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.
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.
In Confucian thought there are two core values: Rén (仁) and Lǐ (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:
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.”
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.
Lǐ 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”. Lǐ contains the proper rituals of human interaction with nature or material objects. While Rén explains the various relationships among people, Lǐ suggests the way of striving for Rén. Lǐ 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:
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.”
Rén and Lǐ 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 Lǐ as the proper behaviour towards others.
In addition to those there are three more virtues: Justice or righteousness (義 – Yì), 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:
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.“
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 Lǐ, 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.
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
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