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Confucius and Plato: Two Teachers of the East and West

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Confucianism & Chinese Culture

Confucius and Plato:

Final Assignment

Submitted on 2015-10-28

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1. Introduction

Separated by over 8000 kilometres but only 52 years, Confucius and Plato both lived in an era when their geopolitical world was fractured in many small states often fighting each other. Both had travelled to faraway lands and were well read on the ancient teachings, faiths and politics of their neighbouring states. It is therefore understandable that questions of improving the individual and improving the state government would interest these philosophers. They formed academies among the first in the world and foundational ways of thinking in spiritual and political areas that would influence their societies until the present day. Authors have throughout history credited these two men as the founders of their respected cultures’ philosophical traditions.

In this essay my goal is to examine both of these men’s views and also try to seek sources for their ideas to understand where their similarities and differences came from. I will also take a look at how their teachings lived on after their death and what their standing is in the world of the present day. I’ve narrowed the subject matter down to a very specific topic that both of these men sought and are indeed most well known for. This topic is the question of what is righteousness, harmony or the ideal in the individual and the state through the concepts of dikaiosune and ren and how they can be reached.

2. Philosophy

Confucius and Plato were both very interested in the concept of the ideal state. Moreover their method for its presentation has a lot of similarities. Both teaching by means of dialogue sought to first define what knowledge is. Then by educating people in true knowledge could the individual become moral. Finally the ideal state would be formed by using this understanding of morality in organizing a state. Confucius and Plato concentrated in different things and came to some different conclusion but considering their vast cultural difference, there is a lot of overlapping ideas.

2.1 Education

Confucius thought that studying is essentially a combination of learning by imitating a good teacher and reflecting this knowledge. “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” Confucius criticised intuition or natural understanding and argued that the only way to real knowledge was through education and reflection. Confucius had a distinct way of teaching. He didn’t talk in length but instead cited classics and especially questioned his students to lead themselves to discover the answers: “ Only for one deeply frustrated over what he does not know will I provide a start; only for one struggling to form his thoughts into words will I provide a beginning. But if I hold up one corner and he cannot respond with the other three I will not repeat myself”

The essential subjects for Confucius were morality, proper speech, government and the “Six Arts” of ritual, music, archery, chariot riding, calligraphy and computation. Confucius put a huge value in learning from the past in acquiring knowledge. This is seen clearly in his interest in Chinese oral traditions which would after his editing and compiling become the Five Classics. The Five Classics together with the Four Books became the canon of Confucian ideology and a central focus of study in Chinese education for over 2000 years. Subjects in these “Chinese Classics” include politics, poetry, rituals, history and philosophy.

Plato explained knowledge through his theory of forms. Plato thought that things in the material world are imperfect copies or images of their abstract archetypes existing in a world of ideas. Knowledge is recollection of these archetypes. For example with numbers the concept of number two can be seen expressed in the world we perceive but the idea of number two would exist regardless whether or not it would be perceived. The same can be said of a painting that is beautiful. The painting partakes on the idea of beauty but it isn’t ever perfectly beautiful or beauty itself. Beauty as a concept only exists in the world of ideas. Accessing the world of ideas was the key in attaining true knowledge. This is why Plato placed a lot of value on mathematics, especially geometry. Plato saw mathematics as a something being directly in contact with these abstract concepts and therefor the essential part of education.

Confucius’ way of teaching through asking question is very similar to the Socratic dialogue used by Plato and Socrates. Plato divided education to culture and athletics. Cultural studies teach a person to become a gentleman through adopting the right kinds of values. Plato notoriously thinks it necessary to control strictly this aspect of education. Art should only promote beneficial virtues such as courage and temperance, and works promoting for example sorrow or the malevolence of god should be forbidden.

2.2 The Ideal Person

For both Confucius and Plato education is directly tied in with morality. Both thought that contemplation and education were the principle ways of attaining moral attainment. Confucius and Plato both endorsed a kind of virtue ethic, meaning an agent-based ethical view as opposed to an action-based one. Morality is essentially a social status that a person acquires through handling himself in the ideal manner. It is different from the more modern concepts of judging morality based on either or both the intention and consequences of one’s actions.

Central to Plato’s sense of morality was the concept of dikaiosune which entails a wide scope of meanings. Plato describes it as a virtue, which regulates our relationship with others. It can be seen as “harmony”, “righteousness” or “justice”, but it



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