This article is based on a paper written in while an undergraduate at Yale, in May 1967, for a Chinese Philosophy class with Mr. Wu
Both Socrates (the central figure in Plato's dialogues) and Confucius expressed themselves primarily in conversations. Their philosophy has survived only in the writings of disciples. Neither of them developed an elaborate system. Both were primarily concerned with the promotion of a good, virtuous way of life.
For Confucius, filial respect and, by extension, respect for elders were "the very foundation of an unselfish life."2 The Duke of She tells him about a man who was "so honest" that "when his father appropriated a sheep, he bore witness to it." For Confucius replies, "The honest in my part of the country are different from that, for a father will screen his son, and a son his father, and there is honesty in that." There's no need to argue the point at length. Filial respect and affection far out-weigh the law.3
Socrates deals with the father/son relationship in Plato's Euthyphro. In that dialogue, Socrates is about to come to trial for impiety when he meets Euthyphro, who is about to indict his father for murder. They discuss piety -- in particular, a son's responsibility to and respect for his father. The action the son is about to take brings this issue to the fore. And it is important to Socrates because of his own impending trial.
Socrates's aim is "clear thinking" or "self-examination". Confucius aims for "rectification of names." Both Socrates and Confucius would react to Euthyphro similarly. Both would strive to make him see the proper role of a son, what he "should" do to be a "true" son. But the social contexts of these two philosophers lives in differ and shape the methods they use to advance their aims.
For Confucius, the father/son relationship is fundamental not only for the individual, but also for society. A man has a feeling himself, awareness of his own wants and desires, a self-love. He extends this feeling of "jen" toward his father and treats him the way he himself would want to be treated if he were a father. Similarly, he extends this feeling of "jen" to include close relations, and, eventually, all members of society. One's respect for one's elders is analogous to, though weaker than, one's respect for one's own father. Similarly, one respects the memory of the dead, particularly one's own ancestors. The relationship of ruler to subject is likewise analogous to the father/son relationship. The ruler should act in a way similar to a father. If he flagrantly violates that familial bond, then the subject is not obliged to act with filial respect toward that ruler. In that case, the ruler has lost the mandate of heaven and can be overthrown. If the wishes of a particular ruler were opposed to Confucius' sense of the right, Confucius would either help to overthrow him or move to another kingdom.
The difference of social context and hence of method is implicit in the fist sentence of Euthyphro. Socrates is in the "king's hall." The title "king" ahs been retained despite the fact that a king no longer reigns in Athens. A magistrate now fills the role of king. In other words, law now has an existence separate from the mind or whim of an individual ruler. Anyone oculd be magistrate, but the law would remain the law. There are even laws which establish how laws can be changed. Law has replaced king not just in the meaning of "king's hall", nor just in terms of judicial authority. Law, in Socrates' view, has parental authority and deserves filial respect and obedience. Just as the father/son relationship and by extension the ruler/subject relationship is the basis of order in Confucian society, so Socrates would like to extend the filial relationship to that of law/citizen and establish that relationship as the basis for Athenian society.
But law is not a man, not an individual. One's relationship with the law cannot be just a simple extension of one's relationship with one's father. Rather, law is a set of rules, rules that should be based on logic.
Euthyphro must rectify his relationship with his father. Socrates must rectify his relationship with the law. Both cases are pending. Socrates talks of both cases in terms of "piety". His way of thinking about his own relationship with the law shapes the way he looks at Euthyphro's relationship with his father. It's as if, in Socrates' mind, law is to Socrates as father is to Euthyphro (law:Socrates::father:Euthyphro). The law, the way of thinking about the law, takes priority over the father/son relationship. A senses of personal responsibility and respect for the law is seen as the basis of society. To have proper respect for the law, one must first learn how to reason properly, example one's self, one's way of thinking. One must be able to distinguish a good law from a bad one and to decide on the proper course of action. The law/citizen relationship is primarily a rational one. The father/son relationship is primarily one of affection. Confucius maintains that, by extension, affection is the basis of respect for a ruler. To cultivate one's "jen", one must examine one's own feelings, study the traditions of society, and develop a sensitivity for the needs and feelings of others. One senses rather than reasons when a ruler has treated one unfairly, just as one knows when a father does so.
Socrates knows that what Euthyphro is about to do is "bad", "impious". Piety for Socrates "enforced all the obligations that bind an individual to others, and engage his personal responsibility to his family and friends, and his political loyalty to the state and its traditions."4 This concept sounds very similar to Confucius' "jen", which likewise binds man-to-man and man-to-state and to tradition. The difference is that for Socrates law and therefore reason rather than affection, is prior to all these relationships. In Socrates' social context, the law is the pillar of social stability. Law gives permanence to the will of the mob. The alternative to law is chaos, such as in the recent past characterized Athenian politics. As a mental construct, law depends for its efficacy on the individual's personal respect for it and moral responsibility toward it. A Chinese state would not be weakened by the flight of a private citizen from punishment. In contrast, Athenian law would suffer could eventually collapse if its injunctions were frequently disregarded. Confucius had only to rectify his personal relationships. Socrates had to rectify his relationship with the law; and according to the dictates of reason, he saw that rectification demanded his own death.
Since Socrates was willing so soon after this incident to die for law and reason, it is not at all surprising that he applies the legalistic, rational method of thought to Euthyphro's problem. Euthyphro, too, lives in the Athenian social context and so is accustomed to the rational approach to moral problems. His mistake is not the failure to use reason, but rather the failure to use it correctly. He asks Socrates, "What difference does it make whether the murdered man were a relative or a stranger?"5 This is legalistic, equalitarian reason carried to an extreme. It is a caricature of Socrates' reasoning. Though Socrates uses reason as a method of argument, he is guided primarily by a "sense" of the right, an intuition. He knows that it is "wrong" to prosecute one's own father for murder, and he hopes with the use of reason to force Euthyphro to that too.
Interestingly, Socrates fails to convince Euthyphro. A platonist would attribute this failure to Euthyphro's blindness, his foggy-mindedness. In contrast, Confucius would probably say that the fault was in Socrates' method. In other words, the seminal philosophers for the Western and Chinese traditions, who seem to have harmonious goals, differ sharply in their methods. The socratic method, which was to be used as a model in the West for centuries, proved too limited to convince an ordinary man to change his course of action in a life-or-death situation.
To the trained logical mind of Socrates, the argument was quite clear. But, Confucius would ask, is it necessary to extensively train one's mind to think clearly in order to feel that it is wrong for a son to prosecute his father? Is not this very crime that of letting cold reason dominate your emotions?
Socates started with feeling, with intuition, just as Confucius would. But unlike Confucius, Socrates expressed himself in strictly rational terms.
Conficius would ahve appealed to the same felling in Euthyphro as he would have felt himself in those circumstances. Unless Euthyphro were totally devoid of human feeling, of "jen", he would respond to an appeal to his affections. Euthyphro's mistake was to consider strictly rationally a situation that is the province of the emotions. Socrates, though having the pjroper feeling, made Euthyphro's mistake when he tried to express himself in strictly rational terms.
The spirit of Confucius' and Socrates' positions with regard to
filial respect is almost identical. However, the different social
contexts in which these philosophers lived shaped their methods,
and those methods then shaped the divergent philosophical
traditions of the West and China.