林炎平 | 现代文明的DNA——在斯坦福大学古典学系毕业典礼上的讲演（中英双语）
雅典的少女呵， 在我们分别以前， 把我的心，把我的心交还！ 或者，既然它已经和我脱离， 留着它吧，把其余的也拿去！ 请听一句我临别前的誓语： 你是我的生命，我爱你。
The DNA of Modern CivilizationThe Commencement Address at Department of ClassicsStanford University, June 16, 2019
It is great honour for me to give this commencement address here at this great university and wonderful department.
It is justified for you to question that why the hell this guy should address us in classics, because it seems that he neither looks like a Greek nor is his Ph.D. related to classics. Indeed, what does a guy with an Asian cultural background and in metallurgical engineering field have anything to do with classics or Greece?
This is a legitimate suspicion. Exactly for these reasons and doubts, today I am going to tell you that Greek and Roman civilization is important to each of us, regardless if he is Greek or Chinese, or his discipline is classics or engineering. The reason is very simple. Classical civilization is the DNA of our modern civilization. It matters to all and everyone of us, and it belongs to whole human society, from north to south and from west to east.
To prove this point, I bring you something exciting. Here is an example, Zhejiang University in China just sponsored the publication of a series of works by renowned world-class scholars, of which Josh is an important part. Here is his wonderful book translated into Chinese, “Democracy and Knowledge – Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens”. It was translated by a very good scholar in China. It took 6 years to complete the work. Sometimes we thought it would not be done because of the political situation there. But we have done it. Now we have another question which is similar to the previous doubts: Why do we need to introduce Greek studies and classical scholarship into China?
I will try to provide the answers by 2 interesting perspectives: Chinese culture and engineering.
I have been so fond of Greece and Greek civilization since my university years in the Far East that I suspected that I must be somehow related to them in my previous life. I remember a story about General Patton, a WWII American general, who was convinced that he was in North Africa 2000 years ago in the battle between Romans and Carthaginians, as a commander on the side of Roman army. I am not sure if a person can have a previous life, but when Ifirst visited Greece in 2004, I felt it was so familiar and amiable that I must have come here before. Of course, physically I had not. The feeling of such familiarity could be from my acquired knowledge and passion for Greek civilization. Certainly, if Patton’s conviction were real, I could be there 2500 years ago during Pericles’ time. I could be there in the audience during his renowned Funeral Oration. We may or may not have previous connections to Greek civilization, but we share the value of freedom. As long as we love Freedom, we are all Greeks.
I have to say that the love of classical civilization is beyond the limit of time and border. The famous Chinese American mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern told his close friends and loved one in his death bed that “I am going back to Greece, the birthplace of mathematics”. I was moved by his story. I happened to listen his lecture in China when I was doing my Master’s degree there. He loved both China and Greece. In the Chinese tradition, a person should be buried in his hometown after his death. But Prof. Chern chose to be with Greece forever. This story tells us something. Something is beyond your hometown, your culture, your race, your nation, your faith. For me, it is Greece.
Many such things convinced me to experience for myself the West, where Greek civilization was inherited, advanced and expanded. This was why I went to Canada. Two universities in Canada agreed to sponsor my Ph.D. program, so I went to Montreal with one-way ticket that cost my parents all their savings and with $60 in my pocket.
It has been a love affair for me with Greek civilization. Iliked Lord Byron’s poem immediately when I read it and I can recite it since:
Maid of Athens, ere we part, Give, oh give me back my heart! Or, since that has left my breast, Keep it now, and take the rest! Hear my vow before I go, Ζωή μου σας αγαποώ
Maybe you will ask why I love Greece so much. Let me tell you this in short: The person who has travelled through the darkness for the longest time will love the sunshine the most. During the disastrous Chinese Cultural Revolution and other manmade political turmoil, my father was sent to labor camp for his criticizing people in the government and I was sent to a small remote mountainous village, forced to live like a peasant. My life was even worse than that of a donkey and with my father’s background I had little hope to get out of that situation. A student at another village hanged himself. It was literally a labor camp. I could have died there. It was a very miserable period. If you did not live through it, you would have difficulties to believe it. I tried to talk this to my sons. I realized that I had little chance to convince them all these were true. I will wait a bit longer and try again.
Then Mao died in time, which was too late anyway, and things started to change. I first encountered Greek civilization when I entered a university in China. Young students were seeking the answers to why a great nation like China could do such irrational things to itself. It was a difficult soul-searching time. I realized that China had experienced such disasters through out its long history of autocratic government. And it was not only China, almost all nations, during almost all of human history, had had suffered basically the same things. There was one great exception and that is ancient Greece.
We can always argue that Greek civilization was not perfect because it had slaves and women had no votes. I agree that it was not perfect, but we should not discount Greece because of its systemic slavery and discrimination against women. All other cultures had problems similar to those of Greece, but Greece contributed what other cultures never did.
We have to evaluate the historical practices in their context. We cannot use our moral standards of today to measure them then. If we do not follow this principle, one day we all will be regarded as criminals; I predict that in less than 100 years, killing mammals will be a crime, let alone eating them.
While we should not paint Ancient Greece with rosy colors, it was the unique civilization that provided us with the concepts that we now call modern. Those concepts are the DNA of our modern civilization, and without them our modernity would be impossible.
When I was still at my Chinese university, I took a philosophy class that was mainly aimed at teaching us Marxism. Greek history was a tiny part of that class. But it was that tiny mention of Ancient Greece and its later Renaissance that caught my attention. I thought of all those Greek symbols and characters in mathematics. And it all gave me a question: what did Ancient Greeks do and what do they mean to us?
I came to the following conclusions after many years of searching, thinking and reflection, from a very different angle and perspective and compared with the Chinese culture that I know. I concluded Greek civilization is unique and I summed up that uniqueness in 4 axioms, 2 theorems, and 1 principle:
Here are the 4 axioms:
1）The spirit of criticism:No other culture fully appreciates and promotes criticism. In other cultures, if you criticized, you would be punished.
2）The spirit of competitiveness:Olympic games is the best example.
3）The spirit of rationality:Euclid’s geometry is a supreme example.
4）The spirit of humanism:Think about Pericles’ oration and the Hippocratic oath.
Here are 2 theorems that are deduced from the axioms:
1）Science:No other early culture had such a rich concept of science.
2）Democracy:No other nations dared to dream about this form of government, but Greeks put this into practice.
Then, there is 1 principle:
It all came down to the value of human. When other nations had only rulers and subjects, Greece invented this unique and modern concept, the citizen.
You know a lot more than I do about classics and Ancient Greece and Rome, but you may miss something if you do not observe from a different culture. Something that you take for granted may not be so on the other side. Here I would like to just give you some examples:
In China, they call a person who pays much attention to public affairs an “idot”. In Greece, they call a person who does not care public affairs “idot”.
In China, the stage in a theater is higher than audience who are on ground. In Greece, the stage is on the lowest position and the audience is sitting on the raising seats.
3) Freedom vs food:
In China, if you want to use freedom as a slogan to motivate people to fight, you will get few. Think of the contrast in ancient Greece during Greek-Persian Wars.
4) Dialogue vs. monologue
Dialogue is a central Greeks idea and practice. I find no such idea or practice in Chinese history. Confucius did not engage in dialogue; he never encouraged or promoted dialogue; perhaps he lacked the very idea of dialogue.
5) Useful vs. useless
In China if something that cannot be applied to generate some practical merits, then it is dismissed as a “Dragon killing skill“. Since dragons do not exist, it means “useless”. This was why China never had real mathematics. However, Greeks never mind uselessness. Apollonius was studying conic curves, when such study was practically useless then and it remained useless for another 1500 years. Then what? After Kepler and Newton, we started to know that a body in space must follow one of the conic curves, circle, ellipse, parabola or hyperbola.
Let me remind you of the names of just a few giants of Greek science and engineering:
He measured the distances between Earth and Sun, Earth and Moon, and concluding the center of universe was Sun not Earth.
He measured the circumference of Earth by observing the fact that on the summer day at noon a flagpole in Alexandria had a shadow but in Syene (modern Aswan) it did not.
He provided the most powerful tools of logic for science. Without his “Element”, nothing would be possible in science.
He contributed too many to mention and you know probably many of them.
There are too many more of them to mention. I remain astounded by the fact that Greece could produce so many great scholars who actually changed the world and gave us concepts fundamental to modernity. I only mentioned a few great scholars on natural science side.
I hesitate even to mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle or other great philosophers here because I still do not really understand them. You know much more about them than I do.
This is also why I have been thinking that building bridges between science and humanity, between engineering and arts, is so badly needed today. These disciplines were united in ancient Greece. It is the time to bring them together again.
I suggest that we can categorize historical human societies into 3 kinds:
1）Ruler centered society:
This I consider the worst form of society, godless and inhumane. The ruler is everything, an example is modern North Korea.
2）God centered society:
Whoever has the power to interpret the god, rules the society. This is better than the previous one, because at least the subjects still have the chance to question the rulers in the name of god.
3）Human centered society:
This is the unique approach that was first formed in Ancient Greece. The human is the center of the society and citizens give society its ultimate purpose, not god, even less a ruler. This was what Greece first brought to human society. It remains the goal of our Western society today.
I think by now I have answered the questions raised before.
For all these reasons, I do not think every form of society has the same value. Since I value Greek culture so highly, I have been criticized by my fellow Chinese. I know that I made them feel uneasy and sometimes even angry, but I do that because I care for them, because I believe that criticism is a form of caring. I always tell them this: We have only one earth and we should consider ourselves only human beings rather than dividing us by nations, colors, cultures or religions. We should be able to objectively evaluate different civilizations and cultures without feeling offended.
The tragedy is that in the 21st century many people have lost sight of Ancient Greek values. We may lose Greece, just as Europe did over thousand years ago. We lived without it, until the Renaissance saw the rebirth of Greek values, which took us into the enlightenment and then the industrial revolution. The rest is history.
But, we may lose those values again. I say this because I feel the spirit of criticism and the spirit of competition are in danger. Without science and democracy, what kind of world would it be? Without citizenship, what kind people would we be? Without dialogue, where would free expression be? But when I see before me students who have studied the classics, I regain hope.
So speaking first for myself and for your teachers: It has been our duty to carry the torch and to relay it to the next generation. And, speaking to you who are graduating today, that duty is now also yours: you must not let the light go out.
You all will start new lives, beginning your careers or continuing further study. You may be on the way to becoming professors, teachers, educators, scholars and entrepreneurs. With the spirit of classics, you should be able to do very well regardless what you choose to do. For eachone of you, with such preparation in the spirit of criticism, competitiveness, rationality and humanity, there is no reason for you not to do well.
Classics means tested, seasoned and true. You will bring our society much that it badly needs. My best wishes to your future endeavours!
Speaking finally, for all of us together: let us work together to build the bridges to a second Renaissance: Let us make the world a better place than it is now.