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Haas on Ancestor Worship: Romans and Chinese
My interpretation: When Westerns stopped worshipping their ancestors, they became degenerate and lost their posterity.
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In the following, I quote an excerpt from William S. Haas, Destiny of the Mind: East and West, MacMillan, New York, 1956.  (I will someday try to find a better link than

I found this remarkable book via R. P. Oliver, America’s Decline: The Education of a Conservative, pp. 271–274 of the Historical Review Press edition, in a review titled, “Never the Twain Shall Meet”.  This is in Part III of “History for Conservatives” at pp. 227–313, originally printed in various issues of American Opinion in 1963–64.  I highly recommend this whole series of essays—and indeed, the whole book.  Part II at pp. 254–267 is about Toynbee, a subject to which I will return.

As Professor Oliver observes in America’s Decline, p. 272:

Professor Haas attacks—and I believe, demolishes—an assumption that underlies almost all modern theories of history: that the minds of all human beings, if not defective or disordered, work in essentially the same way.

In the subsequent summary, Professor Oliver notes that there is between Eastern and Western minds “a barrier that [one] can never cross”; and he remarks on evidence that the difference “may not be racial”.  For the greater implications of this theory, he concludes that Professor Haas has “done for the study of comparative history what Böhr did for atomic physics.”

Yet in demonstrating the difference of minds, Professor Haas has highlighted some remarkable parallels across cultures.  Turning to Haas, op. cit., pp. 72ff.:

[*72 cont’d] Still more revealing with regard to the spirit of the Roman family are its religious and political aspects.  The Romans too worshipped ancestral spirits—the lares.  In conjunction with the penates—the spirits of the household—the lares protected the life and continuity of the family, thus holding a place dear to the Roman heart.  These spirits, however, were never given ascendancy over the deities of the national cult.  The Roman family never had nor claimed the kind of omnipotence which fell to the Chinese family.  In sharp contrast to the latter, the Roman family, from its first appearance in history, aimed at something more general and greater than itself, something whose superiority it never questioned.  Hence it was that the virtues cultivated within the Roman family were easily transformed into civic and political virtues, while those of the Chinese family remained distinctly social.

The historical and sociological cause of the difference in behaviour between the Chinese and the Roman families lies in this contrast.  While the Roman family took its place as the essential constituent of city life, the Chinese remained what it was from its origin, the dominant product of an agricultural society.

Wherever it appears, the patriarchal family is a natural phenomenon.  But in the West, as is clearly illustrated in the Roman paragon, it pointed at something beyond itself, namely, the state.  In the East on the other hand it maintained its natural form and developed into a creative centre of human values.  The state rose and unfolded beside it, even against it.  Indeed, the Chinese family always constituted more an obstacle to political life and thought than a source of political strength and good will.

Here, then, we face a highly important example of the opposed ways in which the two structures work and express themselves.  The East tends to move within a given frame, creating, shaping, and improving existing conditions.  It remains refractory to any revolutionary act which would end in the overthrow of that established frame.  In contrast, the Western institution points beyond itself to something new or to what is considered new.

[*73] Neither the Chinese nor the Roman state grew out of the patriarchal family.  The Chinese state was a phenomenon in its own right with its own implementation.  A psychological and ideological rivalry resulted between it and the family.  It is perfectly compatible with these conditions that the state in China should have been regarded as a kind of national family, a view which did not contribute to the state’s strength.  On the other hand, the Roman family went a long way toward meeting the prerequisites of the state.  The rising state had only to take and shape what was offered it by the family to strengthen its own political virtues.  This of course did not make of the Roman family a state, any more than the reverse conditions made of the Chinese state a family.  Yet the fundamental difference remains that the Roman family was oriented to something beyond itself of a higher order.

Hence we arrive at this seemingly paradoxical fact.  The Roman state attained the power of its inner organization and outward force because of its deep psychological relation with the family.  This relation, however, in no way obliterated the boundary line between the two institutions.  In China, the state and the family faced each other as strangers.  But this separation, far from shaping the idea of state in the Chinese mind and strengthening its factual position, tended to make it difficult for the state to assert its full authority.  In Rome, despite the difference between family and state, a certain organic link between the two was achieved.  These two widely different relations between state and family apply not only to China and Rome, but with few exceptions and in varying degrees to the East and to the West in general.

In all higher civilizations the upper levels in the social hierarchy were monopolized by the clergy and the military nobility, both groups competing for the leading position in state and society.  Chinese civilization was the only one to reverse this order.  To the social stratification it applied a unique standard.  Here too China remained faithful to the natural order.  Nowhere else did the farmer enjoy on the social ladder the place of distinction awarded to him in China.  True, he had to compete in the general evaluation with the scholar but the fact that precedence was given to the latter, far from impairing the esteem in which the farmer was held, threw it on the contrary, into clearer relief.  These two groups, [*74] seemingly so distant or even opposed to each other, were linked by the idea that they alone, each in its respective field, constituted the productive classes.

True, the artisan stood on equal terms with them, but socially he constituted a considerably smaller influence.  The farmer owed his high social rank, elsewhere granted only to the great landowner, not solely to his economic importance.  Also there was the fact that the patriarchal agricultural family represented the traditional virtues.  On the other side, the scholars and the higher officials of the Chinese bureaucracy were chosen by the well-known rigid examination system, and were equally rooted to tradition.  Their function as administrative leaders on the one hand, and as guardians of the intellectual tradition and creators of ideas on the other, secured them the supreme rank in the social hierarchy and they were followed immediately by the peasantry, the other productive group.

Characteristically enough, the merchant class, since it did not increase the amount of goods, was considered unproductive and therefore did not rank high in the social view.  This disregard of the merchant class was bound to have great consequence in the history of China.  Whereas in the West the merchant class and the liberal professions formed the rising bourgeoisie which initiated and carried the cultural, social and political movement of modern times, no such powerful middle class ever developed in China, and the scholarly intelligentsia kept aloof in its own privileged position.

The military profession, still more than the merchant, suffered from a lack of social appreciation.  But this was of little practical moment since it did not prevent military activities.  Like any other nation, China had her wars, not all of which by any means were of a defensive character.  Wars of conquest and civil wars in particular fill the history of China.  It may be precisely on this account that China came to disregard the military.  At any rate, the Chinese seem to be the only people who have dared devaluate a profession which enjoyed a prominent and at times an undisputed social position everywhere else and certainly in Western history.  Undoubtedly, the very spirit of Chinese civilization revolted against the destructive aspect of the military profession.

Indeed, whether the term social hierarchy in the Western sense is [*75] applicable to China at all is a question.  Since by its very nature Confucianism lacked religious functionaries, and since neither the Taoist nor the Buddhist priesthood developed into a socially important group, the clerical caste was entirely deficient in that respect.  Nor is it correct to speak of a military nobility in China.  In any case, there was no such thing after the early disappearance of the feudal state.  And feudalism in China, as in Asia in general, never compared with the highly elaborate form of that social system in Europe.  If a military nobility ever existed at all, it did not enjoy that confidence of the people which had accrued to it in Europe.

Thus in the absence of a clerical estate and military nobility as top ranking classes, the social order in China took on a unique and a more elemental character.  Regardless of the fact that the principle adopted proved an obstacle to evolution, the unconditioned estimation of the farmer introduced a standard of productivity matched only by the scholarly class.  The whole system subsisted at the price of the social devaluation of the merchant class with its accumulation of monetary capital.  And this devaluation probably began to change slightly when the trade with Western countries yielded unforeseen wealth to those Chinese merchants who had been granted a monopoly on dealings with foreigners.

Professor Haas thereupon continues by comparing and contrasting India with Europe.

As Professor Oliver noted, many of the cultural characteristics Professor Haas enumerates are rooted in the Aryan conquest of India, making for a comparison of Aryan cultures; thus, the differences of minds may indeed be partly or wholly caused by factors other than race.  And the essential similarities between Indo-European languages also exclude the possibility that the differences could be caused by the impact of language on thought, as may be hypothesized of the deep and drastic differences between, say, Indo-European languages and Chinese.

This is still early in the book; I will not hereby reach a full review.

This comparison based on Roman worship of ancestral spirits reminds me of how degenerate Westerners have become.  Once upon a time, they knew the secret of reproducing themselves—they had the Will to Immortality.

Never forget that the English word degenerate descends from Latin degener, from de- + genus!

They who fail to revere their ancestors will have descendants who degenerate and dwindle to extinction.  Worship of ancestors and struggle for posterity are temporal mirror-images—integral, inseparable parts of the same principle.  Lose the one, and the other is lost forever. ®

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  1. anon[701] • Disclaimer says:

    The Roman Parentalia holiday was similar to Chinese ancestor worship holidays:

    In ancient Rome, the Parentalia (Latin pronunciation: [parɛnˈtaːlɪ.a]) or dies parentales ([ˈdɪ.eːs parɛnˈtaːleːs], “ancestral days”) was a nine-day festival held in honor of family ancestors, beginning on 13 February.[1]

    Although the Parentalia was a holiday on the Roman religious calendar, its observances were mainly domestic and familial.[2] The importance of the family to the Roman state, however, was expressed by public ceremonies on the opening day, the Ides of February, when a Vestal conducted a rite for the collective di parentes of Rome at the tomb of Tarpeia.[3]
    Ovid describes sacred offerings (sacrificia) of flower-garlands, wheat, salt, wine-soaked bread and violets to the “shades of the dead” (Manes or Di manes) at family tombs, which were located outside Rome’s sacred boundary (pomerium). These observances were meant to strengthen the mutual obligations and protective ties between the living and the dead, and were a lawful duty of the paterfamilias (head of the family).

    • Replies: @Raches
  2. Raches says: • Website

    Before I posted this, I spent over an hour searching for some either ancient, or post-Renaissance high-culture artwork illustrating or representing Parentalia celebrations.  I wanted a suitable header graphic; and although this passage from Haas didn’t mention that holiday, it seemed best to capture the concept for me.  I thought that I could juxtapose it with some image appropriately representing Chinese traditions.

    Surprisingly, I did not find anything.  Any leads? ®

    • Replies: @S
  3. S says:

    I thought that I could juxtapose it with some image appropriately representing Chinese traditions.

    Surprisingly, I did not find anything. Any leads? ®

    Here are a couple of Roman gold glass husband and wife portraits from the 3rd and 4th centuries. The top one has a common Roman drinking toast from that time: ‘Drink, may you live.’

    If you want something more formal, there is the bottom pic of the Roman imperial family as depicted on the Ari Pacis, commissioned to be built by the Roman Senate on July 4, 13 BC.

  4. agraves says:

    I would recommend reading “The Ancient City” by Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. It is a comprehensive study of the religion of Ancient Greece and Rome. The detail is astounding and reveals the depth of ancestor worship in pagan Rome. Almost every aspect of life needed some consultation with the spirits of the dead. It is the go to book for such subject matter. It was published in 1874 and is therefore free of modern prejudices about pagans and especially Rome. My personal feeling is the reason so many moderns feel uneasy about Rome is that they cannot understand a society that was not Christian or Jewish. Everythng about Rome is incomprehensible to moderns.

    • Thanks: von Frey, Raches, ..D..
    • Replies: @Raches
    , @S
  5. When we speak of transhumanism it’s usual to place it in the future, something we anticipate, but which has not yet happened. But humans have already started on this project some time ago, bit by bit making themselves obsolete. Fathers were taken out of the home beginning with the Industrial Revolution, and more recently mothers were also liberated from the burdens of family life through the technological “miracles” of scientific birth control and safe, reliable abortion. Instead of a family, children are now raised by the state in its propaganda facilities. The state has become their family, not the humans who chanced to be their sperm and egg donors. It’s now the state that shapes their morals and personalities, not their parents. Thus, clearly it’s technological society that has fragmented the family, rendering it still another facet of human life made obsolete by “Progress”. Instead of reverence for ancestors and continuation of a family tree, transhuman immortality is now what’s hoped for. Futurists dream of migration into a robot body, or an upload of their consciousness into a computer. Restoration of the old values of Rome or ancient China would necessitate restoring their technological context. Without that, it’s hopeless.

  6. Raches says: • Website

    Thanks for the recommendation.

    With apologies for the linksBoston University’s copy has significant imperfections (some of which are noted in the metadata).  On a brief spot check, Cornell University’s copy (scanned in black-and-white) looks good.  Those are 1877 translations to English by Willard Small.  For those who read French, see the original 1864 edition of La Cité antique from the National Central Library of Rome.

    Note to self:  Work on new library organization and curation technology.  A single link should suffice.

    My personal feeling is the reason so many moderns feel uneasy about Rome is that they cannot understand a society that was not Christian or Jewish.  Everything about Rome is incomprehensible to moderns.

    Well said.  Everything about Raches is incomprehensible to moderns. ®

  7. Thrallman says:

    What is impressive about a Native American graveyard is the gifts left for the dead. They leave pinwheels, dice, stuffed animals, and every other kind of knickknack you can imagine.

    The sterile emptiness of the modern Caucasian cemetery, with the tombstones laid flush to the earth so that the groundskeeper not not trouble himself to mow around them, is reason enough not to visit.

  8. S says:

    Everythng about Rome is incomprehensible to moderns.

    Am reminded of the 2005 HBO series Rome DVD commentary, that while there were things about Rome which were readily recognizable today, such as the early 4th century Roman women below engaged in competitive sports, that other things about it were indeed quite alien.

    Rome was a sophisticated society that left a powerful impression on the Euro mind.

  9. Wyatt says:

    And the essential similarities between Indo-European languages also exclude the possibility that the differences could be caused by the impact of language on thought, as may be hypothesized of the deep and drastic differences between, say, Indo-European languages and Chinese.

    The autist in me saw this and screamed “citation needed!” while flapping his arms around. Being part of the same language family does not preclude exclusionary differences. No justification is given why PIE from five thousand years ago is going to cause coincidence between Hindi and English sufficient to not cause differences in thinking due to language. The implication here is that because the root is the same, they are “similar” in a way resembling the calling of humans and chimps as “similar” sounds.

    Likewise, when we look at scientific and engineering developments amongst Europeans, most of them came from Germanic language speakers. Seafaring England and landlocked Germany contributed massively to modern studies that outpaced France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Is it reasonable to assume that the small differences between Germanic languages and Romance languages contributed enough to thinking that allowed disparate nations with small language commonalities to dominate in high level fields?

    • Agree: Twin Ruler
    • Replies: @agraves
  10. agraves says:

    Maybe the difference lies in how Germany and England were Protestant countries generally, and Italy, Portugal, Spain were/are Catholic. This seems to be true regarding economics, with Protestant countries faring better than Catholic ones, throw Ireland in there as well. Protestants emphasize individual effort, as in actually reading your Bible whereas Catholics, many, don’t even read let alone study their Bible, relying on priest or Pope to interpret things for them. Perhaps relying on an authority for information is a limiting factor.

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