As someone who was introduced first to the Chinese classics, read them in the original Chinese, and is only now just beginning to read the Western classics in translation, I’m already discovering a number of parallels in thought between Confucius and Plato, to the point where I feel that the two men – despite many of their differences in backgrounds, inclinations and cultural outlooks, or the fact that Plato has a tragic and ironic sensibility that would likely have been very foreign to Confucius – would have found themselves in agreement on a number of very fundamental issues.
Both Plato and Confucius were concerned primarily with how human beings were to live, together, harmoniously, in a society. Both of them understood that individuals on their own are not self-sufficient and have need of each other. Both of them were keenly aware that there was a Way for human beings to live together. Both of them were aware also that the roots of this Way were to be found in some transcendental source of truth: for Confucius it was Heaven (tian 天); for Plato it was the Good, considered as one of the forms within the noetic realm. Both Confucius and Plato were convinced that the Way could not be taught directly, but had to be learned either through example or through dialectic. Both Confucius and Plato believed that any and all human beings, to the very lowest rung of the social ladder, had an innate capacity for true knowledge and virtue, but that this capacity needed to be cultivated, or educated. Both Confucius and Plato guarded against considering acts in ethical isolation from the character and cultivation of the man who acts.
The major differences comparative philosophers note between Plato and Confucius are: a.) the cultural issue I alluded to above, wherein Plato’s view of humanity was shaped by drama and the tradition of Greek tragedy (and thus dramatic irony plays a large role in his philosophical exposition), and Confucius’s view was shaped by his role as an historian and antiquarian; b.) the ‘personalistic’ view Plato takes when considering virtues like dikaiosunē and sōphrosunē, and the more psychologically-communitarian view Confucius takes when he locates virtue entirely within the five relationships; and c.) relating to the above point, the Platonic insistence on the noetic, the willing and the appetitive parts of the soul, which mirrors and in some ways contrasts to the tripartite Confucian understanding of the cosmos consisting of heaven (tian 天), humanity (ren 人) and earth (di 地).
Point b.), in my own humble opinion, gets a bit overblown. It’s easy to exaggerate the differences between Plato and Confucius for the purposes of making a sociological or anthropological point (as, for example, Fei Xiaotong does) about the differences between Western and Chinese cultures; and it’s easy to overlook that their similarities to each other are far greater than the similarities of either to the modern expressions of Western or Chinese culture, respectively. Plato’s ‘personal’ or ‘individual’ emphasis can be disputed in the Republic, for example, when Socrates tells Glaucon and Adeimantus that it’s easier to understand the virtue of justice when looking at the relationships within a city (familial as well as transactional), than it is to understand it when examining at the soul of an individual man. At the same time, this difference in emphasis between the two thinkers is indeed there and should not be ignored. Plato, in constructing his ideal ‘city (polis) in speech’, begins by considering what we would call ‘basic needs’: how food and shelter and clothing are to be produced and distributed among the citizens, how labour is to be divided justly, et cetera. Confucius, by contrast, locates the roots of the ideal state (guo 国) within the family (jia 家); the identification of the two is historically close enough that the modern Chinese word for ‘country’ or ‘nation-state’ (guojia 国家) incorporates both meanings.
But they still come to remarkably similar conclusions. Life in the well-ordered state is something that needs to be regulated first with correct ritual and music and myth (even if that myth is a ‘fine lie’, as Plato’s Socrates puts it), and only thereafter with laws. It is a matter of interest to me that Plato’s Socrates introduces laws into his ideal city concomitantly with markets and currency (a philosophical foreshadowing of Karl Polanyi’s arguments against laissez-faire, perhaps?), but that they are not present in the ‘city of utmost necessity’ where he begins. It would indicate that Plato, did not believe that justice (considered as a virtue, whether dikaiosunē or yi 义) was something that needed to be cultivated under the influence of laws, but instead that being able to keep one’s place in the polis is something that can be done on the basis of myth and poetry. This is very similar to Confucius’ own conclusion that rituals and music (liyue 礼乐) are to be the basis for justice and harmony among the people in a society, rather than on the basis of laws and punishments.
I would like to explore more the areas in which Plato’s just city differs from Confucius’s harmonious state, and the similarities and differences this produces between the idea of the philosopher-king and the idea of the worthy gentleman (junzi 君子), but that would require going into much further depth in the Republic, not to mention the Laws. I get the feeling that Plato’s ideas in this regard are much more subtle than he lets on. And for all I said above, I also don’t want to close the door too hard on the idea that the familialism and psychological collectivism of Confucius tune his virtue-ethical conclusions to a different key than Plato’s, even if those keys may sound harmonious with each other. The necessity-based city which lies near the beginning of Socrates’s discourse with Glaucon and Adeimantus does, after all, has a very different makeup and fundamental logic from the fundamental relationships which make up the core of Confucius’s social idea.