Plato and Confucius

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Separated by more than 8500 kilometers but only 52 years, two seminal thinkers have shaped the moral philosophy of their respective cultures. While Western ethical theory has been deeply influenced by Plato’s Republic, Eastern ethical theory has been deeply influenced by Confucius’s Analects. David Haberman describes the Republic as ‘one of the most influential books of all time’ (86). And Bryan Van Norden compares (with considerable fervor) the Analects to ‘the combined influence of Jesus and Socrates’ (3). On the surface, there are many similarities between Confucius and Plato. Both taught through means of dialogue, and both expressed reticence to provide direct definitions. Both advocated contemplation and education as the means for moral attainment, and both sought to balance contemplation with service. Both sought to apply their moral theory to public office (though both failed). And while Plato espoused the ‘heavenly’ forms, Confucius espoused the ‘Decree of Heaven.’ Moreover, Plato advocated the life of the philosopher, even as Confucius advocated the life of the chun-tzu. More importantly to this paper, Confucius and Plato both advocated an ultimate ethical ideal. Confucius’s1 ethical ideal, ren,2 is central to the Analects (60 of the 499 chapters are devoted its discussion, and the word appears 109 times3). The term is tenuously translated as ‘humanness.’4 And Plato's ideal, dikaiosune, is central to the Republic (it appears 248 times throughout his writings, and 131 times in The Republic5). The term is tenuously translated as ‘justice.’ Because of differences in translation, these Greek and Chinese concepts have rarely, if ever, been compared. This is unfortunate, as a careful study of each may yield insight into the age-old question: Why should I be moral? Confucius and Plato were teachers, and as such, both vigorously advocated their ethical ideals. Yet both seemed ambiguous in their teachings as to why one should pursue this ideal. The ’why‘ issue is vital for the teacher who, having either an Eastern or a Western cultural orientation, is concerned about application as well as theory. Indeed, while avoiding an argument from authority, it must be noted that if two of history’s most important ethical thinkers, representing two distinct cultures, advocate similar moral pedagogies, then contemporary teachers should consider the implications. The modest aim of this paper is to compare Plato’s term dikaiosune with Confucius’s term ren, and more particularly, to determine if there is a similarity between Plato’s and Confucius’s means of justifying these ideals. I will argue that there is a clear similarity (a) between the ideals themselves (concept), and (b) between the ways in which these teachers justify them (pedagogy). Concept

Before one can argue for a similar pedagogy, one must establish a commonality of concept. Otherwise, one’s case is built upon a conflation of categories. Thus, this paper must first demonstrate that there is a certain similitude between dikaiosune and ren. dikaiosune

Plato's concept dikaiosune is central to the Republic. It is tenuously translated as ‘justice.’ This may be considered an ambiguous rendering, as the term seems to have a more expansive meaning. Some have argued that it is better translated as ‘morality’ or as 'righteousness,’6 but these terms were foreign to Plato's culture. Aristotle claims that the meaning of the original word itself ‘seems to be ambiguous.’ He states, ‘It is clear, then, that there is more than one kind of justice, and that there is one which is distinct from virtue entirely…’ (427). While Plato's definition of dikaiosune is not explicitly stated, it is intimated: 1.

Plato's concept of dikaiosune entails a wide scope of meaning (519c, 519e-520a, 520d).7 2.
But it does not ‘usurp the role of virtue as a whole’ (Annas: 13). It is carefully distinguished from other social virtues such as wisdom (428b-429a), courage (429a-430c), and moderation (430d-432b)....
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