A Comparison Between the Ethics of Socrates and Confucius

Shu Jichen    Ying Dabai          Thomas Paxson
Hangzhou Teachers' College            Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

During the 6th and 5th Centuries B.C.E., two great thinkers, Confucius and Socrates, sprang successively from China in the Orient and from Greece in the West. They have respectively exercised influence over the civilizations of the East and West so deeply and widely that they have been revered as "saint" or "sage" by later generations. Now, when cultural interchanges between East and West have developed extensively, and when the cultures of East and West are permeating each other, it is valuable to reexamine the ethics of Socrates and Confucius to compare their divergent and convergent thoughts. In the long run, an understanding of our respective cultural roots might facilitate the conditions for a fusion of eastern and western civilizations--a fusion which may well be inevitable in this ever more interdependent world.

I. The Historic Setting and Concerns of Confucius and Socrates.

Confucius and Socrates both lived in historical periods marked by tremendous social changes: frequent wars, political disturbances, ideological confusion and conflict, and demoralization. Confronted with political and social crises, they both sought moral principles as a basis for understanding those crises and for mending the social fabric.

Socrates, born in 470 B.C.E., lived when the slave-owning democracy was well entrenched and more particularly in the golden age when imperial Athens reached the height of her splendor under the leadership of Pericles. But he survived Pericles to witness Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War and then the harsh but short rule of the Thirty Tyrants. Both democrats and oligarchs proved unable to govern wisely, each group victimizing innocent persons for narrow political ends. The Platonic Socrates, i.e. Socrates as Plato depicted him, held that in order to overcome these problems, the wise must control political power. But the cultivation of wise rulers and the establishment of proper social practices to carry out enlightened policies depended on the moral education of people under the direction of sound moral philosophy.

Socrates sought to remind Athenians of the nature and importance of civic virtue. The health of the city-state and the welfare of her citizens depended on the practice of civic virtue. This was a deeply traditional idea. But the nature of civic virtue was at issue. What were the excellences that distinguished "the best of men"? Women in ancient Greece were excluded from the political equation, but Socrates argued that women have the same virtues as men: "everyone is good in the same way, since they become good by possessing the same qualities" (Meno 73c1-2). Socrates insisted that an understanding of civic virtue was both necessary and sufficient for virtuous conduct and a virtuous character. Everyone is to seek wisdom and the virtues that flow from it. In this way the citizenry and thus the state will become wise.

Confucius, born in 551 B.C.E., lived in the state of Lu during the "Chun Chiu" (Spring and Autumn) Period (722-481 B.C.E.) when the ancient slave system was at the point of collapse in China. It was a time when various political forces struggled for power, giving rise to protracted and repeated wars, frequent coups, and serious damage to the patriarchal clan system. Not only did clans struggle with one another, but sons killed their own fathers, and subjects murdered their monarchs. The traditional moral standards, undermined by social turmoil, were discarded by most people.

Confucius, too, sought a firm foundation for social harmony and the welfare of the people in traditional moral standards. Confucius developed his ethical theory with "Ren" (kind-heartedness, goodness or benevolence) at its core. His intent was to secure society in the face of the desperate crises which were tearing it apart. The essence of his doctrine was the harmonization of social relations among people, among clans, and among the social classes. He sought to persuade the rulers to accept his doctrine of "Ren" so as to restore social peace and to right the "demoralized world;" "‘Li’ (ritual) collapsed and ‘Yue’ (Music) [was]disordered." All of his moral categories focused on "self-cultivation," which was even more important to the rulers than to others, because the rulers’ self-cultivation was the way "to ease the lot of the whole populace." (Cf. The Analects of Confucius, translated and annotated by Arthur Waley, A XIV 45). In short, Confucius saw the function of his ethics to be the cultivation of each individual person’s moral character, the wise governance of the country, and the regulation of the world.


II. The Conceptual Background of the Ethics of Confucius and Socrates.

The ethics of Confucius and Socrates were both developed in an atmosphere in which there was an unprecedented theoretical reflection on the problems of ethics against a background of social upheaval. In Athens, the reflections were associated with the tragedians and the sophists. The tragedians, especially, wrestled with the changing demands upon its citizens of a growing, prosperous, and democratic city-state that had become an imperial tyrant. In China the upheavals of the Spring and Autumn Period prompted reflection on morality as the key to the restoration of social unity.

The development of Athenian society is important for understanding Socrates’ contributions. Professor John V. A. Fine has argued that the traditional bases for the power of the aristocrats at the start of the 7th Century B.C.E. were four: (1) The consanguineous clans, with their associated religious cults and tombs, as well as their shared socio-economic and political interests carefully nurtured by prudent aristocrats. (2) Control of the arable land by the clans. (3) Military power based on the wealth and leisure required for the cultivation of martial excellence. And (4) control of the apparatus of justice. Slavery was well established by this time. The position of the aristocrats was weakened, according to tradition, during the Seventh Century when the rise of hoplites, heavily armed infantry, shifted the balance of military power from the aristocrats to the middle class--those who could afford the heavy armor and practice, but who could not afford to join the cavalry.

A major turning point came with the reforms of Solon in 594 B.C.E. Aristotle reports in the Athenian Constitution, 9, that Solon’s reforms included three especially important components: He eliminated past, present, and future loans secured upon the person, in effect abolishing debt slavery. Second, he introduced the public action of graphe, whereby any individual citizen could intervene to protect another’s rights. Third, he gave all citizens the right to appeal to their peers verdicts of magistrates. These measures were important in giving individuals legal status apart form the clan or tribe to which they belonged. In addition, the first of these measures eliminated a major source of forced labor. Professor M.I. Finley has argued that the explanation of Athens’ growth as a slave society must be understood in terms of the economic need for cheap, forced labor. Solon freed the citizens of Athens from involuntary servitude through debt and sharpened the distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

Solon divided the citizenry into four classes on the basis of the productivity of their land holdings. Members of the two wealthiest classes were required to serve in the cavalry and could serve in the highest positions in the government. Members of the third class, the zeugetai, served as hoplites and presumably could serve in the Council of Five Hundred (the Boule). The poorest class of citizenry, the thetes, whose land produced less than 200 measures of grain or olive oil, served as lightly armed skirmishers and participated in the assembly. there is some dispute regarding the status of landless citizens, but for our purposes it is sufficient that Solon gave virtually all citizens a role and a stake in the city-state. Since many of the thetes had insufficient land to support themselves, Solon encouraged manufacture. What needs to be noted about this scheme is that there is no reference to noble lineage. Solon’s reforms weakened the power of the eupatrids, the "well-fathered" aristocrats.

The clan system was weakened progressively through the reforms of Solon, the Pisistratid tyranny, and the reforms of Cleisthenes (ca. 507). Pisistradis and his son Hippias sought popular support, especially from the peasantry, in order to check the efforts of the aristocracy to unseat them. Another strategy they used was to strengthen the religious cults not tied to one of the four main clans of Athens. Cleisthenes’ reforms were more direct. He replaced the four clans with ten artificial tribes deliberately constructed to cut across all the traditional divisions--familial, geographic, and economic. The ten tribes bore the major civic burdens: they provided their share of soldiers, they carried responsibility for the festivals, and they were the basis for representation in the government. The tribes comprised a number of demes, townships, of roughly equal size, both urban and rural. After the implementation of the reforms, membership in a deme was hereditary. One effect of these reforms was to make the polis, or city-state, rather than the consanguineous clan, the focus of a citizen’s principal loyalty.

Athens was quickly put to the test by the Persians. Cleisthenes’ reforms and the Persian wars encouraged Athenians to place more value on democracy, the welfare of the polis as a whole, and consequently its administration. It might not be too strong to say that there was a tendency to identify the good person with the agathos polites, the good citizen. On the positive side, this tendency encouraged the prizing of cooperative virtues like justice, sophrosune (civic moderation), honesty, and piety, as Professor A.W.H. Adkins has argued. On the negative side, this tendency encouraged the development of excellences that enabled one to manipulate assemblies and seek influence over the people--in short, it encouraged demagoguery. Aeschylus and Pericles may be thought to represent the positive side; Alcibiades, the negative.

Greek morality had two foci: character and advantage. Insofar as classical Greece was a shame culture, rather than a guilt culture, the emphasis on character meant an emphasis on fame and honor rooted in a recognition of an individual’s arete, excellence or virtue. In Fifth Century B.C.E. Athens, arete comprised the civic excellences mentioned in the preceding paragraph as well as liberality made possible by wealth and competitive excellences rooted in military skill and athletic ability. The sophists professed to teach aspiring youth those aretai (excellences) through which they could achieve stature in the city-state. Prominent among these were the rhetorical skills through which fellow citizens could be persuaded in the assembly and the courts. For the Greeks, considerations of character and advantage were closely related. Both statesmen and sophists paid careful attention to the inner links between morality and advantage. During the last dozen years of the Fifth Century, as Athens was losing her confidence and the war, individual advantage seems to have gained attractiveness for many Athenians in comparison with civic virtue and collective interests, if we judge from Alcibiades, the tyrants, Thrasymachus, and others. In these ways the tragedians, statesmen, and sophists paved the way for the emergence of Socratic ethics.

When ancient China entered its slavery period (ca. 2,500 B.C.E.), the consanguineous clan system had not been thoroughly abolished. All of the three dynasties (Xia, Shang, and Zhou) were patriarchal slave societies based on the remnants of the clan system. During this long period of more than one thousand years the ideological basis for the societies included such pivotal ideas as patriarchy, "the cult of Fuquan," "the mandate of Heaven," and loyalty to relatives. At that time, the most important moral norms were Xiao (filial piety), De (the power of virtue), and Li (ritual). In the early days of the Western Zhou Dynasty, a religious theory named "match Heaven with the virtues" came into being. According to the theory, only those who have perfect virtue can perform the mission, given them by heaven, of reigning over the people. "De" meant, at that time, "worship directed to Heaven," "filial piety directed to ancestors," "protection accorded to the people," etc. The Spring and Autumn Period was a transition period when the slavery system was developing into a feudal system. In the ideological sphere varied ideas, new and old, existed simultaneously. The new ideas emerged out of old conventions, while the old ideas changed and evolved under the new conditions. During the disintegration of the united slave kingdom, the traditional beliefs in God/Heaven and in destiny were shaken and new ideas came into being which questioned and denied the conventional theological view of history which held that Heaven interfered in human affairs. When Zi Chan rejected the fallacy that, according to the star chart and unnatural phenomena, people could foretell what would happen to human beings, he said, "The Way of Heaven is far away from the Way of human affairs and they can not intervene in each other" (Zho Zhuan, i.e. Zuo’s Spring and Autumn, the Duke of Zhau of Lu, 18th year). Zuo Zhuan (Duke Huan of Lu, 6th year) put aside the outworn traditional ideas which attached importance to Heaven, minimized the value of human beings, and advocated the position that affairs in heaven were determined by human beings. Since more attention was being paid to human affairs, people began to seek an understanding of them and to explore their causes. Thereupon some new ides started to spread; among them Ren was the most popular. Ren was employed on different occasions with different interpretations. According to Li Ji of Jin "Ren" meant love for one’s family members and relatives (Guo Yu Jin Yu). Wu Shang of Chu regarded as Ren the wise evaluation of effects before taking corresponding actions (Zuo Zhuan, the Duke Zhau of Lu, 21st year). Zhi, the son of the Prince of Jin held that to eliminate evils and promote the good was to embody Ren (Guo Yu Jin Yu). Sharing the same view, Ran Ming of Zheng said, "to treat the people as one’s own sons and to kill the wicked" is to have Ren (Zuo Zhuan, the Duke Xiang of Lu 25th year). In that time, some people advanced the view that some of the virtues were contained in the specific principles of Ren. For example, Zuo Zhuan said, "To go out, behaving as if you were receiving guests, and to bear a task, as if you were offering sacrifices, are the details of Ren" (The Duke Xi 33rd year). In addition, many moral principles bearing on personal relations were discussed extensively. Included among these were Xiao, mercy, respect, loyalty to others, faithfulness, Li, Yi (justice or righteousness), a sense of honor, etc.

Traditional value concepts, then, underwent changes. The situation at that time was described by Zuo Zhuan: "Zhou’s imperial court had already collapsed and its descendants lost their status day by day" (the Duke of Yin 11th year). Confucius said that when the way does not prevail, all orders concerning ritual, "music," and punitive expeditions are issued by the feudal princes or by state ministers(cf. Analects XVI,2). Under these circumstances the old ideas that greatest importance should be accorded to preserving the practice of offering sacrifices to ancestors and maintaining inherited titles and stipends were already out of date. "What is the true value of life?" was a question raised time and again. Mu Shu of Jin put forward his view of "the three immortals," which had far-reaching influence. According to this view, the value of life is found in making meritorious contributions to society, being virtuous, and writing books. Mu Shu held that only those who accomplished and actually performed these deeds could be immortal.

The preceding concepts, both new and old, and the new issues the people pondered, composed the theoretical background of Confucian ethics. What must be pointed out is that the traditional patriarchal concepts exerted profound influence over Confucius and they formed in the bottom of his heart a strong belief, which was a crystallization of an ideology deeply rooted in him. With his belief in the patriarchal social order he tried to understand and explain the concrete position and relation of individuals within society so as to develop a sense of historical direction based on human relations. According to this understanding, it is within the network of human relations that an individual’s position and his corresponding obligations and responsibilities could be established. Given his general historical orientation and his absorption of moral ideas abroad in that time, Confucius merged the old with the new and brought about a whole system of moral norms centered on human relationships; he constructed an ethics which took morality to comprise the highest values, Li, Xiao, Zhong, and Ren, and which distinguished moral values from all others.


III. On the Nature and Source of Morality

The view taken of human nature is often considered to be the starting point and the theoretical basis of ethics. Both Socrates and Confucius maintained in varying degrees the theory of natural morality, holding that in the final analysis, human nature is moral. The historical Socrates, and the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues, refused to speculate extensively about nature, the gods, or the character of any existence people might have after death. He focused his attention instead on how to live in this world. In keeping with the famous admonition at Delphi, "Know thyself," he held that the study of human affairs should be the central topic of philosophic research. Socrates held the people were endowed by the gods with intelligent psuchai, souls, that desired the good. Human beings need to acquire the wisdom through which they can discern the good they desire. Instead, many people fail to attain this wisdom and strive hard after external possessions such as money, social position, etc., which are taken to be good. "Know thyself" means that one must consciously devote oneself to the understanding of one’s own moral nature and to the improvement or purification of one’s own soul. This activity is of prime importance in one’s life. In Plato’s Protagoras Socrates is represented as holding that virtue is knowledge which cannot be taught -- it cannot be learned by memorizing what a teacher has said, but must be acquired in a way that shapes the soul.

In regard to human nature, Confucius once said, "by nature, near together; by practice, far apart" (Analects XVII, 2). He thought that at birth people had nearly the same nature; the great differences in morality were caused by practice. His view of human nature can only be conjectured on the basis of available sources. He held that basic human needs transcend material goods and that the common nature of human beings consisted in pursuit of goodness and virtue. "Goodness is more to the people than water and fire" (Analects XV, 334). this means that the pursuit of morality is more important than that of the physical necessities of life. Confucius dedicated his whole life to the search for "the human-way" (i.e. the norms of social life) and he tried hard to implement this way in his own time. He believed the chief aim of human life should be to actualize these norms, "learning the way," "observing the way"(A ix 29, and A xv28). The essence of "the human-way" was Ren, with kindness and affection as its core, the norms of which were inherent in human relations. Evidently, the moral life, in Confucius’ eyes, was the essence of the social life. Only when a man who devoted himself to the cultivation of goodness and trained himself to be a noble man could he bring value to his life and embody his fundamental human nature. We can find the expression of this Confucian viewpoint in the book Zhong Yong (The Doctrine of the Mean), which summarized it in one brief sentence: "The master said, Ren is man." Only a man of goodness could be called a true man.


IV. The Central Moral Perspectives

"Virtue is knowledge" (of goodness) is the famous proposition at the core of Socrates’ viewpoint on morality. The term "arete" (excellence, virtue) is used by Socrates to denote moral excellence in general and the particular moral excellences, for example, courage, wisdom, and justice. Moral excellence for the Platonic Socrates comprises all those excellences of character that contribute to, and are required by, eudaimonia (happiness) during the span of one’s life. It was a general Greek presupposition that the good for human beings is eudaimonia. Wisdom, courage, and the other virtues are required because during one’s life one inevitably suffers many changes of fortune, especially during periods of social upheaval.

"Knowledge of the Good" or "wisdom" is required in order to discern the ingredients of true happiness, and in light of this understanding, what contributes to such happiness. In the analyses of courage, sophrosune (moderation), and justice offered by Socrates in Plato’s Republic, each of these excellences, and by implication all virtues, presuppose knowledge of the Good. But not only did Socrates believe knowledge of the Good to be necessary for virtue, it was sufficient as well, because we all always act for the sake of happiness. The notorious Socratic paradox is that all wickedness is involuntary and due to ignorance.

Socrates’ moral theory focuses on the individual and that person’s rational understanding and character. As a result, he paid great attention to the teaching of rational inquiry into values. He believed that the kind of life one lived had a major effect on the possibility of one’s gaining wisdom, and hence virtue generally.

We cannot find a definition of virtue in Confucius’ discourses like we can in the Platonic Socrates’. But we can see his general concern with moral issues. In Chapter II of the Analects he admonishes, "Govern the people with severity, keep order among them by chastisements, and they will flee from you and lose the sense of shame. Govern them by moral force (De), keep order among them by ritual (Li) and they will keep their sense of shame and come to you of their own accord" (II,3). These words contain implicitly his understanding of morality as such, and suggest his views both on the relation between morality and other social phenomena and on the social significance of moral issues. In Confucius’ usage, "De" seems to emphasize internal temperament; "Li," external norms of speech and behavior. Morality as understood by Confucians, then, involves a fundamental unity of conduct and sentiment For this reason, morality is more effective than is law in securing and maintaining stability and harmony in a society. Therefore, morality is the foundation for realizing the "human way."


V. Two Systems of Moral Values

Socrates sought to define the moral aretai. Plato represents him as inquiring into the nature of piety, courage, wisdom, justice, sophrosune (moderation), and friendship. He also inquires the Good, power, happiness, rhetoric, art, and dialectic. The Platonic Socrates in the Republic regarded the Good as central. He did not define it, for it is indefinable and can be known only through noetic apprehension, but he sought to turn our attention away form the sensory world to non-sensible absolutes, that we might come to understand the principles underlying the order of all reality. This order is good. As a result, the moral order coincides with the natural order and the fulfillment of our human capacities in the exercise of virtue brings happiness and the development of the good person. Genuine advantage is a consequence and aim of moral action. Unfortunately, people are too often blinded by how things appear to be and are led to mistake their true advantage, supposing that it lies in sensory pleasures, wealth, fame, or power.

Socrates seems to have held that all the cardinal virtues (wisdom, moderation, justice, courage, and piety) are on the deepest level one. Each of these is understood in terms of a psychic condition participating in the Good: the soul’s participation in the Good with respect to knowledge, wisdom; with respect to the gods, piety; with respect to what is to be dared and dreaded, courage; and with respect both to oneself and one’s position in relation to others, sophrosune (moderation). Justice in the individual is participation in the Good through the performance of its proper functions of each part of one’s inner self and in society through the performance of his or her proper functions by each agent within society. Wisdom, justice, and sophrosune seem to be conceived as interdependent (if not more closely related) and to have as their joint consequence courage and piety. Sophrosune seems to have some resemblance to Li minus the element of prescribed ritual in Li. One recognizes and accepts oneself: one’s abilities, one’s nature, one’s position in society, one’s role. Greed, lust, overweening ambition, including any consuming passion is incompatible with sophrosune. Sophrosune is called for in the famous Greek admonitions, "Know thyself" and "Nothing to excess."

Both piety and sophrosune entail due subordination of oneself to superior beings, human or divine, in accordance with law and tradition. In the Crate the Platonic Socrates regards justice as entailing subordination of oneself to one’s city-state. Courage involves the fortitude to dare to act in accordance with the good, whether embodied in law or not, in the face of dangers and so to defend the city-state when it is threatened. All these aretai were held to be eternal and unchanging.

If wisdom, justice, and sophrosune are regarded as one set of Socratic virtues, and courage and piety a second, then a third would include the virtues embodied in special human relations: filial duty, fraternal love, and friendship. Of these the Platonic dialogues give scant attention to filial duties or to ties between siblings. Socrates paid hardly any attention to the moral concomitants of blood relationships. In this respect, Socrates represents the strongest internalization of Cleisthenes’ reforms. Socrates’ interest was in who could help one to grow morally, regardless of the presence or absence of any blood relationship.

Confucius’ ethical system, by comparison, was more concrete in providing a multitude of detailed guidelines for behavior and speech. For Confucius, "Ren" has central significance. Sometimes it is used to denote a certain virtue; sometimes, it is the sum of many different virtues. In this dual usage, Ren is akin to Socrates’ "arete." Yet "Ren" has a very special connotation, namely, to love people. Confucius said, "Ren men love people," i.e. to love people is fundamental in the sense that it should be embodied in a person’s moral practices in all the various kinds of human relations in which one becomes involved.

By extension, "Ren" could connote filial piety, fraternal love, loyalty, and forgiveness. In some passages in the Lun Yu it referred to the five virtues: courtesy, magnanimity, faithfulness, diligence, and clemency (e.g. XVII,6). Sometimes it denoted four characters: imperturbability, resoluteness, firmness, and modesty (e.g. XIII,27). In addition, it denoted the act of restraining oneself in accordance with ancient ritual. These various meanings represent different aspects of Ren: moral obligation, moral consciousness, moral self-cultivation, and moral conduct.

In Confucius’ conception of Ren, sons’ filial piety and brothers’ fraternity are the most important and fundamental concepts among the moral duties within the patriarchal and consanguineous relationships. Filial piety requires that sons respect and support their parents, never disobey their will, and treat them according to Li (II,7). "While they are alive, serve them according to ritual, After they die, bury them and worship them according to ritual" (II,5). The virtue correlative to filial piety is the kindness and care which parents are to show to their children and which the senior is required to show to the junior. Analogously, the younger brother is to show love and respect for elder brother, while the elder brother is to be considerate of the younger brother. "Surely, proper behavior towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness" (I,2). This line of thought reflects the attention Confucius paid to the values of family and clan, and his effort to buttress them to strengthen the patriarchal familial and social order.

Confucius held that Zhong (loyalty) was the extension of filial piety and fraternity. There were two dimensions to Zhong. First, it meant that the inferior should submit to the superior wholeheartedly, especially the subject to the monarch. The subject "who in the service of his prince will lay down his life" (I,7) should be prepared to give up his life for his ruler. In ancient China, the patriarchal relations were frequently in accord with political relations of superiority and inferiority. As a result, serving the monarch was always linked with serving parents and elder brothers. Therefore You Zi, one of Confucius’ disciples said with profound understanding, "Those who are filial and fraternal rarely offend the old and disobey authority" (I,2). If a ruler bore the virtues of filial piety to his parents and kindness to his children, the common people would naturally be loyal to him, by imitating his example.

The second dimension of Zhong was one’s obligation to treat others sincerely. Together with placability (shu) and faithfulness, Zhong became a general principle for all interpersonal relationships.

Confucius raised concrete demands on moral consciousness regarding the relationships among ordinary people. He said, "What is Ren? One desiring to stand up, stands others up; one desiring to manage, helps others manage" (VI,30). This exemplifies one who has the virtue Zhong. He continued, "Do not impose on others what your would not like others to impose on you" (XII,2). A person of this sort could be placated. Zhong and Shu together concretely embody the spirit of, "love of people," a fundamental moral virtue. These joining principles to a certain extent broke through the limitations of the hierarchical and consanguineous systems and required that one treat oneself and others on equal, reciprocal terms and put another in one’s own place.

Among the essential concepts of Confucius’ ethics, "Li" (ritual) and "ZhongYong" (the mean) were two special virtues. They constitute general and widely applicable moral demands, but do not denote specific behavioral norms. According to Confucius, Li was the etiquette which stemmed from the rites of the three dynasties before his time--improved and revised. He asked people to act strictly in accordance with these deliberately selected traditions. "If you do not study the rituals," he is said to have told his son, "you will find yourself at a loss in society" (XVI.13). "The superior man studies widely the ancient works, knows how to restrain himself with rituals and the rules of propriety, and never departs from the Way" (VI.25). The importance of Li is evident in its social function, namely the realization of social harmony among the different classes.

If we say that Li was a system comprising a whole set of rigid rules of action, Zhongyong was a guiding principle for performing ritual and practicing virtue with relative flexibility. Confucius said, "How transcendent is the moral power of the middle way! That it is but rarely found among the common people is a fact long admitted" (VI.27). But he did not offer a detailed explanation of the mean. According to the scholars of the Han dynasty, Zhongyong referred to the use of Zhong. As a transcendent virtue, moderation meant that while acting morally on various occasions a person had to have control and not carry it to an extreme, i.e. neither going too far nor failing to go far enough; he had to do his best to achieve appropriateness, proper behavior in the circumstances (the middle), or "harmonious proportion" among several factors or relations. Confucius said, for example, "When natural substance prevails over ornamentation, you get the boorishness of the rustic. When ornamentation prevails over natural substance, you get the pedantry of the scribe. Only when ornament and substance are duly blended do you get the true gentleman" (VI.16). The necessary and sufficient condition of Zhongyong is that "ornament and substance be duly blended."

The Confucian Zhongyong is reminiscent of Socrates’ ideals, wisdom and moderation. For Socrates, only under the direction of wisdom could human nature achieve the several virtues. Without the guidance of wisdom, it was impossible to realize virtue. Zhongyong, too, was necessary to realize the virtues, although it did not play the guiding role that wisdom played in the Socratic scheme. Socratic moderation is more closely akin to Zhongyong. Outwardly moderation seemed to be a restraint of desires for physical goods, but inwardly it was an active pursuit of morality and a necessary factor in achieving the most harmonious condition of the soul. The principle of Zhongyong was more general and abstract than Socratic moderation in that it was not given a psychological analysis; this gave it universal applicability and methodological significance. It was applied especially to the practice of the other virtues. Zhongyong was a virtue which sustained appropriateness in the practice of specific virtues and in the formation of character. Only when a person attained the appropriateness of a virtue in the process of self-cultivation could he or she be considered to possess that virtue. We might say, therefore, that Zhongyong was the standard for all virtues; it was a necessary factor for realizing the virtues and was essential to the art of self-cultivation.

Due to the different historical conditions and cultural backgrounds, the ethical systems of Confucius and Socrates had their own particular characteristics; some of these present striking contrasts. Socrates’ system of moral norms was not built upon kinship, since at that time the Athenian consanguineous clans had been thoroughly undermined and the citizens’ political rights and interests were minimally affected by consanguineous relationships. The artificial deme had supplanted the clan for most political purposes. Relations among the citizens were mainly regulated by the laws and traditions of the city-state. Confucius’ ethical norms were based on human relationships supported by blood relations, so though some of his precepts concerned social morality directly, the roots of his system were Xiao (filial piety) and Di (fraternal love), which were understood primarily in terms of the family and the patriarchal clan. It might be proper to say that Xiao was a norm intended to maintain the absolute authority of the head of a family and that of a clan, to maintain the authority of parents over their children, while Di was a norm intended to maintain the authority and interests of Zhang Zhi (the eldest son in a family) or of Zhong Zhi (the eldest son of a lineal descendent in a patriarchal clan). It is obvious that Confucius’ system of moral norms as a whole worked to reinforce and maintain the patriarchal system and the social estate.

Confucius paid close attention to patriarchal institutions and monarchical power, emphasizing the obligations of socially inferior persons to their superiors. He said nothing about the rights of inferiors. He went so far as to set one’s personal interests against moral principles and to denigrate acts of striving to achieve personal interests as immoral, the action of a "Xiao Ren" (a morally inferior person) who was only after fame and personal advantage. Socrates, though not interested in fame or private wealth, recognized that the desires for these were powerful motives that dominated the actions of many of his fellow citizens, including the most prominent. He sought to transform these motives by persuading people that the true wealth and the true basis of honor was virtue. He emphasized its rootedness in universal human nature. Parentage, social rank, and material wealth were all incidental to the acquisition of virtue; the condition of one’s own individual psuche was what mattered. Socrates believed that the virtues were eternal, unchanging, and universal. Confucius held that the norm, by which people judged one’s behavior in relevant human relations, could not be changed.


Concluding Remarks

Neither Confucius nor Socrates were regarded widely in their own ages as successful men. Their fates were colored with tragic hues, but their ethics have been treasures of world culture. Socrates had a formative influence on Western philosophy, with his concerns for logical method, language, the meaning of human experience, and the quest for eudaimonia through moral excellence. He challenged philosophers in the West with his famous paradoxes: that no one does wrong both wittingly and willingly, that virtue is one, and that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.

Confucius founded Rujia (Confucianism), which influenced the society, politics, culture, and national psychology of China during the past 2,400 years. His ethical ideas bore the characteristics of patriarchal hierarchy and were once tools for feudalists. In spite of that, his pursuit of the ideal society in which Ren and De were exercised, his emphasis on human relations and on training, on moral standards, and on the path to morality have all encouraged and summoned people with lofty ideals generation after generation to devote themselves to their motherland. The virtues of showing filial obedience to one’s parents, respecting the old, loving children, meaning what one says, and sacrificing one’s life for Yi (righteousness), have been generally acknowledged by the Chinese people as representing social morality. they have functioned as a great historical unifying force for the Chinese nation. Confucius’ thought has long had a great effect on many countries in East Asia and in the past few centuries Western intellectuals have given it serious attention.

Today, every country, no matter how developed economically, is facing severe challenges posed by tremendous advances in science and technology and by related social changes. How is a new ethics to be created which would help regulate relations among people in the ages to come? How can the material civilization and spiritual civilization be coordinated so that they promote and strengthen one another? How can people be led to live an abundant, noble, spiritual life, full of sensibilities, in the course of socially unsettling changes in automation and global information?

We expect that ethical thought in the future will continue to be concerned with three great quests: a search for unity and harmony (1) between wisdom and sentiment, (2) between the individual and humanity as a whole, (3) between the ethical and the economic and political elements and structures of social life. Global dialogue will challenge us all to rethink traditional assumptions and to learn from one another’s traditions. The cooperative virtues, such as magnanimity, kindness, and mutuality will be of central importance. This is an expectation born of hope, but its realization is not inevitable.