Introduction

In the ancient times of Asia the ethic thought has been dominated by what the West calls “Confucianism”. Still today this set of values is deep rooted in many Asian societies. People who were not socialized within such a community might find it difficult to understand it.

Confucius (孔子) lived between 551 and 479 BC and less than a century later in another part of the world a different philosopher came to similar conclusions. Plato (Πλάτων) was a philosopher in ancient Greece and lived between 424 and 348 BC. As Confucius is important for the Asian world of thought, Plato can be compared as of similar significance for Western philosophy (It should be mentioned here that not only Plato, but also Socrates and Aristotle together are the triad of ancient Greek philosophy). It is very unlikely that Plato ever read or even heard about Confucius, because the world was not as connected as it is today. So we can assume that both Philosophers had genuine ideas.

So what is it that these two have in common? Both philosophers dealt with the question of a stable society. Both came to the conclusion that virtue is the key for a well-functioning state. I want to outline the similarities and differences of both sets of virtues are being considered as the basis of a stable society.

Plato

Ancient Greece was organized in so-called Poleis (singular: Polis – πόλις), which is often translated as “city state”. The many different autonomist city states had diverse political systems established. Living in this kind of environment Plato, wrote his famous piece “The Republic” (Politeia – Πολιτεία). In this text he follows the question for justice, which leads him to the order of a just state and finally concludes to the just man. For finding a definition of justice he uses the anthropological-political structure thesis, which means, that he compares the structure of a Polis with the structure of a man. For making this less abstract let me outline his idea briefly:

First of all we found an imaginary Polis. The young city is a partnership of convenience which enables individual survival. As the Polis grows more and more, the division of labour increases within it. So the second step is what he calls an unhealthy city that just grew without any order. The citizens have not taken care of a good constitution. This leads to the third step: the citizens resolve the chaos and bring order to their city by setting up a constitution, establishing a government and recruiting a defensive force. The result is a purged city with healthy conditions.

This healthy Polis features three social classes: the rulers and sages; the military; and the peasants and commoners. The rulers and sages are responsible for governing the Polis wisely and for jurisdiction. The military takes care of the inner and outer safety and security. And the latter ones are responsible for producing goods, which ensure the physical survival of the city.

Each class requires a special virtue. The ruling class requires wisdom (sophía – σοφία), the military requires courage (andreia – ανδρεία) and the commoners require moderation (sophrosýne – σωφροσύνη). But where is the justice? Justice is the most basic virtue that every single member in the society needs in order to keep harmony. And Plato comes to the conclusion that justice means that everyone should respect his position within the society. So when the leaders rule with wisdom, the military defends with courage and the commoners have moderation, then we have a just city. In different words: for Plato justice means as much as loyalty towards the system – everyone does his job.

He applies these virtues to the human soul, which is divided in a rational part, a spirited part and an appetitive part. The rational part matches the sages and rulers, the spirited part matches the military and the appetitive part matches the commoners. A man with justice keeps the balance between those three parts.

This conclusion of justice might seem strange to modern Western thought (compare: Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.), but we can also find the idea of respect towards the hierarchy in Confucian thought.

Confucius

In Confucian thought there are two core values: Rén (仁) and (禮 or sometimes: 礼). It is quite difficult to find an accurate translation for these two terms, so I would like to offer an interpretation.

The character for Rén consists of two parts: 人 which means “man” or “person” and 二 which is easily translated to “two”. So in a literal translation it deals with the relationship of two people.

Rén is often interpreted as “humanness” “benevolence”, or “compassion”, and sometimes described as “the loving of other human beings”. But I also found a very concise definition in form of a rule, which might provide an easier understanding:

子貢問曰:“有一言而可以終身行之者乎?”

子曰:“其恕乎!己所不欲勿施於人。”

Zi Gong asked: “Is there a word with which we should act in accordance throughout our lifetime?”

Confucius replied: “It is ‘forgiveness’. Do not do unto other what you do not want others to do unto you.” 

(Analects 15.23)

Rén is the way of dealing with various relationships within a social role.  Confucius defines several social roles such as: father, son, husband, wife, younger & elder brother, elder, junior, ruler and subject. So basically Rén describes the duties and responsibilities of a social role in a relationship. In other words: What can I expect from my counterpart and what does he/she expect from me?

He gives various recommendations on how a husband should treat his wife or how a subject has to behave towards his ruler. These guidelines create a certain kind of hierarchy of responsibilities and duties. And consequently this should have a major contribution towards harmony in the society.

on the other hand is often translated with “etiquette”, “politeness” or “rituals”. It is a term with a very broad spectrum and in some contexts it is compared with the concept of “culture”. contains the proper rituals of human interaction with nature or material objects. While Rén explains the various relationships among people, suggests the way of striving for Rén. are the proper social (and non-social) manners, which people need to follow to achieve harmony.

This quote from The Analects might help understanding this conception:

顏淵問仁。

子曰:“克己復禮為仁。一日克己復禮,天下歸仁焉。為仁由己,而由人乎哉?”

顏淵曰:“請問其目?”

子曰:“非禮勿視,非禮勿聽,非禮勿言,非禮勿動。”

顏淵曰:“回雖不敏,請事斯語矣。”

Yan Yuan asked about benevolence.

Confucius said: “To discipline yourself to act according to the rites is benevolence. If such self-discipline is practise everyday and by many, the society would be on the correct path. The practice of benevolence starts from ownself and not others.”

Yan Yuan asked: “Can you elaborate more, please.”

Confucius continued, “Do not look at what is not in accordance to rites [Lǐ]. Do not listen to what is not in accordance to rites [Lǐ]. Do not speak in a manner not in accordance to rites [Lǐ]. Do not act in a way that is not in accordance to rites [Lǐ].

Yan Yuan said: “Although I am not smart, but I will act in accordance to these protocols.”

(Analects 12.1)

Rén and are closely connected to each other and sometimes the border seems blurry. These two conceptions are already two main virtues of Confucian philosophy: Rén as the sympathy for others and as the proper behaviour towards others.

In addition to those there are three more virtues: Justice or righteousness (義 – ), wisdom (識 – Zhì) and benevolence or kindness (信 – Xìn). Among these there are several more, but the five virtues above are considered to be the core of social harmony.

Differences and Similarities

As mentioned above the virtues contribute to a stable society. The virtue which is directly shared is wisdom. Plato points out that the sages and rulers should have wisdom in order to be good leaders. Confucius states that wisdom is a virtue for everyone:

子適衛,冉有仆。

子曰:“庶矣哉!”

冉有曰:“既庶矣,又何加焉?”

曰:“富之。”

曰:“既富矣,又何加焉?”

曰:“教之。”

During his trip to the State of Wei, with Ran You as the driver.

Confucius commented: “What a populous state!”

Ran You asked: “How can we improve on a populous state?”

Confucius replied: “Make them affluent.”

“Made them affluent, what then?”

Confucius replied: “Educate them.

(Analects 13.9)

For Confucius gaining knowledge and eventually wisdom, leads to becoming a better person. According to Plato on an individual level, people must have wisdom for the rational part of the soul. On a political level wisdom is only necessary for the ruling caste.

Confucius and Plato both approach justice, but from two different angles. For Confucius justice is aligning one’s actions to the demands of the situation. In other words: to act accordingly to the social role. When an emperor rules with responsibility for his citizens, then he is just. Plato’s definition goes in the same direction. As mentioned above, a society is just when all behave according to their main virtue. For both philosophers justice is linked to the social role. Confucius provides an inter-personal definition and Plato a person-to-class definition.

There is no exact match for Plato’s moderation to the Confucian main virtues. On a political level it is required by the producing class, they should have the ability to control themselves. They shall not demand too much, but also not too less. On a personal level moderation is required by the appetitive part of the soul. The appetitive part also should not be driven to excess, because it creates an imbalanced lifestyle and eventually leads to an unhealthy body and soul.

The same is for the Confucian Rén and , which are personal virtues for social interaction. There are slight similarities to Plato’s moderation; I try to make a short comparison which is very blurry. All three are about the own position in the social hierarchy and the balance of acting accordingly to it. Plato’s however features a tendency of absoluteness. The Confucian on the other hand has a more relative orientation.

Plato’s courage is not a directly valued virtue in Confucian thought. There is however the Confucian idea of Yǒng (勇). But in the Confucian discussion it is not as important as courage in Plato’s model of the human soul. For more information on the discussion about Yǒng I recommend reading this article.

And there is also no direct match for Xìn in Plato’s thought. Somehow it is included in Plato’s Justice. He says that one should be just to others in any case, because justice is valuable for its own sake. But a clear statement on kindness is not made.

Conclusions

As I pointed out Plato’s and Confucius’ philosophies have a common way and goal: achieving a stable society through virtue. Some virtues are similar others are very different. Plato generally suggests a more class orientated philosophy while Confucius’ addresses all people equally. But he also refers to the individual social role. This shows that both philosophers were part of a stratified society which somehow strongly influenced their way of thinking.

In a larger historical context there is one major difference: Confucian thought survived throughout the centuries. It has certainly been reinterpreted, but the main idea was not changed drastically. Plato’s thoughts however only survived rudimentarily and the Western world has experienced a lot of paradigmatic changes.

This post is focused on the virtues of both philosophies solely, but what about other aspects? How do their metaphysic premises match? What is the main difference on their moral values? And some more questions arise.

Sources and References

Print

Becker, M. et al (2006). Politische Philosophie. Paderborn München u.a: Schöningh. ISBN: 978-3825228163.

Höffe, O. (ed.) (2011). Platon: Politeia. Berlin: Akademie Verlag Berlin. ISBN: 978-3050049786.

Kelly, L. C. (2006). “Confucianism” in Vietnam: A State of the Field Essay. In: Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Vol. 1 (No. 1-2).  pp. 314-370. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ottmann, H. (2001). Geschichte Des Politischen Denkens. Die Griechen. Band 1/2. Von Platon Bis Zum Hellenismus. Stuttgart: Metzler. ISBN: 978-3476018984.

Digital

Chan, J. (2001). Making Sense of Confucian Justice. polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy. Retrieved from: http://them.polylog.org/3/fcj-en.htm.

Hagen, K (2007a). Confucian Key Terms: Li 禮. Plattsburgh State. Retrieved from: http://faculty.plattsburgh.edu/kurtis.hagen/keyterms_ritual.html.

Hagen, K (2007b). Confucian Key Terms: Ren 仁. Plattsburgh State. Retrieved from: http://faculty.plattsburgh.edu/kurtis.hagen/keyterms_ren.html.

Im, M. (2008). Courage (yong, 勇) – a Confucian virtue? [Blog post]. Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog. Retrieved from: http://manyulim.wordpress.com/2008/01/25/courage-yong-%E5%8B%87-a-confucian-virtue/.

Koo, P. S. (ed.) (2007). Analects of Confucius. Chinese Wiki. Retrieved from: http://www.chinese-wiki.com/Analects_of_Confucius.

Riegel, J. (2012). Confucius. In: Edward N. Zalta (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/.

陈家豪 (2007). A Critical and Comparative Survey of the Characteristics of the Buddha-nature 佛性 and Confucian Human Nature 人性.  Confucius2000. Retrieved from: http://www.confucius2000.com/admin/list.asp?id=2960.

牛革平 (2008): Comparing Liberalism and Confucianism, from the Perspective of Multiculturalism. In: Global COE Program Ars Vivendi of Ritsumeikan University (Ed.): Identity and Alterity in Multiculturalism and Social Justice: “Conflicts”, “Identity”, “Alterity”, “Solutions?”. Vol. 4. Kyoto: Research Center Ars Vivendi of Ritsumeikan University. Retrieved from: http://r-cube.ritsumei.ac.jp/bitstream/10367/1935/1/av4_niu.pdf.

One thought on “A Stable Society Through Virtue”

  • Hey Paul,

    Just a few remarks on your posts. First of all, I really like this kind of cross-cultural search for similarities, it’s an important thing to do.

    Secondly I’ve got a couple of things to say about the metaphysics of the post you’ve written and about its implications. If there’s one big difference between confucianism and Plato’s thought I would point out at the onset, I think it would be Plato’s otherworldly orientation as opposed to Confucianisms very profane context. I think the difference can be best explained by the oppositional pair immanent/transcendent. You’ve focused in this blogpost on the more practical virtue related side of Plato’s thought and rightly so for all purposes here. Plato’s thinking however does not start with the question “what is the right way do lead our lifes and to organize society?” It starts with the question: “what is the ultimate?” In dialogues like “Phaedo”, “Symposium” and “Politeia” he builds up a worldview that starts from the ideal and of which the immanent world we inhabit is only a reflection, and not a very good one either. The neo-platonist Plotinus uses Plato’s thought in the second century a.d. to fix the double pair of immanence/transcendence. Through his thinking Platonist thought passes quite easily to the christian thinkers, like Saint Augustine of Hippo. It is only true in a literal sense that Platonism only survived very fragmented in western society. Some philosophers have even claimed that western philosophy up until the twentieth century has only been a note to the work of Plato. Nietzsche, to give one example, also wrote extensively about the role Plato played in setting up the worldview of the camel, as he chooses to pour things into a fitting image.

    Confucianism seems rather different, it didn’t really have metaphysics, until Zhu Xi integrated buddhism, daoism and confucianism into what has come to be known as neo-cunfucianism. The confucianist does refer to heaven, as an ultimate legitimating structure for the actions of the king and the father, but it can hardly be seen as a metaphysical background, since it’s nature is never really described. The confucianists first concern is with action, with how to live as “Junzi” 君子 as opposed to a “xiaoren” 小人. Education and poetry were of a primary importance in this. Plato was a man who wanted to ban poetry because he thought it corrupted the soul, he was only concerned with “higher knowledge”, knowledge that did not relate to the immanent and transitory world but to that most ideal of worlds, up there unreachable with our hand, but within touch or our souls. His thoughts ultimately led christians to hate their bodies and resent everything that wasn’t spiritual. In the long middle ages of western civilization “Plato for the eternal, Aristotle for the temporal” was the credo. Confucianism can compete with such bigotry, nor should it aspire this.

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