and western civilizations, just as they exist in every civilization that contemplates humanity and justice. Empire, politics, and the principles that rule them can be found in every culture, because they ultimately rest on reason and human nature, which are universal and accessible to every human being.

The English words “politics” and “empire” arise from Greek and Roman experience, but seek to embody universal values, or at least presume to do so. Comparing empire and politics in China and in Rome is not just a descriptive or a sociological exercise, but a normative inquiry. Like the Chinese and the Romans, we must ask ourselves not only what empire and politics are, but what they ought to be, and why we should care. China and Rome both encouraged highly sophisticated scholars, who thought deeply about justice, human nature, and the public good. Small wonder then that they agreed on many things, and that we may learn from their perceptions. The same is true of empire and politics in every civilization. The universal foundations of justice and good order are present in every cultural tradition, even when they do not triumph as they should.

The study of Rome and the Roman heritage that guides European culture, like the study of China and the many cultures of the East, is beautiful in itself, through appreciation of what they were, accomplished, and left behind. But the study and comparison of Rome and China is useful also for the insights the history and ideas of eastern and western civilization can give us today, to shape our current world. The concepts of “empire” and “politics” represent human realities that will require consideration as long as there are human societies to discuss them. China and Rome considered them first, and often better and more deeply than those who came after. Modern principles of global justice, reflected in such documents as the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, reflect values already deeply studied and understood in China and in Rome, as in many other places and cultures.

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