Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good

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9780674015579: Nobility and Civility: Asian Ideals of Leadership and the Common Good

Globalization has become an inescapable fact of contemporary life. Some leaders, in both the East and the West, believe that human rights are culture-bound and that liberal democracy is essentially Western, inapplicable to the non-Western world. How can civilized life be preserved and issues of human rights and civil society be addressed if the material forces dominating world affairs are allowed to run blindly, uncontrolled by any cross-cultural consensus on how human values can be given effective expression and direction?

In a thoughtful meditation ranging widely over several civilizations and historical eras, Wm. Theodore de Bary argues that the concepts of leadership and public morality in the major Asian traditions offer a valuable perspective on humanizing the globalization process. Turning to the classic ideals of the Buddhist, Hindu, Confucian, and Japanese traditions, he investigates the nature of true leadership and its relation to learning, virtue, and education in human governance; the role in society of the public intellectual; and the responsibilities of those in power in creating and maintaining civil society.

De Bary recognizes that throughout history ideals have always come up against messy human complications. Still, he finds in the exploration and affirmation of common values a worthy attempt to grapple with persistent human dilemmas across the globe.

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About the Author:

Wm. Theodore de Bary is John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University, Emeritus and Provost, Emeritus of Columbia University.


By addressing the fundamental question of whether Asian values can enrich liberal concepts such as liberty, rationality, human rights, and the due process of law, de Bary makes a significant contribution to the current dialogue among civilizations. (Tu Weiming, Harvard University)

Since the clash of cultures has replaced the wars of nationalism, whoever wants to be intelligent about American foreign policy needs to know more than the press supplies. In Nobility and Civility Wm. Theodore de Bary, the ranking authority on East Asian civilizations, gives the reader a vivid account of the mingled traditions that guided rulers and moved masses over the ages and that still govern feeling and action in China, India, and Japan. (Jacques Barzun, author of From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present)

De Bary shows how notions of nobility and civility arose in South Asia and East Asia and formed the background for their encounter with Western European thought and various forms of modernization and globalization today. These are topics of immense importance not only to scholars but also to any educated person in the modern world. (John Berthrong, author of Confucianism and Ecology)

De Bary, arguably the West's leading scholar of classical Asian thought, has written an elegant and thoughtful essay on the essence of true leadership and political virtue as expounded in the classics of Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Japanese thought. Instead of treating the classical writings of Asia as mere relics of 'traditional' thought that will be replaced by more 'modern' thinking, he demonstrates that the great books of Asia contain within them valuable concepts and insights for preserving civilized life in an age of materialistic globalization...Just to follow de Bary's journeys through Asian classical texts is an intellectually broadening experience for anyone, including specialists on contemporary Asia. (Foreign Affairs 2005-01-01)

De one of the few scholars trying to probe beneath the easy generalizations about East Asian values. [He] has devoted his career to probing the moral underpinnings of Asia's successes and failures--and his latest book explores how those ethics are poised to transform the West. (Douglas Todd Vancouver Sun 2005-01-22)

In a time when nobility is scarce, civility in short supply, and intercultural understanding badly needed, this book belongs in every library. De Bary draws on a lifetime of study and reflection to summarize and distill how three very different Asian traditions (Chinese, Indian, Japanese) addressed issues of governance and civil life in a process shaped by intellectual and political contestation and compromise. Written in a clear language free of jargon and supported by quotations from major texts, de Bary presents a coherent overview that should generate discussion (and contestation). (C. Schirokauer Choice 2005-06-01)

William Theodore de Bary has long been an influential voice among Asianists and a leading proponent of cross-cultural dialogue. The author’s insightful discussion about inter-Confucian discourse concerning nobility and civility is carried over into the four-chapter study of how the Japanese have tended to think about and develop interpretations of noble personhood and the common good. (Tom Pynn Journal of Ethics in Leadership)

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