In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Steve Hirsch of Tufts University traces the historical roots of the societies based on individualism and collectivism.
Steve Hirsh is an associate professor of classics and adjunct professor of history at Tufts University. His teaching and research interests include the interactions between Greco-Roman civilization and other peoples of the ancient world, and global and comparative approaches to the study of antiquity. He holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University.
Dr. Steve Hirsch - Collectivism and Individualism
When we look at the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean—Greece and Rome—and compare them with ancient China, we find strong parallels and equally telling differences. The comparative approach highlights some of the ways Western and East Asian civilizations diverged, with implications for our own times.
For example, ancient Chinese discourse emphasized maintaining harmony within society. Each member of the family, community or state had an assigned role, and the interests of the group were often privileged over the free choice of the individual. Greeks placed greater emphasis on the rights of the individual “citizen,” and competition in athletics, poetry, drama, and political debate was the method by which superior men and ideas were identified. Greek historians rebuked their predecessors and claimed to provide more trustworthy accounts; Chinese historians revered their predecessors and copied from them. Much Greek political debate centered on what form of government—monarchy, oligarchy or democracy—was best. In China, where monarchy was virtually unquestioned, philosophers concentrated on elucidating the qualities of the ideal ruler.
Of course Greek philosophers also talked about social harmony and Chinese thinkers engaged in sharp debates. One should not expect stark polarities here, merely tendencies that have continued to mark both civilizations.
Mao Zedong, in leading the Communist revolution, expressed a kinship with the centralized political and social transformation of China undertaken by the often reviled First Emperor. In the Western world, many still see individual competition—political, economic, and intellectual, as embodied in democratic government, capitalism, and academic disputation—as producing the best outcome.