The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Carl Lotus Becker relates a story about Diderot: provoked by a fireside conversation about what would happen to humanity were it to become known that a comet would eventually wipe us all out, he carried on a passionate, years-long correspondence about posterity. Without posterity, Diderot thought, there could be no telos, no justification for any kind of intellectual labor; men would "rush into evil courses."
Mencius said to Wan Chang, 'The scholar whose virtue is most distinguished in a village shall make friends of all the virtuous scholars in the village. The scholar whose virtue is most distinguished throughout a State shall make friends of all the virtuous scholars of that State. The scholar whose virtue is most distinguished throughout the kingdom shall make friends of all the virtuous scholars of the kingdom.
'When a scholar feels that his friendship with all the virtuous scholars of the kingdom is not sufficient to satisfy him, he proceeds to ascend to consider the men of antiquity. He repeats their poems, and reads their books, and as he does not know what they were as men, to ascertain this, he considers their history. This is to ascend and make friends of the men of antiquity.'
The city of God and the future city of posterity still retain their importance; it is difficult to find a scientist or a writer who does not think his work will be validated by the future. But if posterity is as worthless and ungrateful as we are, it would perhaps be wise to find something else to endow with the power to make the thinking life worthwhile. Something, hopefully, far away from utilitarian ideals or self-congratulatory fantasies of speaking truth to power.
Borges thought that underneath the surface of written culture, in that shadowy unreal world accessible only by dreamers and a very stoned Coleridge, there lurked the only author; "that man was Carlyle, he was Johannes Becher, he was Whitman, he was Rafael Cansinos-Assens, he was De Quincey." We might say instead that this place is occupied by the "men of antiquity." It is a kind of Confucian spirit world, where the vengeful or solicitous ancestors keep eternal watch over their still-respectful children. And even as imagining this world is an antidote to the senseless worship of the future, so it also inoculates against an excessive reverence for the past. Becoming friends with the men of antiquity implies the possibility, and necessity, of becoming equal to them. As a source of justification, it is impervious to atheism or comets, and its ethical appeal is inexhaustible.
Mencius' most skillful stroke in this passage is drawing a link between this ethics and the scholar's membership in a trans-national intellectual fraternity. Your virtue as a scholar in itself obligates you to construct a community; the greater your virtue, the greater your responsibility to scholarship. Thus the final ascent--the extension of the community even to the unknown great men of the past--is a natural consequence of your responsibility to your fellow scholars. The ethics of the scholar accomplish something the heavenly city of posterity does not: they recognize the uniqueness of intellectual labor and ultimately draw their telos from that very uniqueness. They do not require a naive faith in the historical process, nor even in the survival of the human race.
It is of course easy to scoff at the suggestion that scholars have something more in common than lack of athletic ability. But the beauty of reading Mencius in Paris in 2008 is that the text itself proves its point. Thousands of miles and years separate us from him, yet we find few barriers to taking him seriously, to understanding his moral and intellectual commitments. Are we not in some sense members of the same community?