Confucius and Socrates

Among Western scholars, comparisons between Confucian literature and the Platonic corpus are made frequently. To their credit, both literary characters are memorable for their obsession with virtue and the appropriate means of political life. Both, presumably, emphasize the importance of a rigid social or political order, devotion among the citizenry, and both were considered a threat to their cities in their day -Socrates was condemned to death and Confucius (Master Kong) was exiled during the Warring States period of ancient China. Both can claim a dogma that degenerated into a religion in future ages, Confucius can be said to be the founder of the Confucian state religion that lasted for thousands of years in China that yielded the origins of certain politico-theological doctrines such as the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ Plato’s Socrates, distinct from the Socrates we encounter in Xenophon, can be said to be the founder of all Western philosophy and the genesis of later religious doctrines, such as Christianity -a notable inversion, or perhaps, perversion of ‘Platonism.’

However, we also are compelled to acknowledge the sharp distinctions that exist between Kongfuzi and Socrates, distinctions that reveal considerable polarizations between what is now called ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ philosophy. First, it should be emphasized that Socrates claimed not to possess knowledge and only to ask questions, whereas Confucius answers the questions of his pupils with distinct responses, often ontological responses related to appropriate religious or political behavior. Socrates often explored ‘what is’ questions with his interlocutors to continue to challenge them to seek answers, rather than relying on the rumors of the masses, or the insubstantial knowledge of the Sophists, akin to public lawyers in antiquity. This relentlessly revolutionary, self-overcoming, that is central to Western civilization, forms the grounding for the future: capitalism, republicanism, and freedom. Second, Confucius strongly encouraged obedience to strict ancestor worship and religious doctrines, for the sake of an orderly state/city. However, Socrates is often called a skeptic. One of the two charges brought against him in Athens is that of not respecting the gods of the city. Socrates is a freethinker, though he does not clearly, explicitly encourage a youthful disrespect for the gods of Athens.

The Confucian genesis and the Socratic legacy each demonstrate some stark distinctions that have endured for thousands of years, establishing the foundations of classical Chinese civilization and Western civilization.

Introduction to the Analects of Confucius

Master Kong, or the latinized version of his name “Confucius”, is a figure that looms large over Chinese thought. He is said to have lived during the ‘Warring States’ period of ancient China during the Zhou dynasty, which is also referred to as the Spring and Autumn period. Much of Confucius’s subsequent doctrine was influenced by the need to overcome chaos and preserve order. Indeed, a rigid ‘Confucian’ system arose and lasted for over 2,000 years in China.

Although various biographies exist of Confucius, such as Sima Qian’s Shiji, they survive with mostly dubious claims. He is said to have been a mid-level statesman from the Lu state and a former soldier. During his lifetime, he is credited with editing many lines of the Five Classics of China. He was exiled for a brief period but traveled to the Eastern kingdoms to learn. In his later years, Kongzi, or Master Kong, returned to the Lu State of Zhou and this is said to be the setting of the Analects, an elder Confucius engaged in Socratic discussion with peers and students.

The text is composed of twenty books and was probably scribed long after his own death. We must acknowledge the changing form of the Analects as Mencius, a second generation student of Master Kong’s, inherited a wholly different version of the Analects than we moderns are in possession of today. In ancient times, the text was thought to be a commentary on the Five Classics, but due to political chance, the Analects rose to prominence under the reign of Han Wudi. Like a central religious text, the Analects has been frequently cited as the supreme dogmatic authority.