When Socrates meets Confucius
Emotionales versus Rationales:
A Comparison between Confucius and Socrates
ABSTRACT Socrates regards rational knowledge as the decisive factor of human life and even ascribes all virtues and moral actions to it, thereby stressing the ‘rationales’ of ethics. In contrast, Confucius regards kinship love as the decisive factor of human life and even grounds all virtues and moral actions on it, thereby stressing the ‘emotionales’ of ethics. Therefore, we should not lump them by conceiving Confucius’ ethics also as the so-called ‘moral reason’. KEY WORDS emotionale, rationale, Confucius, Socrates, ethic As the founders, respectively, of the Chinese and Greek ethical traditions, Confucius and Socrates are always an attractive theme of comparative studies, and a quite popular belief in these studies is that they display a similar tendency towards ‘moral reason’ or even ‘rationalism’. Through a close reading of the Lunyu (Analects) and the Memorabilia of Xenophon as well as some of Plato’s early dialogues, this article tries to argue that, in striking contrast to the ‘rationales’ stressed by Socrates’ ethics, Confucius’ ethics presents a characteristic spirit of ‘moral emotion’ and takes ‘emotionales’ as the governing principles of moral life. 1. Affection versus Knowledge
As is well known, Socrates’ philosophy shows a very marked and even radical tendency to emphasize rational knowledge. He is usually thought to be the first Greek philosopher who not only discusses human affairs through rational inquiry but also establishes the dominant position of moral reason in the tradition of Western ethics. On Socrates’ conception, the rational soul is the most distinct character of the human being from other animals. He argues that the gods have implanted in human beings the noblest type of soul with the faculty of reasoning, whereby human beings are able to apprehend the existence of gods, to acquire knowledge by toil, and to reason about the objects of their perceptions, so that, in comparison with other animals, they live like gods, by nature peerless both in body and in soul (see Xenophon, 1959, p. 61, p. 303). In these arguments, Socrates displays an implicit intention of defining the human being as ‘animal rationale’, a key definition that has become more and more explicit and influential in the later developments of Western rational philosophy. As a man ‘who must be guided by reason’ (Plato, Crito 46B, Jowett, 1937, p. 430), in addition, he as a philosopher also pays a lot of attention to the question of how human beings can acquire rational knowledge through their faculty of reasoning. Aristotle remarks, ‘There are two innovations which may fairly be ascribed to Socrates: inductive reasoning and general definition. Both of these are associated with the starting-point of scientific knowledge.’ (Metaphysics 1078b, Tredennick & Armstrong, 1969, p. 197.) Unlike the Greek natural philosophers who neglect human affairs and think about only ‘Universal Nature’, moreover, Socrates holds that one should first know oneself by using one’s reason according to the famous Delphic inscription. His conversations with his fellow Athenians are always of human affairs, especially of the moral virtues seemingly familiar to them. It is in these dialogues that Socrates arrives at a celebrated definition: ‘virtue is knowledge.’ He says, ‘For just actions and all forms of virtuous activity are beautiful and good. He who knows the beautiful and good will never choose anything else, he who is ignorant of them cannot do them, and even if he tries, will fail.’ (Xenophon, 1959, p. 225) Put differently, one as a moral being must, first of all, have knowledge about virtues and then take action according to this knowledge. In the framework of Socrates’ ethics, thus, all virtues and moral actions are grounded on rational knowledge, and reason plays a decisive role not only in the theoretical life but also in the...
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