Confucius and Socrates Contents
BECK index

Confucius and Socrates Compared

by Sanderson Beck


Life and Deeds
Manner and Attitudes
Style and Methods
Content and Topics
Theory-Practice Correlation
Influence on Followers

Analysis and Synthesis

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Having examined the details of the lives and educational work of Confucius and Socrates, let us now summarize the main points of each chapter and examine the similarities and differences between them.

Life and Deeds

Both Confucius and Socrates lived in cultures where hereditary privilege was the main factor in social status. Neither of them was extremely high-born, but they certainly were not peasants either. Confucius as one of the many lower aristocrats was just high enough where he would be considered as a possible official in the government, but not high enough so that he was automatically given a position. Due to his economic circumstances he spent some time working with his hands and in business. Socrates was a citizen, but neither was he related to a ruling family. He probably worked as a stone-mason; he fought in battle not as an officer, but as a citizen soldier. Both apparently received an education as they became very familiar with the literature and music of their cultures. It is doubtful they could have become the educators they did, if they had not been born in circumstances where they could be educated. Neither one seemed to have an especially significant teacher, but they both related to an ideal pattern, sometimes exemplified by the ancients. Their admiration for the classical writings of their cultures and their extensive knowledge of them indicates deep and prolonged study. Confucius spent some time playing music, and Socrates set some fables to music while in prison due to guidance from a dream.

Their not having been in the highest class probably was a major factor in preventing an active and powerful political life. Socrates intentionally stayed out of politics due to his spiritual guidance, but did become an advisor and teacher to some who did engage in political leadership. Similarly Confucius although he tried to become politically effective, served mainly as an advisor and educator of politicians. However, his efforts in this area did make Confucius more involved in government than Socrates' incidental services as a citizen.

Both men were attracted to the human culture of city life, although Confucius did travel around, while Socrates did not. They both were most interested in relating with people. We know very little about the younger years of either of them, but by middle age they each had attracted a group of students around them. Socrates claims he never accepted money; but either he must have accepted minimal gifts to live on or he had an independent income, because he spent all his days in conversation. Confucius accepted gifts and had a group of regular students, but there is no indication that he used his teaching to become wealthy. In fact both of them were open to discussing ideas with any one who bothered to come to them. Both of them appeared to be inexhaustible in their efforts to pursue wisdom; there is no record of anyone outlasting them in this persistence.

Perhaps the key event in both their lives was when they realized their divine mission. Confucius said he was fifty when he knew the will of Heaven. Socrates does not say when the Delphic oracle made its famous pronouncement which stimulated his quest for a wise man, but it is likely that it was in his forties. In both cases, most of what we know about these two men occurred after this turning point in their lives. This sense of their mission and divine-appointed destiny must have strengthened their purpose considerably. Because of this relationship with the divine or a higher power, neither of them seemed to have any fear of death or anything else. Neither Confucius nor Socrates would do something they considered to be unjust even if they were being intimidated by threats. Their actions were strictly regulated by their rational or intuitive evaluation of what was right. Confucius died a natural death at seventy-two, while Socrates was martyred at seventy, but both accepted death calmly.

Manner and Attitudes

Confucius was polite, cordial, and deferential. His humility was sincere, and most people seemed to get along with him rather easily. He was friendly and had a good sense of humor. Socrates also was friendly and perhaps even more humorous. However, his attitude of modesty was perceived as being ironic by most people who probably felt the power of his ego even though he tried to be self-effacing. Confucius made courtesy a fine art in his respect for human beings, whereas Socrates was only able to temper his straightforwardness by means of the irony. Neither one claimed to be wise.

Although Confucius was temperate and self-disciplined, Socrates took these qualities farther into a more ascetic life-style. However, they both loved relating with people and delighted in company. They both were very open to all types of people and expressed a deep concern for individuals and for humanity.

It would be hard to find anyone who loved to learn more than Confucius and Socrates. They turned every situation in which they found themselves into an exploration of some topic. Their perseverance in pursing wisdom and education seemed continual and enduring. They were always open to questions and examined any idea which would arise; they did not allow any belief which they may have had to dogmatically block them from considering another idea. Along with this openness, they were also scrupulously honest in presenting their own ideas. They certainly were not afraid of speaking their criticisms to others.

Although they both were cheerful and friendly, they were remarkably unemotional. Neither one of them allowed himself to become a victim of fear or anger or jealousy or resentment. Somehow, perhaps due to their philosophic minds, they were able to handle criticism, threats, mockery, and abuse with such understanding that they were not perturbed by it at all. Their attitudes remained remarkably positive. Even though they were often judged to be failures by the world, neither one of them ever was known to become depressed or unhappy. There always seemed to be a joy and enthusiasm with Confucius and an even-temperedness with Socrates. Even when criticizing what they did not like, their attitudes seemed to remain neutral.

Although they both were humanistic in their concern to help people improve themselves, they both based their purpose on faith in a higher power. This even takes on a mystical quality as they felt that their work was fulfilling the will of Heaven in the case of Confucius, and serving God in the case of Socrates. Their sense of divine mission gave them each an inner strength which was unshakable. They both also believed in various ways of communicating with the divine or higher intelligence. Confucius used the oracle of Changes, and Socrates based his mission on the oracle of Apollo. Both felt they gained useful communication from their dreams, and they were aware of natural portents. Socrates related very closely with the other world and the legendary heroes, while Confucius based his cultural ideals on the ancient pattern and especially the Duke of Zhou. Socrates' guiding spirit was a communication developed to a rather unique level, but they both believed in the power and importance of prayer. The reason why neither one claimed to be wise probably was because they both knew the divine wisdom was far greater than theirs.

Neither one cared much for pretense as each one was offered a better suit of clothes to die in by one of their disciples, but they both politely refused to change their life-style at that point. Neither of them was afraid of death, as they both peacefully accepted it.

Style and Methods

Both Confucius and Socrates taught rather informally and used primarily a conversational method. They both were open to listening to anyone, but often they would advise the person to seek out someone with more expertise in a particular area such as farming or gardening.

Socrates often began with a prayer for divine guidance and occasionally found himself inspired. Confucius was willing to accept anyone who purified himself before he came to him.

Confucius expected his students to make some effort if he was to help them. Socrates usually only required that they answer his questions. Naturally both of them were more enthusiastic when dealing with those who were more intelligent. They both encouraged everyone to learn and work on improving themselves and presented various reasons and arguments to exhort them in this direction.

Both Confucius and Socrates maintained an atmosphere of friendship and even camaraderie. Their cheerfulness, enthusiasm, and humor gave the discussions a positive feeling that was uplifting. They demonstrated not only intellectual subtlety but also sensitivity toward the feelings of others. They both were good listeners.

It was natural that they would individualize their instruction, since rarely if ever did they have a large group. Many of their conversations with a single person were counseling sessions on personal problems or specific goals of the person. Often Confucius and Socrates were not concerned with formulating a universal truth but rather were attempting to help a person find an answer which was suitable to him. Different personalities called for different approaches. Socrates with his method of questioning was particularly successful at drawing out people and revealing to them their particular internal contradictions or weaknesses which needed correction or improvement. Confucius often would merely point it out directly; however, he would usually do it in a way which would stimulate the positive direction. Neither one was afraid to be candid in his criticism.

Confucius would often enlighten his students by his answers to their questions. Occasionally he would stimulate their thinking by asking open-ended questions so they could discuss with each other various individuals' answers. Socrates, on the other hand, rarely asked open-ended questions, and unless requested to do so did not really prefer to have to answer questions put to him. His chief method, of course, was to ask a series of questions in such as way as to thoroughly test the person's knowledge of the subject. In this way he did not have to preach or lecture, but could examine the person's awareness itself. This gave the answerer freedom of choice and enabled him to be active rather than passive in the discussion, although it is not as free and active as open-ended questioning. Yet Socrates could work very specifically on clarifying the person's responses. This philosophical midwifery was designed to assist the person in bringing forth their own understanding and knowledge. If their understanding was not clear and organized in their mind, this process of testing would reveal the errors to them. In the refutation and dialectical methods Socrates surpasses Confucius in his ability to reason. Confucius seemed to rely almost exclusively on his intuition. However, most of his intuitions were so perceptive that they proved to be accurate and workable for many people.

Neither Confucius nor Socrates were poets, but they both used metaphors and analogies as pedagogical tools to make their points more understandable. Confucius would use the imagery of Nature, and he often quoted from the classical poems or referred to legend and history. Confucius and Socrates were similar in that they both used these metaphors and examples primarily to elucidate a moral or ethical point. For them poetry and literature were important as stimulation toward a virtuous life. Socrates often used examples from everyday life to show his listener the simplicity of his meaning in a way he could easily understand. Again Socrates seems to have gone beyond Confucius in the elaborate allegories he told to illustrate higher levels of meaning and experience. He also showed complex relationships by means of analogy and ratios or proportions. They both mentioned incidents from history or legend in order to illustrate a point, often in relation to politics.

Although Confucius was concerned about the correct use of language and he did work on defining certain terms, Socrates took the quest for clear definitions into a more comprehensive examination. Occasionally Confucius would ask someone to clarify his meaning, but usually he was giving his own intuitive understanding of the concepts his students were asking about. Confucius was very concerned that communication be honest and that one's actions match one's words. Confucius was not interested in mere verbal education but actual self-improvement. However, he did recognize the possible misuses of language, and therefore was very concerned that words were used correctly.

Socrates was also wary of sophistical games, and was continually attempting to clarify what a person meant by a certain word. His pursuit of the meaning of abstract ideas has been considered one of his main contributions to philosophy. The purpose of his dialectical method was to come to some agreement on the essential principles of life. Socrates attempted to gain these understandings by asking the appropriate questions. Confucius, after studying and pondering, would present his intuitive understandings in proverbial sayings which his disciples could contemplate upon and use as guides for conduct.

Content and Topics

Confucius and Socrates relied on others to provide the traditional education which involved reading and writing, music, and physical training or sports. Confucius placed emphasis on studying the classical literature, whereas Socrates probably did not need to since the educated were probably expected to know Homer and other poets and myths. Part of Confucius' work may have been to edit the classics and make them available to more people. Socrates knew the poetry and myths of his culture, but used them as references rather than as subjects for their own sake. Confucius, however, loved to study the odes with his students, although, like Socrates, he did emphasize their moral lessons. Socrates found that poetry was more related to inspiration than to wisdom, and according to Plato he was especially concerned about the moral influence of this imitative art. Both of them considered it important to classify the different types of music and their effect.

Although Confucius and Socrates prepared many men for politics which required the ability to speak well, they both were wary of clever talk and the art of rhetoric. Rather their main concern was that their disciples have a good understanding of justice as the single most important factor of political life. Much of their time and energy was spent in the study of right and wrong and what constitutes the good society. They both observed and utilized the analogy between the family and state in describing rulership and human relations. Both stressed the value and importance of ideals and portrayed the ideal state in the midst of various prevailing governments which were far from perfect. They criticized their unjust practices and diagnosed their problems. Socrates seemed to go into more detail in delineating the different types of government.

Confucius taught propriety which is perhaps a more socially-oriented equivalent of temperance and self-control. For Confucius the rules of propriety were the social controls for the proper behavior of a gentleman. They maintained the social graces and guaranteed appropriate refinement in manners and conduct. For Socrates and the Greeks personal behavior was focused more on the individual as his own responsibility of self-discipline and did not extend so strongly into the social milieu. The rules of propriety were designed to bring harmony in relationships, while temperance is concerned with the harmony within the individual. In the negative, the difference might be between shame and guilt. In both cases, desires and pleasures were the things to watch out for, and Confucius and Socrates cautioned their disciples and encouraged them to seek wisdom along with the more refined pleasures.

Religion was serious and important to both Confucius and Socrates. Yet as humanists neither wasted his time discussing the supernatural or speculative if it did not have some practical value. They were more concerned with understanding human beings
and how we can improve ourselves than in attempting to understand the nature of the universe. Although they both recognized and obeyed a transcendental reality, their concern was for man. How could people practice the Way of piety or holiness? They believed that by study and investigation they could discover how to act so as to serve Heaven or the gods. Yet they also were aware that some questions were beyond man's reasoning abilities, and in these cases they recommended consulting the divine through oracles, portents, or other rituals. They realized that there is a higher intelligence than human wisdom.

The main idea of education for both Confucius and Socrates was virtue and self-improvement. Here we begin to find even more of a remarkable similarity in the teachings of these two men. What is the true function or excellence of a man, and how can he develop this quality? Confucius, like Socrates, knew that the human tendency was to love beauty more than virtue, but they both endeavored to show that by becoming more virtuous, everything in a person's life could improve. In fact virtue is the way to happiness, even if few follow it. Socrates believed that it is due to ignorance of what is really good for a person, because everyone does what they believe is good. Confucius likewise took an educational approach to lead people toward the good life. Both men pointed out the errors and suffering caused by various vices, and showed how acting virtuously leads to success.

The specific virtues they discussed are again amazingly similar. A traditional virtue in both cultures was courage, but it was only a necessary part of virtue and had to be tempered to avoid rashness. However, the courage to do the right thing is indispensable to the good life.

The key virtue which could be developed through learning is wisdom. Both particularly emphasized self-knowledge as the most significant. This included knowing what one knows and knowing what one does not know. This higher recognition enables one to use his knowledge correctly and avoid mistakes in the areas of his ignorance. As educators these two men constantly focused the attention of people on themselves so they could turn inward and examine their own character, concepts, goals, methods, attitudes, etc. After having looked at these things with their assistance, Confucius and Socrates would often suggest ways they could improve themselves.

For Confucius and Socrates learning and wisdom were what integrated and related the other virtues and areas of study into a coherent whole. Wisdom gained through learning and investigation or recognized intuitively is the guide for all action along with the good.

For Confucius human-heartedness or goodness is a personal quality innate within each person but rarely realized in its full potential. Goodness is the correct loving relationship between people, and the source of the virtues and all values. For Socrates love is the energy which moves us toward the good which is the divine reality and center of the spiritual world. The proper human relationship is friendship, and the good is the transcendental reality which is the source of the ideals and what should be our guide in every action. Both men lived and taught in a spirit of friendliness and continually focused their energy on the good in each situation. They first worked on improving themselves and then worked to assist others toward a better life.

In addition to setting a personal example they also discussed the ideal person or gentleman and what his characteristics are so that their disciples would have an abstract model to follow. This way they could strive for the ideal in their own way without trying to copy the personalities of their teachers. The gentleman or superior man of Confucius and the gentleman or good and beautiful man of Socrates both had tremendous impact in changing their culture's values from the nobility of birth to the nobility of good character. Above all, the gentleman is ethical and fair to everyone. He is friendly and always maintains a dignified courtesy toward people. He exemplifies the virtues although he may not yet be a divine sage or philosopher king. These higher ideals discussed by Confucius and Socrates could not be found in their societies, but are presented as a goal and future hope for mankind.

In his discussions of the immortality of the soul and its journeys to the other worlds Socrates goes beyond the knowledge we have of Confucius. The transcendental teachings of Chinese culture were brought forward more by the Daoists than by Confucius. Socrates appears to demonstrate more of an ability than Confucius did in uniting the human with the divine.

Theory-Practice Correlation

Although both Confucius and Socrates used the discussion method, they both were very conscientious about acting according to their ideas. This is most noticeable in their concern for justice. Confucius would not serve in a government that was not fair to the people even though he seemed rather ambitious for political position and power. As an ethical teacher he did not allow himself to engage in actions which he believed were not right. Socrates knew intuitively that it would be far too dangerous for him to bring his ethical standards into the realm of politics in his time. He did not choose to throw his life away in attempting immediate political reform. Even in living a private life, he showed integrity and justice in his occasional dealings with the state, and he did end up sacrificing his life for the sake of justice. Both men were able to accept lack of recognition and even ridicule, exemplifying that they did not need others' approval to validate their own wisdom. They demonstrated exceptional equanimity.

Confucius continually emphasized that wisdom consists of both knowledge and action. They could discuss what was wise, but it is the actions of the person which demonstrated whether he is actually wise or not. For Socrates also true knowledge or wisdom or virtue was verified by deeds; the person who does not act correctly does not truly know what is right. Only in this strong sense that knowledge is also right action does Socrates mean that virtue is knowledge.

Influence on Followers

Neither Confucius nor Socrates left any major writings like so many other philosophers have done, but like Buddha and Jesus, they had devoted disciples who passed along their message. The teachings of Confucius became not only the dominant philosophy of China but its major religion as well. Somehow the disciples managed to write down the conversations and keep the different schools and tendencies among the disciples unified.

In Socrates' case, his open and non-dogmatic style and his emphasis on what the other person thought rather than on his own ideas led to several individual disciples going their separate ways. The result was several prominent schools with the most influential being the Platonic philosophy. Although the various schools were called Socratic, Socrates became the stimulator rather than the founder of a great philosophy.

Many of the students of Confucius and Socrates became active in politics and had some degree of success. However, in both cases some of the activities of their former students were not quite as they had hoped they would be. As these examples indicate, their ability to transform their listeners into men of virtue was far from perfect. There is evidence though that many men were able to improve themselves to some degree under the influence of Confucius' and Socrates' education.

Now let us see what our exposure to these two men might be able to do for us.

Analysis and Synthesis

Having described the life and teachings of Confucius and Socrates and summarized their similarities, let us now see if we can analyze and explain this process of pursuing wisdom and the good life through learning so as to account for what they did and what others might be able to do as well.

The goal of the educator is for others to learn. Therefore it may be more useful and simpler to begin by focusing on the learner rather than on the teacher. For the most part the students or listeners of Confucius and Socrates were grown men. Although some were youths, we are primarily concerned here with higher education or adult learning. Thus the problems of children and compulsory education are beyond the limitations of this discussion. The students and followers of Confucius and Socrates freely chose to listen to them; even those who just happened to find themselves encountering these men still had the choice to disregard what they heard. Confucius expected his students to be motivated enough to make effort. However, motivations varied; some sought a higher salary more than they sought wisdom. Socrates also had to contend with ambition as a motivation.

How did they attract the learners' attention toward wisdom and the good life? One way is through personal example or modeling. By diligently seeking wisdom themselves Confucius and Socrates stimulated others who observed them to emulate their quest. However, this does not explain why the learner should follow them, except that he intuits it will be successful or he merely desires to be like this person. Although these are not rational grounds, this probably does occur.

How did they use reasoning? Confucius and Socrates both used conversation, which is still available today and can even be broadcast on radio or television. There are many other methods such as literature, art, drama, group processes, etc. Certainly conversation or dialectic is not the only method, but it is the one we are dealing with here. How does conversation motivate the learner to pursue wisdom? Both Confucius and Socrates encouraged others to search for wisdom and goodness by means of exhortations. The exhortation is designed to communicate to the learner that virtue or wisdom or goodness are worth pursuing. They might demonstrate to an ambitious Alcibiades or Zilu that the proper education is a means whereby they would be able to achieve their goals. Whatever the goal might be, whether to win a lover, end a quarrel, command an army, or become a minister in the government, they would emphasize that virtue, justice, and self-control or propriety were what was needed to attain it in a successful way. By reasoning, or question and answer step by step, or by mentioning the process and its consequences aphoristically, the exhortation is a technique of transmuting values.

What does transmuting values mean? The most abstract or greatest value is the good or goodness. As Socrates believed, everyone does what he thinks or feels or believes to be good; no one intentionally does evil, for such would be a contradiction of human motivation. The pragmatic verification of this is simply that whatever a person consciously does indicates what that person believed was good. Of course, many actions are judged by others or even by the same person later as having been bad in that they might have been better. This difference of opinion implies a difference in what was valued in the situation, and it may or may not imply a greater awareness. For Socrates, knowledge of what is virtuous or truly good is accompanied by the corresponding action, or it is not knowledge at all. Knowledge does not err, and not to do what is good would be an error. Therefore to know what is good and not do it is a contradiction. The implication is that the good life depends on knowledge. If knowledge of the good, which might be called wisdom, is attained, then the actions will be good also.

The educational question then is: How can we learn to know the good? Confucius substantially agrees. His concept jen can mean goodness or humanity of human-heartedness, and coupled with wisdom seems to be the goal of his educational pursuits. For Confucius this is the true essence of what it means to be human in the best way. Although he seems to believe that it is an innate quality, the manifestation of it is rare indeed. In Xenophon, Socrates describes the good as what is useful or helpful in any situation, and in Plato it is an absolute essence which lights the intelligible world, the guide for all action.

Everyone has their opinion of what is good in each situation, but people often choose lesser goods due to their ignorance of a greater good. What techniques can be used to lead people into a greater awareness of what is truly good? One method is through divine inspiration. God or Heaven is usually defined as certainly knowing the good, if not in fact being the good. In the transcendental approach which usually bypasses the reason, the attempt is to align the individual will with the divine will or the order of Heaven. Confucius refers to the sage who follows the Way intuitively. Again this is a rare case, but Confucius himself felt that he had attained the mandate of Heaven. Socrates also in his mission sought to obey the will of God. In the Meno when they are not able to find any rational teachers of virtue, he suggests that people may be virtuous due to divine inspiration. However, for Socrates such inspiration did not imply knowledge but merely right opinion. Socrates held that knowledge or wisdom also includes the ability to defend one's ideas through reasoning. Thus the transcendental method was not sufficient for Socrates. Although inspiration is one approach, it seems that it must be verified either by reasoning or by pragmatic results in order not to confuse it with religious fraud or self-deception.

We turn now to the main focus of both these teachers, and that is self-knowledge. Since it is the people who act, and people who reap the results of their actions, if they could know themselves as active beings, half the problem might be solved. The other half would involve knowledge of others and the world with which we interact. What is the self? Socrates uses the term "soul" (psyche) by which he often comes close to the meaning of consciousness, except that it also includes being. For Socrates the soul has the divine attributes of intelligence and immortality and can live in other worlds beyond the physical body. When in the divine realms the soul has knowledge of the good and other essences, but when it comes into the body it forgets these things until they are reawakened through experience. Such a theory is difficult for many people, because it deals with the transcendental and invisible realities. Although it may seem weird, it does explain the phenomena of consciousness which is active, alive, vitalizing, and most important here, which can learn. Obviously dead bodies do not learn. Confucius also believed in the invisible spirits who had been in the bodies of the ancestors. What does this have to do with self-knowledge? Essentially it means that both these men recognized or believed in man as a spiritual being that transcends the life of the body. Are these doctrines necessary to the pursuit of wisdom and the good life? Maybe not, but they do explain how man's nature is related to the spiritual nature of the divine, why man has the ability to learn, and why wisdom and ethics are important beyond the consequences of a single lifetime. Again these spiritual aspects may not be necessary for someone to become wiser, and there is no way to prove them (or disprove them) except to indicate that they do explain the phenomena.

In regard to social relations Confucius and Socrates discussed the ideal person or gentleman and his qualities. Here we find a more useful intermediary between divine perfection and the various opinions of the learners. Here reason can be used to show how virtuous actions lead to good results. Virtues such as courage and self-control or propriety can be investigated or described as guideline values which may be superior to the desires, ambitions, emotions, and notions of the learners. Confucius would explain to this students how virtuous actions bring success and happiness for everyone. He could back this up and make it clearer by referring to poetry or history or current events. By general discussion various views of people present could be compared to see which were better. This process uses both reasoning and intuition, and requires some thought by the listener.

Socrates also investigated the virtues, but usually did it in such a way as to uncover the opinions of the other person in order to show him their limitations and contradictions. Reasoning is used extensively and intuition could be helpful in calling forth answers. Whereas Confucius tended to present the answer, Socrates usually only stimulated others to think to find the answer themselves. This difference in emphasis may be why the teachings of Confucius became a dogmatic and traditional religion, while Socrates stimulated various schools of philosophy or seekers of wisdom.

In either case the purpose is to transmute the values of the person to a higher level: to show the ambitious, aspiring politician that justice for all is better for everyone including him than personal power without wisdom; to demonstrate that wisdom is more helpful in finding happiness than the gratification of desires and pleasure. Although some pleasures seem better because they are more immediate, in the overall situation there may be a wiser course of action which will result in less pain. In examining one's personal life, self-control of desires becomes a key virtue. In social relationships justice and the principles of propriety are what will work best in the long run for everybody. Thus the wider more universal understanding is shared with the learners by the various methods so they can gain the perspective to see these things in their own lives. If they can recognize the value of the virtue, then they can apply it and improve the quality of their lives.

Let us examine more closely what is meant here by virtue and how it relates to the good, learning, and the specific virtues. We are using virtue here in the broad meaning of its ancient usage rather than in the Christian sense of chastity or of the theological virtues such as faith, hope, and charity. Confucius' word teh translated as virtue could mean spiritual power or moral force, and Socrates' concept of arete meant excellence. In both cases the implication is of the human ability to do or be good, or to function in the best way. Although the definition that virtue is the ability to attain what is good seems to have been refuted by Socrates in the Meno, his argument can be shown to be fallacious. His argument that a man may attain a good thing by unjust means assumes that the man's opinion of what is good is correct, and it neglects to recognize that an unjust action is not good. (See "What Socrates Taught" note 67.) Thus virtue can be understood as what enables one to live the good life. Vice, its opposite, is not good, but is usually defined as evil. Also it is generally recognized that the virtuous person leads a good life. Let us assume these common definitions and see if we can discover the necessary and sufficient conditions of virtue which lead to the good life.

Let us examine wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, and piety (holiness), which were discussed explicitly by Socrates and implicitly by Confucius. Wisdom in relation to virtue was often used broadly to imply that whoever was wise would also be virtuous, because he would know how to be just, temperate, courageous, and pious. Wisdom also includes self-knowledge, for without self-knowledge one makes mistakes, but the wise certainly do not make mistakes. Therefore the wise know themselves, and to become wise it is necessary to learn about ourselves. However, a mere intellectual knowledge of ourselves may not be sufficient to the complete wisdom. If we take wisdom in this larger sense, then we must analyze the parts played by justice, temperance, courage, and piety. If each of these are necessary conditions for virtue, and if they are different, then the lack of any of them will not be sufficient for wisdom or virtue. What are they, and how are they each necessary?

Courage is what enables us to do what we know is right, for the failure to do what we know is right is cowardice, its opposite. Wisdom and courage have a close relationship. Courage is doing what is good, and wisdom is knowing what is good and knowing to do it. Thus courage depends on wisdom as its guide, but it is also a necessary part of wisdom and virtue. Without courage wisdom and virtue would be ineffective and hypocritical. However, wisdom and virtue are effective and do have integrity, because courage is a necessary part of them.

Temperance is controlling one's own desires, appetites, and passions so as to handle oneself in the best way. Whereas courage enable us to act, temperance is the ability to restrain ourselves. Knowledge of our passions and indulgences is helpful but not sufficient for virtue or for complete wisdom. We must also know how to control and discipline negative traits and also actually do it. Thus temperance also has a close relationship with wisdom and virtue, and is a necessary part of them.

Justice simply means what is right or fair, but how is this decided? For Confucius it was the golden rule of not doing to others what you do not wish them to do to you. Justice was to be practiced according to the rules of propriety. For Socrates it is following the laws or covenants of the society and also the divine or universal laws. Both referred to the punishments and recompense for injustice. Justice involves social relations and principles which may have been ordained by God and which are agreed upon by people. However, laws that are not universally agreed upon as being good for the whole society may not be just. Injustice usually involves some injury to another person. Punishment and reward imply that somehow actions are balanced in terms of good and evil. The just person therefore does not harm people, and justice itself maintains the balance even if it means punishment. Although punishment may seem like hurt, Socrates explains that it is better for the soul to receive correction; it is ultimately more harmful for the soul not to receive the needed punishment. Socially justice is essential for the good life and therefore is essential to wisdom and virtue. Again wisdom is necessary in order to know what is right.

Piety or holiness is the virtue of having a good relationship with God or spiritual things. For Confucius it meant the proper worship of the spirits including the ancestors and the proper human relationships. Socrates looked at holiness (in Xenophon) as obeying the laws of God as justice is obeying the laws of man. For those who believe in God or a higher reality, holiness is a necessary part of wisdom and virtue for the good life in this world and the next, because it keeps man in the proper relationship with the divine. It may also bring the inspiration helpful to wisdom and a knowledge of what is good. If the divine laws and principles are good, the person who understands them may have the best guidelines for the good life. For the atheist and agnostic, holiness may not seem to be necessary to wisdom or virtue and the good life on earth at all. A person may still be courageous, temperate, just, and even wise in this world without pursuing piety. However, it might be argued that such a person is following divine law and is pious without knowing it; he is only lacking the understanding of the divine connection. From this viewpoint holiness is helpful and necessary to complete wisdom and to the good life which extends beyond this physical world.

Thus we have analyzed the necessary conditions of wisdom and virtue which lead to the good life. Is there a difference between wisdom and virtue? Virtue is a general term which usually includes wisdom, while wisdom more specifically implies knowledge. Yet we have seen a close relationship between wisdom and the other virtues which enable the one who knows what is good to do it. Courage, temperance, and justice are definitely necessary to virtue, and wisdom is not only necessary to virtue but it is necessary to courage, temperance, and justice. Thus we might say that wisdom is the key to all of virtue. This is especially significant, because wisdom is the virtue closest and most accessible to learning, since it deals with knowledge.

Learning concerns not only knowledge but opinions as well. The purpose of this type of education is somehow to teach or awaken in the student the knowledge of what is good and the awareness that he ought to practice it as well. This process of enlightenment changes opinions to knowledge and what we called transmuting values from selfish and limited notions to universal and beneficial truths.

This is what Confucius and Socrates were attempting to do. Confucius primarily used a positive and intuitive approach as he tried to get his students to see and recognize the value of these truths. Socrates usually employed a negative and reasoning method as he would refute all of their false opinions and stimulate them to think about the truth of these essential concepts with the underlying assumption that the soul would be able to recognize them once the errors they had been holding to were pointed out.

Neither Confucius nor Socrates were completely successful in the process. Therefore it is clear that their methods were not sufficient to attain the good life. They probably are not even necessary, for some may be born and grow up to naturally demonstrate these abilities or virtues. Yet they both had some degree of success as indicated by the lasting influence they had on their respective cultures. It is impossible to measure the subtle improvements in the lives of millions who have been exposed to their teachings.

If we can recognize that wisdom and virtue lead to the good life, and since everyone desires the good life, then whatever methods which are successful in the pursuit of wisdom may be helpful to us. Although many of the techniques and ideas of Socrates and Confucius may seem simple and commonplace, teachers and students of wisdom may not be practicing them as well as we might. There is no reason why the conversational method cannot be applied today with the help of these guidelines either formally or informally. It is to stimulate and encourage this pursuit of wisdom that this comprehensive study of the lives and teachings of Confucius and Socrates has been written.


What have we learned about educating for wisdom? What did Confucius and Socrates do which has not only given them a reputation as two of the wisest men but also as great educators? What principles and techniques stand out which we could apply today?

The first thing that really stands out is their tremendous love of learning and their continual and life-long efforts to improve themselves. If we truly desire to become wiser, and perhaps in addition to assist others in this process, then we must be open to learning as much as we can from everyone with whom we interact. Our purpose in each situation ought to be to learn from the experience. It is obvious that we can only help others to the extent of our own wisdom. Therefore our first goal ought to be to learn to be as wise as we can. This requires desire or love of learning, effort, persistence, endurance, patience, etc.

Also wisdom for Confucius and Socrates meant goodness, correct human relations, friendship, justice, self-control, and propriety. Thus our attitude toward other people and how we treat them is very important. Love of learning in the greater sense is not mere mental exercise but practice in good living, practice in human association, practice in self-discipline, practice in self-examination. We must know ourselves, and to do that we must look at our faults and weaknesses and negative tendencies. Once we begin to see these, then we can work on correcting them. As we observe our own actions and make effort to improve their quality as beneficial, then we refine out many of the unneeded attributes and develop our positive characteristics. As Confucius and Socrates advised, we notice that the company we keep is a significant factor in our personal growth. By associating with other people who are working on improving themselves we can gain more insights not only about ourselves but about people in general. Confucius said that wisdom is to know people, and goodness is to love people. Through loving relationships we can practice and experience being beneficial to each other.

We can also use the guidelines which Confucius and Socrates independently discovered. The foremost guideline in every action is the good which as a spiritual reality can be the focus of our attention. The intuitive perception of what is good in any situation so it can be acted on is the goal of the philosopher and the sage. In the development of human personality the virtues give us valuable reference points for character. Are we disciplining our lower desires and pleasures so that our actions will be more beneficial? Are we acting courageously based upon our higher values? Is this action just and fair to everyone? Is it wise and beneficial? Another key is to focus our attention on the divine or Heavenly Way of doing things; this can give us insight into how we can serve the greater good of all.

Now, assuming that we are practicing these things and making some progress, what can we do to stimulate others in the pursuit of wisdom and the good life? Of course, our personal example will probably speak loudest, but what else? We can be open and loving with people to facilitate communication. We can pursue the quest for wisdom together and inquire into the nature of the good life. We can test and question each other in order to reveal where our knowledge is well-founded and where we are still ignorant or confused. We can study the lessons of history and literature and of current events and how these may apply to our own lives. As we gain more self-knowledge we will probably become more aware of the life of our immediate community and how that can be improved. Eventually we can look at the problems of society as a whole; and if our own personal lives are working well, we can consider what contributions we could offer in whatever area of responsibility we choose. Human life on this earth is not nearly as happy and fulfilling as it could be - individually and collectively. Therefore whatever efforts we make to improve ourselves and society would certainly be worthwhile.



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Copyright 1996-2006 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom. For ordering information, please click here.


Life of Confucius
Attitudes of Confucius
How Confucius Taught
What Confucius Taught
Example of Confucius
Influence of Confucius


The Socratic Problem
Life of Socrates
Attitudes of Socrates
How Socrates Taught
What Socrates Taught
Example of Socrates
Influence of Socrates
Confucius and Socrates Compared

Confucius, Mencius and Xun-zi
Socrates, Xenophon, and Plato

BECK index