A Comparison of Confucius with Socrates in the Light of a New Perspective: Primary and Secondary Society

You-Sheng Li


Taoist Recovery Centre, London, Ontario, Canada






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Abstract Outline


All human societies can be divided into two types: genetically coded primary society and man-made secondary society. Western civilization, especially in Mesopotamia and Greece, started with city states, which were formed by free citizens after primary society or clans were disintegrated while Chinese civilization started as the super state of a two-level system. The super state enabled people to live in a relatively peaceful social environment while the two-level system, namely the newly formed secondary societies were built on the top of numerous primary societies, enabled them to still live in primary or quasi-primary society. From primary to secondary society is a critical step in human cultural evolution, and it thus provides a new powerful perspective to understand Western and Chinese philosophies and their difference.

Socrates is traditionally regarded as the father of Western ethics or moral philosophy, and Confucius holds that position in Chinese ethics. The two men lived nine years apart. A comparison between Confucius and Socrates serves as an illustration to show how the two fatherly philosophers were hallmarked by their different social environments. Socrates' most important contribution is the so-called Socratic Method while Confucius’s most important contribution is the ethical code of benevolence and righteousness (renyi) which he set up for Chinese people. The Socratic Method reflects the need of a secondary society to search for a far-sighted ideology for a more stable life and society while Confucius’s ethical code of benevolence and righteousness reflects the need of a primary society to rely on its members’ subconscious to prevent unwanted division. Confucius held a strong belief in governing by doing nothing, which summarises the way of life in primary society. As a result, Confucius and Socrates lived different lives with different attitudes towards physical labour. Language functions differently in primary and secondary societies. With the face-to-face interaction in primary society, language is mingled with emotional and psychological exchange. As a result, Confucius and Socrates talked differently. Confucius’s talks are more like pieces of art while Socrates’ talks contain mainly information and insights.

Human nature and instinct keep a primary society stable and functional while in the early stage of secondary society, religion or belief in gods was often used to consecrate the form and course a society was taking, and thus provided a powerful cohesive force to stop its members from seeking other types of secondary society. In primary society, no authority can force his will on others, and their gods do not interfere with people. As a result, Confucius and Socrates had quite different attitudes towards religion. Confucius stayed away from gods and refused to speak about parapsychology, psychic power, mental disturbance, and ghosts (guaililuanshen). In spite of Socrates’ sincere belief in and devout reverence for the gods, his critical thinking eventually led to his execution.

Although both Confucius and Socrates believed in tianrenheyi or the united one of heaven or earth, but tian (heaven) and ren (man) identify different entities in primary and secondary societies. The Chinese word tian (heaven) may indicate God, ideology or nature. With a fixed ideology and social structure as its guide, and with God as its inspiration, a particular secondary society can pursue whatever their goals may be in the environment of nature while primary society is part of nature, and their God and ideology are only reflections of human nature and their society. In primary society, man is a natural man coded by genetics and guided by human nature while man is of his own making in secondary society.


A Comparison of Confucius with Socrates in the Light of a New Perspective: Primary and Secondary Society


According to A. N. Whitehead, all philosophy is only a footnote to Plato. 1 Such a statement always reminds me of what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age from 800 to 200 BC: a period of interregnum for liberty, a period of transition for critical thinkers to lay down the frame of thinking or philosophical foundation for the coming years. Lao Tzu, Confucius, Socrates, and Plato are as relevant today as they were more than two thousand years ago. But the different social environments hatched different philosophies in China and in Greece during the Axial Age. The Chinese civilization developed on the basis of primary society while the Western started with secondary society. It provides a new powerful perspective to understand Western and Chinese philosophies and their difference, since it is based on a fundamentally critical step of human cultural evolution, from primary to secondary society. I will explain this new perspective of primary and secondary society, and then use Confucius and Socrates as examples to show the difference between Western and Chinese philosophies in light of this new perspective.


I. The Concept of Primary Society and Secondary Society 2

Primary society is genetically coded society, and secondary society is any society that is created by man or human culture. Although there is no real primary society for us to examine, it is not difficult to outline the features of a primary society through its definition and the study of animal societies and human society before civilization.

In primary Society, human nature and instinct are enough to keep the society harmonious and functional. Primary society is the basic social organization of man immediately above families. Members are linked together emotionally and psychologically, and thus they are a whole at the subconscious level. The ideal number of people in a primary society is believed to be around 150. Bands and tribes are regarded as primary societies. Bands or tribes were headed by headmen who had no power to force their will on others. Their leadership was based on persuasion and consensus. The culture of primary societies is close to human nature and has no power to modify human nature.

Secondary society is created by man, and so it has an ideology and a corresponding social structure to support the ideology. As a creation by man, it has limitless possible types with different value systems, different directions, and different structures while primary society, dictated by genetics, has only one type. Social stratification and institutionalized violence such as police and army are often necessary to keep a secondary society stable in its present type and restrain its members from seeking other types of society.

Here we define spare time as time left after one’s basic biological needs such as food and water are fulfilled. Primary society spends spare time on enjoyment or on anything closely related to survival such as controlling flood and building city walls. As a result of social stratification and institutionalized violence, secondary society is able to force its will on its members. Therefore, secondary society spends its spare time on its goals that are often not closely related to enjoyment or survival.

An analogy is the lobefin fish that moved onto land and became a land animal around 300 million years ago. The lobefin fish had strong fins but did not have limbs yet. Once on land, they had the possibility to transform to different animals: reptiles, birds, or mammals. Humans moved from primary to secondary society like fish moved onto land: it is not an ordinary move but a move to a different level that is open to multiple dimensions or directions.

Primary society has long been disintegrated in modern civilized society. Since primary society is determined by genetics, and human genetics has not been substantially changed, we can still see the vestige of primary society. It is what Charles Horton Cooley called the primary group, the circle of families, relatives, and friends. 3


II. The Super State and the Two-level System in Ancient China

The Western civilization, especially Mesopotamia and Greece, started with city states. Primary society or clans were disintegrated to form city states with free citizens, a typical secondary society while the Chinese civilization started as a super state of two-level system: the super state enabled them to live in a relatively peaceful social environment while the two-level system, the newly formed secondary society was built on the top of numerous primary societies, enabled them to still live in primary or quasi-primary society. A quasi-primary society is a society similar to primary society. This system was first started by the Yellow Emperor around 2300 BC. 4 From 2300 to 476 BC, peace and morality were apparently the main voices. The first authoritative volume of Chinese history, Historical Records, starts with such words:

“…When Godly Farmer’s (Shen Nong) rule was weakened, vassal states (tribes or federations of tribes) were fighting and conquering each other, people were devastated, but Godly Farmer was unable to punish them with military actions.” 5 

Now the Chinese academic circle considers Godly Farmer as a period of history and not a specific ruler. During this time, agriculture was developed and people lived together in peace except for its later years when violent conflicts developed. The first real ruler in Chinese history was the Yellow Emperor, who conquered two large federations of tribes that were apparently the major powers violating peace, and he then set up this super state to put an end to those chaotic years. This super state was further enlarged and solidified by Yu the Great around 2070 BC when the first Chinese dynasty Xia was founded. A super state was the far largest state of the known world to its people, and there were not any other states to compete with it. With limited geographical knowledge, its people saw this super state as the only power in the whole world. As the above quotation implies, this superpower or super state was to function as police to keep peace among tribes or confederations of tribes (vassal states) like the United Nations keep peace in our world today. If primary society is encoded by genetics, the following important assumption shall apply: 

A primary society or quasi-primary society will form automatically if,

1), the population is no more than a few hundreds;

2), the society is based on face-to-face interactions;

3), no contact with and no ideological influence from secondary society;

4), no outside force is threatening their survival. 

The Two-level System of Chinese Ancient Society from 2300 BC to 476 BC was modeled as follows:  

            The King and his clan + Intellectuals              Quasi-primary society


            The vassals and their clans + Intellectuals       Quasi-primary society


            Villages and tribes                                          Primary society 

            Although the king and vassals, who were the heads of vassal states, were in secondary society according to the above definitions, they were able to live in quasi-primary society, since all the four “if”s in the above important assumption were met. No similar powerful states competed with this super state, which ensured that no outside force threatened their survival. It is further explained as follows:

1), The king, vassals, villages/tribes, and their clans all lived in primary or quasi-primary society.

2), The king, vassals, and their clans lived a better material life than the village/tribal people, but a ten percent tax was well tolerated and was not enough to change the idle life style of the people.

  3), The king and vassals did not live together, but they engaged in face-to-face interaction. Their numbers were within a few hundreds, and they formed a quasi-primary society;

4), Similarly, the vassal and his subordinate headmen formed another quasi-primary society. The king ruled his vassals and the vassals ruled their headmen in the same way as a headman ruled his subjects in a primary society, mainly by persuasion and consensus.

  5), The relations between the above primary and quasi-primary societies followed the princinple of reciprocity and mutual respect as if it was in primary society.

6), Ideally, adminstrative and military conflicts were minimized to nearly zero according to the Taoist princinple: govern by doing nothing or follow the natural way. At the level of the king and vassals, administration was mainly to help those who could not survive by themselves, and military actions were mainly to keep peace. Thus it was ideal if everyone was able to survive and there was no violence.

Secondary society is not an enlarged primary society but fundamentally different society. The first critical thinker of China was Lao Tzu, who had a clear vision about this difference. He said, “The human world (tianxia) is sacred, not something that can be manipulated or possessed. Whoever manipulates the human world will fail. Whoever possesses the human world will lose it.” (Daodejing, Chapter 29)

The human world is apparently a term used in contrast to primary society, and, therefore, is secondary society. With limited geographical knowledge, their human world was the only world they knew, the ancient Chinese world or China today. From those words by Lao Tzu, we know that the king of the super state of China did not have absolute power during or before Lao Tzu's time. The king and his government did not possess their super state and did not have the power to manipulate state affairs. What they could do was only to follow the natural course as the Taoist philosophy says. Taoist philosophy is only a natural ideology that summarizes the way of life in the ancient Chinese primary society.

In summary, Chinese people were able to live in primary or quasi-primary society after civilization, and human nature was still the main force to stabilize the society and keep it functional. With the analogy of fish moving onto land, the fish was on land but still in water in the Chinese system.


III. A Comparison of Confucius with Socrates to Show their Different Social Environments

Confucius was the first Chinese critical thinker who tried to restore the social order and set up standards for human behaviour. Similarly, Socrates was the first critical thinker who shifted his attention to society and the human world. Their different thoughts and different outcomes are like hallmarks to label the different societies they were in. The Greek society had been a typical secondary society for at least a few hundred years before Socrates was born while the Chinese still lived in primary or quasi-primary society. But the Chinese society was in crisis during Confucius' time. Socrates is traditionally regarded as the father of Western ethics or moral philosophy, and so is Confucius of Chinese ethics. The two men lived nine years apart, and both died in their early seventies. Neither of them wrote anything down, and far too much was ascribed to them by their followers. Analects and Apology are the most reliable sources for the two fatherly figures.

(1), The Top Contribution: Socrates' most important contribution is the so-called Socratic Method, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts. The Socratic Method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination by asking a series of questions. With this method, better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those which lead to contradictions. The influence of this approach is most strongly felt today in scientific studies.

As a typical secondary society, the ancient Greek society was built to satisfy and also stimulate the materialistic needs of the population. Knowledge, techniques, and the social structure that supported such pursuits had to be tested to increase its odds of success. Socrates' method reflects such a social need, and also reflects the need of a more stable life course by the ordinary people. Since secondary society faces all possibilities like a boat on uncharted high seas, people need the more grounded experience of primary society.

Confucius’s most important contribution is the ethical code of benevolence and righteousness (renyi) which he set up for Chinese people. The core concept of this ethical code is benevolence (ren). Confucius once said, “Benevolence means loving people.” In fact, ren (benevolence) and man are interchangeable words in Analects. Thus Confucian benevolence (ren) is very close to the meaning of humanity. When a primary society is facing the possibility of unwanted division, people rely on collective unconsciousness to make sure the society stay intact, since nobody has the power to force other members to stay. They call on people to search in their subconscious the feeling that they are humans and they are members of this society. In other words, they call on people to feel their subconscious bond with the society and with others. As mentioned above, a primary society is a whole at the subconscious level because the members are linked together emotionally and psychologically.

Confucius came up with a similar way to call on people's subconscious, and remind them: “Please remember, you are human beings and behave like one!”

In secondary society, humanity is pretty much a creation by man and culture. Socrates would have responded to Confucius' call, “What kind of human beings? Please define it first.”

It must be pointed out that people who lived in ancient primary society responded to those calls fundamentally different from us, since we are no longer as sensitive as they were to those calls. An analogy is that a toddler playing outside and ignoring his mother’s call comes back immediately when his mother asks, “You do not want mommy any more?” A six month old infant knows to share his feeling with his mother by looking at her repeatedly when he is excited with a new toy. It is the subconscious bond between mother and child that the above toddler cannot part with.

(2), The Meaning of Life: Many people have a life long quest which serves as the meaning of their lives. Confucius' quest was to restore the social order while Socrates' quest was to find the truth. When a primary society was in trouble, every member felt the obligation to help especially the elite. In a secondary society, it was not Socrates' business to restore social order, and his duty was to fight bravely in the battlefield and work hard to make a living. In the remaining time, Socrates quest was to examine everyone including himself and also examine many philosophical topics in order to find the truth. Such truth is ultimate in nature, not influenced by personal opinions. Such a concept of truth is characteristic of secondary society, of which the construction is based on rational thinking. Generally speaking, it is beyond the reach of a primary society to seek such truth. In the social affairs of primary society, it is mingled with emotions and psychological feelings that rules out any rational thinking and calculation. The Chinese say, a law-binding magistrate keeps himself from meddling in family affairs. What Socrates sought was exactly the truth in life and in society. Unfortunately the truth Socrates finally found was unacceptable to the Athenian authority and the Athenian citizens, which led to his execution.

(3), Governing by Doing Nothing as a Political Philosophy and as a Way of Life: To govern by doing nothing (wuweierzhi) is often regarded as part of Taoist philosophy. In fact, Confucius himself held a strong belief in governing by doing nothing. Analects cites Shun, a legendary king, as the model of governing by doing nothing. Shun was said to have only five officials but the whole China was orderly during his reign. Once Confucius says, “The one who governed by doing nothing was Shun, and wasn’t he? What did he do? He did nothing except for sitting in the throne solemnly and courteously.”(Analects 15.4)

The Western social and political philosophy hardly had any thoughts in history close to such an idea of doing nothing to rule. Western civilizations were adventurous expeditions on large scales from the very beginning.

Furthermore, Confucius gave a lovely picture of the life in the ancient Chinese primary society where there was no trace of any government. It is another way to express his belief in governing by doing nothing. He says, “When the Tao prevailed, the world was publicly owned, virtuous ones were selected and able ones were chosen, and people lived in harmony and honesty was valued. Everyone treated all the others as his own family, and treated all children as his own children. The elderly enjoyed their later years, the middle-aged made their contribution, and the young were nurtured to grow up. All those who had lost their families were taken care of. Males had their shares, and women had husbands. Goods were displayed on the ground, and nobody took them as their own. Everybody worked but not for themselves. There was neither plot nor scheme, and there was neither theft nor robbery. Doors and gates were not locked. It was called the World Commonwealth.” (Liji, The Rites)

If governing by doing nothing summarizes the social and political ideology of primary society, it can also be considered as a way of life. Thus it applies to every level and every aspect of life.

In a primary society, members spend their spare time enjoying themselves like most animals do after their basic biological needs are fulfilled. Enjoyment includes intellectual and philosophical pursuits, and also includes all aesthetic pursuits. If spare time is time left when one’s basic biological desires are fulfilled, civilization can be built using spare time or its building process can be enjoyed by the people who build it. Thus the Chinese system did not hinder the development of their civilization though their early civilization may be less materialistic and ostentatious.

A secondary society often organizes its members to pursue its goal using their spare time. It is most successful if it makes its member regard the goal as their own. An easy way to achieve this is to link the goal to war, which makes any goal look like a survival issue. Such tricks worked in the Greek system but did not work with the Chinese super state of a two-level system.

The Chinese system was based on human nature and therefore unable to accommodate any big project like building the pyramids that was outside the survival needs of the population, since it was hard to get the consensus of the whole population. During the above mentioned period from 2300 to 476 BC, there was no such project mentioned in Chinese records except for the flood control around 2100 BC. The vast flooded area itself was an urgent call to the population so that it could be regarded as a project for survival. On the other hand, in 841 BC, the angry citizens within the capital were enough to drive away the king. During the subsequent history after 476 BC, the two-level system was substantially changed but the traditions were still there. Two ambitious emperors, one built the Great Wall and the other, the Great Canal to link up the major rivers of China, both caused massive uprisings and immediate collapse of their dynasties. Their projects were far more useful than the ancient Egyptian pyramids and the Greek temples.

The Chinese system itself also means the separation of the two-levels: primary society and quasi-primary society. The former includes villages and the latter, the king and vassals. They both lived their lives inside their own societies, and the only connection between the two was tax and occasional military service. In the ancient Greece, all the slaves, free citizens, and government officials worked inside the same social and economic network. The close connection between slaves and their masters ensured the normal productive process. In the Chinese system, too many interactions between the two levels might lead to the emergence of typical secondary society, which would have the potential to destabilize the whole system. Lao Tzu promotes the separation, and he says, “The best rulers are scarcely known by their people…When the best rulers achieve their goals, their people would say it is their own doing. (Daodejing, Chapter 17)”

As a result, Confucius and Socrates had radically different attitudes towards physical labour, though both of them were from poor families of the ruling class. Socrates was one of the free citizens who formed the ruling class over slaves. Confucius disliked physical labour and scorned those disciples who liked. He was said to have never laboured his limbs and was unable to tell millets from rice. Socrates was a mason. Some statues in the city of Athens were said to be sculptured by him. As the duty of a citizen, Socrates bravely fought several battles. Both as a teacher, Confucius apparently earned an income while Socrates refused to teach for money. Socrates regarded his teaching as part of the ideal philosopher’s life he was pursuing. It is apparent that the ancient Greek life was more energetic and industrious while the Chinese, more peaceful.

(4), The Length of Speech: It is interesting to compare the lengths of Socrates' and Confucius’s talks recorded by their followers. Analects that records Confucius’s words during his whole life has only 27,000 words in English translation while Apology that records Socrates' speech at the court has 14,700 words in English translation. The way Plato recorded Socrates' words might be different from the way Confucius’s disciples recorded Confucius’s words, and the latter might be more concise. Both Plato and Meng Tzu (372-289 BC) expounded their thoughts in detail, since they both wrote for contemporary and future readers. Plato wrote more than two dozen books ranging from 20 to 300 modern printed pages while Meng Tzu wrote only one book with some 45,000 Chinese characters and less than 100 modern printed pages. The difference reflects the different functions of language in primary and secondary societies. China and Greece were at different stages of language evolution though they were both in typical Axial Age.

Anthropologists believed that primates groom each other as a way to solidify the social bond while naked humans chat with each other to solidify their social bond. Even today when people spend most time working, watching television, they still chat at home. Such chat does not necessarily function as exchange of information or discussion of a current issue but can be only for the enjoyment. I often see children of three or four years old chat this way: they giggle wholeheartedly at the nonsense they are talking. Such chat is a piece of pure art. Through such chat and other collective activities, all members integrate into a whole psychologically and emotionally in primary society. The cohesive force and the unity of secondary society rely on the uniform understanding of their collective goals. A highly developed system of communication that is based on exchange of information is a must.

Both Lao Tzu and Confucius lived in the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) when the above two-level system was in crisis, and a new system had not emerged yet to replace the old one. Both Lao Tzu and Confucius admired the past. Confucius’s Analects is by no means a chat, and Confucius himself lived a life more like that in secondary society since he traveled from state to state to promote his ideas. The friendly atmosphere among his disciples and himself is more like a typical primary society. Since people could live in primary or quasi-primary society with the above two-level system, they lacked the experience of secondary society and lacked their sophisticated language. Plato and Socrates used to worry about the emotional effect of poetry and arts and ban them from their ideal republic except hymns to the gods and praise of famous men. Modern arts have lost such effects because we have all been exposed to too many arts already since our childhood. Similarly we have all lost our sensitivity to language, printed or spoken words. You can finish reading Analects within a few hours but it is not the way to read it. You have to read only a few lines a day and ruminating over those words the whole day. You may then appreciate the beauty and deep meanings of those words. You may even be induced into a particular mood that was precisely the effects of those words. You then may roughly have experienced what ancient people did when they heard those words because they were sensitive and we are not. Such effects do not apply to Socrates' speech in Apology, which is not much different from today's speech of a similar man in a similar situation. Ancient Greek secondary society was well developed by Socrates' time.

A Chinese scholar says, Analects is one of the few good books that you can read any time under any circumstances and enjoy it. It will calm you down when you are in a bad mood. According to him, Meng Tzu's book does not have such effects on him. 6 Thus, Analects is not an ordinary piece of art like Children's chats but one of the greatest masterpieces of art in thousands of years. Meng Tzu, though a loyal Confucian scholar he was, lived in the period of Warring States (475-221 BC) when secondary society was well established. The time required him to write differently from Confucius: there is more information and more insights but it is less like a piece of art.

(5), Religious Philosophy: In the early stage of secondary society, religion or belief in gods was often used to consecrate the form and course a society was taking, and thus provide a powerful cohesive force to stop its members from seeking other types of secondary society. It was certainly a contributing factor in the outcomes of ancient Greek wars. When Greeks defeated the Persian invasion in 480 BC, the Greek cities agreed to restore the Temple at Olympia and build a great temple to Zeus and a huge statue of him to thank the gods for their victory. When the Athenians were defeated in the Peloponnesian war (431-404 BC), Socrates was executed for blasphemy.

In primary society, the social cohesive force was human nature, and they did not face the possibility of different types of society. Their religion was quite different. Chuang Tzu says, “In the ancient time, yin and yang were in harmony. Gods and spirits were quiet and did not interfere with people. The four seasons followed their course. Animals and plants were not harmed. Humans lived to their full life span. People had knowledge but there was no use of it. This is called the big One.”( zhuangzi, Chapter 16)

Chinese countryside was close to Taoist ideal society. They consumed what they produced, and only rarely bought something from outside. Here I use my own experience to show the different attitude of Chinese people toward religion because of the Taoist cultural tradition.

When I was a child in the early1950s, the gods Chinese peasants worshiped were all natural deities. The only god who had a temple for villagers to pay respect was the god of earth. A village may have several such temples, each for a clan or a cluster of households, since it was considered as a local god like the headman of a tribe. They were usually the size of a room, much smaller than a farmer house. Even a single room, peasants never forgot to use it for something else. They could be used as grind mills, public places for meetings, or playing grounds for children during rainy days. In my village, all the temples for the god of earth had no image of the god. Each household of peasants usually worshiped three additional gods: the kitchen god, the fortune god, and the god of heaven and earth. Except for the kitchen god who had a paper portrait hung on the wall, the other two were only specific locations, the granary for the fortune god, and the yard for the god of heaven and earth. There were neither images of gods nor any shrines for those two gods. The god of heaven and earth was really a god of nature and had thus no image, but the fortune god was a male anthropomorphic god. Even with the portrait of the kitchen god, a Chinese calendar was printed below the god image to increase its sale. As a child, I saw clearly that Chuang Tzu was right: gods do not interfere with people, and they do not have the power. When Buddhism and Christianity spread to China, Chinese peasants worshiped them all as part of their polytheist faith. Since the houses of Chinese peasants were all one-storey, you could see only trees and crops in the summer. Such a natural picture of life was well in contrast to modern cities and to the ancient Greek landscape with huge buildings. My hometown is some two hundred mile south of Beijing but to my knowledge, it was more or less the same in all Chinese countryside in the 1950s.

Under such circumstances, Confucius' principles regarding gods are: pay your respect to gods and spirits but keep a distance from them. A suitable interpretation of these principles is that gods and people do not interfere with each other. It is like in a primary society where nobody can force his will on others. Furthermore, Confucius had so-call Four No-Comments in his teaching and counselling practice, namely, Confucius never spoke about parapsychology, psychic power, mental disturbance, and ghosts (guaililuanshen). Confucius seemed to understand well today's psychology of religion. He was a practical man and did not want to go into these grey areas. His religious attitudes brought him no trouble since gods do not interfere with people in a primary society setting.

A secondary society often stimulates its talents into free thinking but restricting it within its boundary, and often stimulates its talents into religious imagination but restricting it within its gods and beliefs. Socrates went too far both in religious imagination and in free thinking for his society to tolerate. Socrates talked about his inner voice that stopped him from entering politics. In a deep religious culture, such subconscious similar to Socrates' inner voice must be commonplace. The Athens government used Socrates to stop others, or even to use him as a scapegoat to silence complaints. Such political trickery is typical of secondary society that is not seen in primary society.

(6), The United One of Heaven and Man (tianrenheyi): The Chinese philosophical phrase tirenheyi, (heaven and man are one, or the united one of heaven and man) is a concept that embraces a broad array of interpretations, including man's immersing himself in nature or losing himself in meditation. It is often regarded as the hallmark of Chinese philosophy that stresses the holistic thinking. As modern science shows, both man and the world are made by the same atoms and obeying the same law of nature. Furthermore, spiritual people pursue the high entity that guides both man and nature.

Confucius certainly had such a belief in the united one of heaven and man. He talked about the mandate of heaven and emphasized the heart and human nature. His follower Meng Tzu furthered Confucius' thought saying, “Once one knows human nature, he will know heaven.” (Mengzi: Jinxin)

Mr. Fang, a notable Chinese scholar, has recently pointed out that both Western and Chinese philosophers believe in the united one of heaven and man, and there is no fundamental difference among their beliefs. He says, “Almost all Western traditional metaphysicians held and expounded the view of the united one of heaven and man, because one of the utmost ideals of Western traditional metaphysics is to seek the ultimate reality and the guiding principle for the whole world.” 7 Socrates was indeed one of those metaphysicians. Thus both Confucius and Socrates believed in the united one of heaven and man.

I disagree with Mr. Fang, and I believe that their beliefs are fundamentally different though Western and Chinese philosophers may both hold the same view that heaven and man are one or the united one of heaven and man. Chinese philosophy was first hatched in a primary society while Western philosophy was founded in a secondary society. The words “heaven” (tian) and “man” (ren) may identify different entities in primary and secondary societies.

The Chinese word tian (heaven) can mean three things: God, nature, and ideology. All the three words, God, nature, and ideology, indicate different things in primary and secondary societies. In primary society, gods do not interfere with people, people are integral part of nature, and if they have an ideology, their ideology is based on human nature and instinct. Their ideology is shared by all primary societies. In secondary society, God often interferes with people and has the power to kill those who, like Socrates, offended God. Nature is something to work on and to conquer in secondary society while primary society has no intention or power to conquer nature as they see themselves as part of nature. The ideology of a secondary society is created by man, and different societies and different people have different ideologies. Primary society has no ideology in such a sense. Therefore, God, nature, and ideology indicate completely different entities though they use the same words.

With a fixed ideology and social structure as its guide, and with God as its inspiration, a particular secondary society can pursue whatever their goals may be in the environment of nature. Both Mesopotamian and Greek civilizations commercialized society to stimulate and satisfy the materialistic needs of the population. During the Axial Age, Greece had a huge class of slaves, but those slaves were part of this social structure built by man. Therefore, government officials, free citizens, and slaves were all well organized into the same system to pursue the same goals.

Finally, the word “man” (ren) also points to different entities in primary and secondary society. In primary society, man is a natural man who is encoded by genetics and guided by human nature. As secondary society is created by man, and the man who lives in it is also of his own making. It is only in secondary society that a man can pursue a life of his own choice that is not dictated by human nature, though the majority of us are dictated to by our culture. But our culture is largely a creation of man. Human nature remained the major topic in Chinese philosophy from the Axial Age till the last dynasty ended in 1911. The predominant opinion was that human nature is born good. In the West, the discussion of human nature involved many controversies though the latest thoughts tend to assert that human nature is the product of either culture or the result of our own free choice. 8, 9 In other words, man is of his own making.

As mentioned above, humans moved from primary to secondary society like fish moved to land. When fish moved onto land and became a land animal such as mammals or birds, they can no longer be called as fish, and it is only their ancestors that were fish.

Both Chinese Taoist philosophy and Confucian philosophy hold the view that heaven and man are one, but only Taoist philosophy holds primary society as its ideal model and holds itself back from secondary society. In Taoist opinion, a man can still become a natural man in the modern society. They call such man a real man.


IV. Conclusion

Many consider the ancient Greek city, Athens, as unique such as commercial activities, wealth, democracy, the pooling of different people with different ideas from different places etc., to produce the most critical thinkers during the Axial Age. The Axial China had none of those. But there was one thing they shared with the Athenian, and that is freedom. The Chinese had no freedom to pursue wealth or any projects on the Athenian scale, but they did not have the bondage of commercial activities, wealth, democracy, etc. either. The first Chinese philosophers were able to think from the basis of the born human nature and the genetically coded society, primary society. Although the whole world including China is now on the road built by Axial Greece or the Western civilization, Chinese culture may still point to a different direction for the future.


1. The original words are: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them…” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected edition, edited by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (Free Press, 1979).

2. You-Sheng Li, A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy (London, Canada: Taoist Recovery Centre, 2005), 36-45, 232. The Chinese version of this book: You-Sheng Li, Zhonghua Daoxuede yige xinjieshi (London, Canada: Taoist Recovery Centre, 2005), 338-64.

3. Gordon Marshall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 92-93; and Charles Horton Cooley, Social Organization (New York: Schocken Books, 1962).

4. The Yellow Emperor is considered to be a legendary figure, and the time of his reign around 2300 BC is only an estimation.

5. All quotations from Chinese resources in this article are translated by the author You-Sheng Li.

6. Liu Mengxi, Zhuangzi yu Xiandai he Houxiandai (Chuang Tzu and Modern/Post Modern) (Hebei Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 2004), 24.

7. Fang Zhaohui, “Shitan Xifang Sixiangshi Shangde Tianrenheyi Chuantong”(On the Traditional Concept of the United One of Heaven and Man in the Western History of Thought), http://www.Confucius2000.com, 2006.

8. Michael Ruse: “Human Nature,” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 376-77.

9. Gordon Marshall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 227.


Chinese Glossary

Zhuangzi 莊子 Tian

Daodejing 道德經 Tianrenheyi 天人合一

Guaililuanshen 怪力亂神 Tianxia 天下

Mengzi: jinxin 孟子﹕盡心 Wuweierzhi 無為而治

Ren Yi


Renyi 仁義

shennong 神農

Liji (The Rites ) 禮記