In that quiet offspring of science fiction we call alternate history, we are free to put a fresh spin on the question, "What if . . . ?"
After all, science fiction is about rational speculation. This is typically done in the "hard" sciences of engineering, astronomy, and invention, as the genre's grandfather Mr. Verne so often did. But certainly it is as interesting to wonder what "might have been" in history, as it is to think on what "may be invented," or what "might exist" on other worlds.
There are plenty of classic "what if" scenarios in history. These tend to be flashy: What if the Spartans had not held the pass at Thermopylae? What if the Aztecs had invaded the Old World? Alternate history maestro Harry Turtledove has recently wondered how history might have been different if there truly had been an eighth continent surviving into more modern times.
But one of history's most curious—and unsung—episodes is the rise of two extraordinary philosophical Golden Ages, in two vastly separated parts of the world, at exactly the same time. Over the course of two centuries, intellectual luminaries simultaneously emerged in Greece and China. Neither knew of each other, yet together they bequeathed a staggering menu of wisdom to humanity.
Why a culture becomes a wellspring for philosophy is an interesting question all by itself. China is an immense country, covering 9.6 million square kilometers (making it the world's third largest country behind Canada and Russia). Unlike the forced political and cultural unity characterizing it today, the China of 500 BCE was an ever shifting map of competing warlord states. Battle was incessant—indeed, this era is referred to by Chinese historians as the Warring States period. Warlords staked out their turf, and dozens of unique cultures sprouted within each boundary. Yet it was this hotbed of violence and diversity that gave rise to the Age of the Hundred Schools.
The number is probably apocryphal, but the point is that numerous disciplines of philosophical thought blossomed in China's many city states. Philosophers boldly trekked across kingdom lines to teach and preach. Confucius (born 551 BCE), Mencius, Yang Chu, Hsun Ching, and many, many others left their contrasting views for later generations—the seeds for great debates on government, virtue, and human nature.
Four thousand miles away, during those same years, a brilliant philosophical dawn was hatching in the geographically (and culturally) fragmented land of Greece. Mountains twist like a malformed spine along the length of the Greek peninsula and break the land into separate areas, while hundreds of fractured islands lie off the coast. Settling into this region were people who spoke dialects of a common language, who worshiped the same pantheon of gods and goddesses, but who each considered themselves a nation unto themselves. A modern parallel can be found if we look at the linguistic and religious heritage shared by most Californians, Texans, New Yorkers, and Floridians—and then imagine that their home-state pride is amplified to the point of them seceding from the Union and establishing city-state autonomy. Thus there was proud Athens, militaristic Sparta, mystical Delphi, and others of no less remarkable individuality. Brief moments of ethnic unity were attained chiefly through war with Persia, only for the coalitions to collapse back into competing kingdoms when the invaders had been defeated.
And like in China, this multicultural countryside produced sweeping philosophical minds—beginning with Thales (born c. 624 BCE), through Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, and many, many others. They too laid the groundwork for the future, speculating on the nature of the universe, of the soul, of virtue. They couldn't know that a continent away other philosophers were wrestling with those same subjects, and creating schools and followers.
What would have happened had the two met?
Before we look at the two concrete benefits to such a hypothetical contact, we may indulge our imaginations on how Platonists ("man's spirit and appetite should be subject to his reason") might have debated with the school of Hsun Ching ("man's nature is evil and must be submitted to teachers and laws"). These two viewpoints share much in common, not least the importance of reining in an emotional, chaotic, base nature . . . whether by the Greek logos (discourse), the Oriental teacher, or both. We can wonder how Aristotelian inquiry into humanity's ultimate goal ("happiness is of all things the one most desirable") would have impacted the opinions of Mencius ("If each man would love his parents and show respect to his elders, the whole land would enjoy tranquility"). Or we can speculate on how Confucian ideals of learning ("I was not born with knowledge but am quick to seek it") would have nourished and found friends among the followers of Socrates ("The unexamined life is not worth living").
This isn't to suggest that "great minds always think alike." There are far more points of contention than there are of agreement between the classical East and West: not least the largely Western concept of a two-tier universe (matter and spirit) and the Eastern one-tier cosmos (where perception dictates how you experience reality). For example, when referring to the physical complexities of the world, the Chinese are wont to talk about "the ten thousand things." But whereas Aristotle would set about dissecting, testing, and labeling these individual things, most Eastern philosophies would say he was wasting his time if his goal was to understand the universe. For them, "the ten thousand things" are superficial manifestations of an underlying reality—called the Tao by philosopher Lao Tsu. The worldviews of the Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians were inextricably tethered to a materialistic reality, to the point that even the afterlife was simply a continuation of this world for all four of those cultures. (The Egyptians took this so literally as to entomb their very economy to prepare for the next round of the life they knew!)
But high civilizations have a habit of rubbing off on each other. When Herodotus traveled to Egypt in the fourth century BCE, he was hardly the first Greek to do so; Solon (one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece) was visiting the land of Pharaohs two hundred years earlier. The Greeks plainly saw the value in this kind of cross-pollination, and the two worlds maintained a long-distance love affair. Even the Romans, notorious for their sense of superiority to all other peoples, were quickly enriched by their own dealings with both Greece (from which they practically imported the Greek religion wholesale) and Egypt (which inspired a very popular Cult of Isis in Roman provinces). It was not uncommon for Roman citizens to have their tomb epitaphs dedicated to both Jupiter and Osiris. But the real question here—the science fiction question—is this: was there ever a chance of Greece and China meeting in antiquity?
The unparalleled career of Alexander the Great provides the tantalizing promise.
Interestingly, Alexander the Great is the subject of the first alternate history ever written. The Roman author Livy (born 59 BCE) devoted a few sections of Book 9 of his History of Rome to the question of what would have happened if Alexander had lived longer and attacked Rome (something he had shown no interest at all in doing). Livy, perhaps not surprisingly, felt that Rome would have been able to beat the unstoppable Macedonian.
Born in 356 BCE, Alexander is one of military history's superstars and all-time geniuses. As a result of his conquests, the culture of Greece had already cross-pollinated with several others . . . and often with breathtakingly harmonious results. The chief example of this hybridization was Greco-Egyptian. The combination of Hellenic and Egyptian civilizations, as seen in Alexandria, paired two different styles of architecture, culture, and philosophy that became so dynamic as to nourish the greatest learning institution of the ancient world: the Great Library of Alexandria. Egyptian mysticism and science joined with Greek logic and invention in the greatest melting pot of ethnicities and philosophies of the classical world.
From Egypt, Alexander went on to conquer the Persian Empire by 330 BCE and then on to India's Punjab region, which he tamed by 326. This brought Greek philosophy into contact with the teachings of Persia's Zoroaster and India's Brahmin priests. But Alexander was bent on further eastward expansion; nothing less than total world domination appealed to his tastes. His weary troops had other plans, and their mutiny in the jungles of India forced him to return to Babylon.
It's here that we come to the moment when, had events gone differently, Greece and China would likely have met. Alexander had established Babylon as the seat of his new empire, and from there began the construction of a hybrid Persian-Greek army of staggering proportions. His early death at age thirty-three left historians (like Livy) to ponder what he intended to do with this force, but for Alexander there was little debate. He wanted the East.
It is interesting to speculate on whether he could have tamed China as easily as his other conquests. The Chinese possessed a considerable technological advancement developed during their many civil wars: the crossbow. Their crossbows, as one expert has said, "fired heavy arrows which would have made colanders of Greek or Macedonian shields." On the other hand, it is unlikely that those warlord states had ever met an army as organized or adaptable as the Macedonian phalanx, and under the direction of one of history's greatest military geniuses to boot. Whatever the result, Greece and China would have become aware of each other.
Many years later, the Roman Empire gave world conquest a shot. "Whither went the roads went the legions," the adage goes, but there were no direct avenues from Caesar's world to the courts of China. The great Silk Road did establish loose contact between these civilizations, but the trade caravans traveled a circuitous path with goods changing hands many times over before arriving at their eventual destinations.
It wasn't until 1221 CE, when the pillaging hordes of Genghis Khan arrived at the borders of Europe—and later, when Marco Polo made his visits to Kublai's palace—that true contact was established . . . and by then the core philosophies of West and East had largely crystallized.
Pushing aside our speculations on how the Chinese sage and Greek thinker might have debated with one another, it should be noted that two concrete benefits to philosophy would likely have resulted from this hypothetical contact.
For the West, rubbing elbows with China might well have prevented the Dark Ages altogether.
The great works of Greek philosophy (not to mention science and literature) were not readily available to Europe's population. The main reason was a technological one: every copy of a book had to be handwritten. Precious few libraries existed, with the most important one being the aforementioned Alexandrian Library. In the fifth century CE, the rise of fanatical Christendom saw the burning of "pagan" or "heretical" knowledge, including the wholesale destruction of the Great Library's pagan wings and the murder of its last curator, Hypatia, in 414 CE. Untold philosophical tomes were lost . . . simply because most of the great books were in one place.
China, however, possessed woodblock printing. Exact dates are not known, but paper, ink, and bookstores were operating in China at least as early as the third century BCE. Just as Herodotus once toured Egypt for new ideas, Greek scholars would have witnessed the Chinese capacity for literary mass production. The application of this to the West could have prevented the philosophical and scientific holocaust fueled by theocratic intolerance. As there were a Hundred Schools in China, the West could have enjoyed a Hundred Great Libraries from Macedonia to India. Quite simply, knowledge wouldn't have been contained in one easy target for extremists.
What could the West have given China in return? Perhaps most obviously, the mere arrival of emissaries from Greece would have changed China's history—and outlook—forever.
For most of their history the Chinese knew of no other civilizations; their main experience with outsiders was with the barbarous tribes beyond their Great Wall, and their limited contact with tribal Japan around 400 CE. These two cases only convinced China that civilization was not a feature to be found elsewhere; in terms of both society and technology, neither the Mongols nor Japanese of the time could compare with the grandeur of China's sprawling cities, roads, or arts. In fact, the Mandarin name for China was (and is) Zhongguo—translated as "Middle Kingdom"—because the Chinese believed they sat at the center of all maps, with only savagery surrounding them. This prompted even Confucius to quip, "Barbarian tribes with their leaders are inferior to Chinese states without them."
But contact with a high Hellenic civilization might have thwarted this mind-set—a mind-set that would later lead to outright xenophobia and a closing of national borders. Instead of knowing only the raiders and horsemen of Mongolia, the Chinese would have been confronted with a literate society marked by government, productivity, and a bureaucracy to easily rival their own. Direct trade would have encouraged communication and an interchange of ideas (and even exchange students), while the threat of barbarian invasion from the north—both in Europe (from the Visigoths) and Asia (the Mongols) could conceivably have produced a mutual defense treaty. Not to mention the ruthless armies of Genghis eventually challenged both East and West.
Another fascinating point of speculation is what China would have done with the monotheistic/dualistic creeds of Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Fundamentally, both faiths declared a two-tier universe of violent polarities. With its God of Light and God of Darkness, and a history stretching far back into antiquity, Zoroastrianism can be viewed as the progenitor of the Western tradition of Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil. As already mentioned, the Eastern view has been a one-tier, nondualistic cosmos—even the yin-yang symbol of Taoism isn't about good and bad so much as complementary opposites. We can envision fierce theological debates had the two cultures come in contact with each other . . . and perhaps more. After all, it was contact with India that saw Buddhism race through the Orient and find a celebrated home in Japan. Would Judaism or Zoroastrianism have done the same? Or conversely, would Taoism, Confucianism, or even Shintoism have taken hold in the West?
The only ancient example we can look to isn't as ancient as we'd like: the Mongolian invasions of the thirteenth century that swept into Eastern Europe and across the Islamic Middle East. Interestingly, the invaders did permit religious freedom and often converted to native faiths—as happened with the Mongols who settled in India and gave rise to the Mughal Dynasty.
Just as they shared a similar philosophical birth, so did Greece and China experience a similarly haunting conclusion to these critical Golden Ages.
We have already mentioned the torching of the Great Library and the suppression of freethinking in favor of theocracy. Yet China, too, experienced a dreadful burning of books and murder of scholars . . . courtesy of the despotism of their first unifying emperor.
Just as the collection of Greek states was stitched into one nation by Alexander's victories, so too were China's many kingdoms forcibly woven into an empire by the military successes of the Ch'in state (from which modern "China" gets its name in most foreign languages). And the rise of a single emperor in 221 BCE—Ch'in Shi Huangdi—saw the imposition of a brutal, totalitarian regime. All philosophy books except those of the Legalists were burned at Huangdi's decree. Scholars of competing schools were executed. The Age of the Hundred Schools vanished, much as their unknown neighbors in the West, in fire.
Today, we enjoy intellectual and cultural intercourse between West and East, as the books that survived despots and theocracts are available in any library or bookstore. It is tantalizing to wonder what might have been, however. What mutual Libraries may have resulted from Greece and China meeting at their philosophical heights; what students and new ideas might have inspired generations to come? What might have happened had two Golden Ages of philosophy interacted to produce a Platinum one?
 Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/477017/printing.