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.

Notes on the Odyssey Books I-IV: The Telemachia

In the Telemachia, the first four books of the Odyssey, we encounter a strange kinship between the speeches and actions of Telemachus and the warrior Achilles. Both are passionate and wrathful, for different reasons, yet as the character of Telemachus begins to emerge in this prelude to the story of Odysseus’s homecoming, so does his guile and tact.

Telemachus welcomes a “stranger,” who is Athena disguised as Mentes lord of Tapian men, and as he joins the goddess for a banquet he also explains the downfall of his father’s house (Book I, 180-205). Telemachus, now twenty years old, laments his father’s probable death. He is also skeptical of his origins -Is Odysseus his true father? With Odysseus absent, Telemachus can only rely on the word of Penelope, his mother (Book I:248-255). Like Oedipus he yearns for knowledge of his origins, and like Orestes, later expounded upon in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Telemachus longs for revenge.

Telemachus soon knows the stranger to whom he speaking as a god, and rather than continuing to call Athena a “stranger”, he calls her a “friend”. One who gives guidance, a teacher, is more a friend than a stranger. Upon her departure, Telemachus is filled with courage and the memory of his father.

Telemachus is regularly compared, or rather contrasted with Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who avenges his father by killing Aegisthus for claiming Agamemnon’s throne by taking Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, as his own. Unlike Orestes, Telemachus is greatly outnumbered by the suitors, particularly Antinous and Eurymachus, who look to grow fat and rich off the pleasures of the house of Odysseus.In response, he calls a council for the leaders of Ithaca, yet he fails to speak to the men in a way that persuades them of his cause and his problem. He is not yet compelling and persuasive like his father. He relies, ultimately, on Athena to guide him as he ventures out. Why does Athena beckon Telemachus to leave his father’s house?

“The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis” by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Perhaps Telemachus’s naïveté prevents his future kingship from being realized. Athena, rather than simply explaining to Telemachus the current status and whereabouts of Odysseus, must compel him to learn. He must be led out to learn of his father. The son lives according to the story of his father. The question of the life or death of a father cannot remain unanswered.

Curiously, in the courtyard, a beautiful bard is singing of the suffering of the Achaeans in Troy. Perhaps he is recalling Homer’s Iliad. The song causes Penelope much despair, and Telemachus commands that retire to her chambers if she does not like the song of the bard. Rather than putting the poet on trial, Telemachus puts those who weep and lament in a position of choice.

In answering the pressing question of his origins, Telemachus travels to Pylos to encounter Nestor and his children after sailing over the “wine-dark sea.” He tells only Eurycleia, his family’s long-serving nurse of his departure. On Pylos, Nestor recalls the many felled men in Troy: Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus -the son of Nestor. He recounts both his and Menelaus’s speedy plan to flee the inner conflicts breaking out between the Achaeans, while brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon went thier separate ways, Menelaus and Nestor traveled back to Achaea, and Odysseus and Agamemnon stayed behind in Troy sacrifice. Therefore Nestor can only recount hearsay of the fate of the Achaeans. The Myrmidons made it home safe, Orestes claimed revenge on his father Agamemnon by killing Aegisthis who first killed Agamemnon and took Clytemnestra. Nestor tells him to go to Menelaus using his stallions with his son Pisistratus to travel Laedemon, or Sparta.

“More than all other men he was born for pain” (Book III: 106). Telemachus speaking to Nestor about Odysseus.

In the golden banquet halls of King Menelaus, Telemachus beckons  Menelaus to recount his return home from Ilium. Similar to the way in which Homer presents the homecoming of Nestor, a framed narrative -a story within a story -Menelaus tells his story. First, Helen recalls the story of Odysseus dressing as a beggar and infiltrating the walls of Troy, and Agamemnon recounts the tale of the wooden horse, devised by Odysseus. He recalls the suffering they incurred at Troy and his subsequent inability to leave Egypt, a much praised country for its wise healers that is unparalleled on earth. He asks Eidothea, the daughter of Proteas , why he is stranded and prevented from returning home. In council, she recommends that he capture her father, Proteas, when he emerges from the water at noon surrounded by seals. Proteas is unable to tell a lie once tightly grabbed ahold of. Menelaus completes this task, with his three best men, and tightly grabs hold of Proteas as he transforms: first into a lion, then a serpent, then a panther, then a wild boar, then a torrent of water, and finally a tree before assuming his natural form. Proteas tells Menelaus that he must return home via the Nile in Egypt, and he also tells of the death of Ajax and Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon -avenged by Orestes.

Meanwhile, the Telemachia, concludes with a pending sense of doom for Telemachus. The suitors hatch a plan to cut him down upon his return to Ithaca. Rather than let him reclaim his father’s throne, they hope to kill him and court his mother instead. However, in his travels Telemachus has gained a newfound tact, possibly from the model set forth by Athena. This cunning skill will, no doubt, prove fateful for the suitors. It is fitting that in youth, men venture forth, and that in old age, they find themselves filled with nostalgia.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.