The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece

by Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin

A comparison of 600 years of ancient Greek thought with Chinese ideas

A. Differences

1. First “compared with their Chinese counterparts, Greek intellectuals were far more often isolated from the seats of political power”.

2. Second, in Greece there was a “lack of bureaucratisation: there was no institution analogous to the Chinese astronomical bureau”.

3. Third, a Greek was not required to produce any “formal qualifications” in order to teach or to practise as a philosopher or scientist or doctor.

In summary, in China, “state support and the control that resulted from it strongly influenced intellectual endeavours”.

These three institutional differences underlie and account for a general difference in temperament, or at any rate in behaviour, between Chinese and Greeks: the Chinese were collaborative, the Greeks competitive; in China agreement was sought out or else assumed to exist, in Greece rivalry flourished and was promoted; the Chinese contemplated, the Greeks reasoned.



Isolated from the seats of political power

Sponsor by the Emperor

Lack of bureaucratisation

Burocratic intellectual institutions, like the astronomical bureau

Greeks were not required to produce any “formal qualifications” in order to teach.

Formal education and credentials



Rivalry flourished in Greece

In China agreement was sought out or else assumed to exist

Greek reasoned

Chinese contemplated

“strident adversariality” and “rationalistic aggressiveness”. The turbulent Greeks had to make their way in the “competitive hurly-burly of the Hellenic world

in gentle China an intellectual’s concern “was first and foremost persuading a ruler or his surrogates to want their advice”. When Chinese meets Chinese, then comes no tug-of-war

in Greece, dialectic and viva voce debate were the breath of philosophy. There was public argument and public polemic

There is no record of public philosophical arguments in ancient China… The philosophic focus remained on writing.

The greek cosmologist must sell his wares in the intellectual marketplace. This favored systematically exploring the arguments on both sides of fundamental questions.

In China there was no raucous marketplace. The Chinese were generally writing for the emperor. Hence they “did not feel a need for incontrovertibility, the driving force in… Greek investigations”.

a Greek was driven to secure his own claims from refutation: he must prove them to be true

What corresponds in China to the Greek authority of demonstration was the authority of sagely [sabio] origin, so that “scientific pursuits in China… did not aim at stepwise approximations to an objective reality but at recovery of what the archaic sages already knew”

Writing for the polemic, encouraged precision in the foundations of knowledge

Writing for the emperor’s eyes encouraged precision in moral, social and political categories, not in the foundation of knowledge.

B. Counterfacts:

  1. the Greeks argued aloud, whereas in China “the philosophic focus remained on writing” Yet in China “books came into existence, by fits and starts, much later than in the Greek world”; and in 6BC the imperial Chinese library contained a mere six hundred titles – the library of Alexandria, that hotbed of strident orality, had more than a hundred times as many.
  2. the contrast between Greek spiv and Chinese gentleman is overdrawn. As for China, it was no land of smiles and lotus milk. Chinese philosophers would “compete for appointments as Erudites”; they spent their energies in “jockeying for position”; and “the competition between different experts for the ear of a noble encouraged them to elaborate a given category rather than accept the conventional alternatives or a rival’s definition”

C. Conclusion

“some would… argue that relating these concepts to the social, political and institutional factors that we have invoked is misguided because it ignores or discounts the personal contributions of such geniuses as Plato or Aristotle”, they reply that that was not what they meant at all: social factors do not fix and determine the developments of science and philosophy; rather, they are one part of “the interacting manifold”