A Comparison of Confucius with Plato and Aristotle in Political Philosophy

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You-Sheng Li

Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars


Summary: Modern political philosophy lists Plato and Aristotle as its ancient founders but not Confucius. In fact, Confucius was a professional politician while neither Plato nor Aristotle was. Confucius practiced and taught politics for his whole life. Confucius’ political philosophy is based on the genetically coded primary society while Western political philosophy including Plato’s and Aristotle’s are all based on the man-made secondary society.


Confucius political philosophy is nothing but human-heartedness plus examples, which are set up by the ruling class for the people to follow and set up by everybody for others to follow.


Both Confucius and Plato charted out the ideal universal state for whole humanity but neither thought they were the original creators of their ideas. During the last six thousand years, civilization and accumulation of knowledge and social complexity were only side products of upgrading wars until the two world wars. It is like the evolutionary process that fish moved onto land and became mammals and birds, which was created not by man but by God.


Both Confucius and Aristotle were practical philosophers with a wide interest covering both nature and human worlds. Thus Plato from his sophisticated thinking of various forms or ideas and Confucius from his traditional and practical human world both came to the universal state of humanity. The fundamental difference between Confucius and Plato, Aristotle was: The former based the genetically coded natural primary society while the latter was based on the man-made secondary society. During Confucius’ time, the Ancient Chinese Super State of Primary Societies was still intact and functioning like today’s United Nations to keep peace among local powers while Plato’s philosopher kings are also partially played by the United Nations in modern world. In a way, from Confucius, Plato, and to Aristotle was along a course from the original human world in pre-civilization to the modern world. In the post-modern era, we may have to go an opposite course from Aristotle, Plato, and to Confucius.

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Confucius worked through his whole life as a local governor, minister, and a councilor and manager to various state leaders while only Aristotle worked as a teacher or councilor to Great Alexander for some years. Confucius was also a teacher who taught people how to prepare themselves for a position in the government at different levels. If politics is the art or science of government and a politician practices politics, Confucius was a professional politician while none of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was.

Why Confucius was not named as a political philosopher while the above mentioned three ancient Greeks were is only because Confucius’ political philosophy was based on the genetically coded primary society. As Western civilization has led the world in the last five hundred years in modernization, post-modern era urges us to see Confucius’ political philosophy in comparison with Plato and Aristotle.

When all human societies are divided into the genetically coded primary society and the man-made secondary society, it is found that the Western civilization started with the secondary society while the Chinese started with the primary society. The ancient Chinese super state was divided orderly into numerous primary societies including the ruling class, which enabled Chinese people to continue their social life humans have lived for several million years. This super state of primary societies remained intact until 476 BC when Warring States Period started. (Li, 2005, 2014)

1)      The master of the primary society is man while the master of the secondary society is God.

The primary society is the society humans are born with, and so humans are the master just as monkeys are the master of their society. The primary society, based on face-to-face interaction, has about 150 members and the social order is esthetic/psychological. The social order is usually rational in a secondary society.

As a man-made society, the secondary society faces numerous possibilities and each has an uncharted course stretching into the future. As the result, the secondary society is uncontrollable by man.

Lao Tzu says: “The human world is a Godly thing, which cannot be operated, and cannot be owned either, the one who operates it will end in failure, the one who owns it will loose it. (Chapter 29) Confucius respected God but stayed away from God: He focused on the human society but did not astray away from the human nature: the human-heartedness. Both Lao Tzu and Confucius hold the view: Stay away from action-taking and the world will remain orderly.

Having seen various societies and states aiming at various directions and goals, Plato saw a pre-existing world of forms and ideas deep in our mind, which was created by God. Only philosophers could go deep in our mind and reveal those forms and ideas.

This is along the same line of thought as the Bible where God created Adam and Eve about six thousand years ago when Mediterranean civilizations started. In fact, humans are created by themselves in the secondary society, and so modern scholars claim: “We are, in short, what we make ourselves”; “The most influential perspective in sociology...has been view human nature as a consequence of human histories and experiences, rather than any predetermined essence.” (Wolfe, 2001; Marshall, 1994)

In fact, our civilized history has been a long process of upgrading wars with the humanity fighting against itself, which greatly sped up the process of cultural evolution and ended with this global village of sophisticated science and technology. Under the pressure of war, humanity traded its happiness for materialistic achievements and linguistic sophistication, so the suicide rates were doubled or nearly doubled even in Canada and United States in the twentieth century. (Macionis and Gerber, 1999). This sped-up six thousand years of human civilization was no way designed by man but by God.


2)      Plato’s World of Forms or Ideas and Confucius’ Refusal of Original Thinking: The Plato’s Problem

It is interesting to note that both Plato and Confucius insisted that they were not the original creators of their ideas. Confucius says his job is re-narration or re-telling but not creating; Plato insists that his ideas came from God, as mentioned above.

A linguistic philosopher so talked about how his young daughter learned to speak: As a toddler, she only managed to speak two or three words with visible difficulty in expressing herself. Then all of a sudden, she is chattering continuously with her mother or other girls around three and four. She speaks so freely without any visible effort and only has difficulty in stopping talking. There is nothing in the world that she cannot express and talk about. Furthermore, she is always correct in grammar though nobody has taught her any knowledge of grammar.

Noam Chomsky (1928-) first noticed this phenomenon in the 1960s. He thought we humans are born with a brain power of language, and so-called generative grammar, a grammar which grows itself among children. He called it the Plato’s Problem. The question is, where does our knowledge come from and how does it become our possession when environmental conditions do not provide sufficient information? In a more general sense, Plato’s Problem refers to the problem of explaining a "lack of input”,or the so-called poverty of stimulus.

Plato was the first philosopher who systematically inquired into this issue. It is from the Meno that the modern instantiation of Plato’s Problem is derived. Plato believed that we possess innate ideas that precede any knowledge that we gain through experience. Therefore, Plato himself must have been surprised in a similar way about the pouring out an endless stream of new ideas from his own mind.

I observed that when young girls of three or four years chat with each other, they apparently forget the difference between reality and imagination without any sense of logos. Chinese Taoist philosophy admires animals and children even infants, and take them as example to follow. Similarly, Confucius admires the color and beauty of the primary society. So he says: “I enjoy myself by eating coarse rice, drinking plain water, and sleeping on my own arm as a pillow. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud.” (Analect, 7:15)

Confucius’ talks were often accompanied with musical instruments while none of Plato’s and Aristotle’s books were written for chanting with musical instruments. Confucius says: “It is by poetry that one’s mind is aroused; it is by the rites that one stands firmly in the society; it is by music that a man is completed.” (Analects, 8:8)

Then we come to Confucius’ refusal of original thinking. I have read the Analects thoroughly for several times, which led me to believe that Confucius was deliberately refusing to go into original thinking like Plato and Aristotle did. During Confucius’ time, the man-made secondary society was emerging and had not established itself yet. In the background of the Chinese Super State of Primary Societies had been there for more than a thousand years, a new ideology or a new way of thinking had to pave the way for any secondary society. Confucius clearly saw it and to stop the emerging of any secondary society and to set up an example, Confucius determined to hold himself back from any original thinking along the way of a new secondary society.

Confucius praised people who were born with knowledge or Plato’s innate ideas and saying: “ I am not one of those, and I learned from others for my knowledge.” Confucius further pointed out that some people created knowledge by themselves, and he was not one of them. (Analects: 7:19; 6:9; 7:27)

Confucius said: “A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.” “thought without learning is perilous.” “The study of strange doctrines is injurious indeed!” (Analects: 13:3; 2:16)

As in the Mediterranean world when Plato and Aristotle lived, the secondary society was built to pursue material gain and the society became, to certain extent, controllable by man like a hand tool. Confucius insisted that a gentleman does not pursue any material gain and does not become a tool controllable by man. In conclusion, Confucius clearly shows his opposition to the emerging man-made secondary society.

3)      A Comparison of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle with Confucius, Mencius, and Hsun Tzu

By far the most comparable three Chinese philosophers to Socrates (469-399 BC), Plato (427-347 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC) are Confucius (551-479 BC), Mencius (372-289 BC), and Hsun Tzu (286-238 BC). Those six philosophers all lived during Karl Jaspers’ Axial Age from 800 to 200 BC. Both Socrates and Confucius are the first ethic philosophers in their culture who for the first time focused on the human world, society and life. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle were teachers and students while Confucius, Mencius, and Hsun Tzu were all along the same line of thought as the founder and followers of Confucianism. Thus it is not surprising that the six philosophers showed the same trend of change in time: Plain (oral tradition), ideal, and practical. As the founders, both Confucius and Socrates did not write anything down; both Plato and Mencius were highly ideal pursuers; both Aristotle and Hsun Tzu were highly practical, namely empirical philosophers: they both accepted the cruel reality of the secondary society as normal.

Therefore, the six philosophers showed the same trend of change: from plain, ideal, to practical while both Greece and China entered into Imperial period during the late Axial age. A dramatic difference between the two reflects the fundamental different societies Greece and China started with: the secondary and the primary society.

If being practical means getting used to it, the Greek social environment improved while the Chinese worsened by the disintegration of the primary society shortly after Confucius’ death. So Socrates was executed in Greece while Hsun Tzu’s two students were executed in China; Confucius was the one most involved in politics in China while Aristotle was the one most involved in politics in Greece. Chinese poetry started with the folksong of The Poetry Classic but ended with Qu Yuan his colleagues’ poetry written both by and for the upper class of autocrats. The Greek poetry changed in an opposite way: from tragic autocratic to comic. If Socrates’ death is tragic, facing a similar situation, Aristotle showed humorous attitudes: “I will not allow the Athenians to sin twice against philosophy!” It reflects the change of the life attitude of the population and society: from ideal though tragic to practical.

The three Chinese philosophers from Confucius to Hsun Tzu covered about three hundred years while the three Greek philsophers covered only about a hundred years. The Greek culture changed much faster, since they started with the secondary society.

4) What is the Question?

Plato opens book 1 of the Republic by asking: What is justice? Aristotle opens book 3 of the Politics by asking: What is a state? Confucius’ book, the Analects, opens by asking: Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application?

Here we see clearly both Plato and Aristotle have a question to ask while Confucius only has some issue to emphasize by asking a question. This is the difference between the man-made secondary society and the natural primary society: the former face numerous possibilities and so they have serious question to consider about while what the latter needs is to remind themselves: Enjoy where you are and do not go astray and get lost.

To Plato and Socrates, ancient Greek people who lived in one of the numerous states like setting in cave with both their legs and heads chained and fixed in a position to look at the shadows on the cave wall casted by objects and animals from outside of the cave.

Such a cave is a man-made secondary society but not a primary society. Man is born with a broad view and sense of his social world, natural world, and his inner world, the human mind. The man-made secondary society only picks up a few of this broad and sense and overstretch them to form the base of a secondary society. In Plato’s view, only philosophers can go out of the cave and have a broad view and obtains the philosopher mind with rational thinking of logos.

In fact, in a man-made secondaey society in their early years, residents face numerous questions and possibilities. Cave men and philosophers only represent those who have a practical mind and those who have a philosophical mind. In fact, Plato had a broader mind than Aristotle had, since Aristotle was more practical.

With Plato’s cave as the metaphor, Confucius’ ideal life in a primary society is a cave man with a philosophical mind, who live his life in the cave while his mind wondering outside the cave only as an enjoyable fantase. This man has to remind himself from time to time: do not apply his fantase ideas into his cave man life, otherwise it will become incontrollable by man.

Therefore, Confucius opens his book of Analects by asking: Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Another classic of Confucianism, Rites: Great Learning, summarizes this leaning and application as: Cultivate oneself, bring orderly equality to the family, govern the state, and bring orderly peace to the human world. In Confucius term, to learn is only to learn from their traditions and from senior members and from each other.

Therefore, both Confucius and Plato had a broader mind than Aristotle had while Confucius was just as practical as Aristotle was. Both Plato and Confucius are looking for an Ideal Universal Human World.

5) What is Politics

Politics derives from the Greek word polis, and so to Plato and Aristotle, politics essentially means city affairs, or governing a city state. In fact, Confucius faced the same political landscape as Plato, Aristotle did, state and its people. Confucius’ motherland, State Lu, was about the size of Athens, less than half million in population.

When someone asks: What is politics? Confucius, as a professional politician, answers: Politics means you behave yourself correctly. (Analects, 12:17) The essence of Confucius’ teachings is nothing but human-heartedness, and in other word, and the above Confucius’ answer only means: You are dictated by human nature and do not go astray from human nature.

Confucius says: “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity sought to be given them by punishments, they will try to avoid the punishment, but have no sense of shame. ” “If they be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame, and moreover will become good.”( Analects: 2:3, 2:4)

If Confucius had had been in Plato’s and Aristotle’s position, he might have said: If the people be led by material gaining, and uniformity sought to be given them by laws and punishment, they will have totally different senses of shame and eventually go on fighting each other until the whole human world divided into two campuses to fight the two world wars and exhaosting the resource on earth afterwards.

If Plato and Aristotle had had been in Confucius’ position, they might have said: If the people be led by virtue, and uniformity sought to be given them by the rules of propriety, they will have the sense of shame and become good but they do not know how to deal with the conflicting situation accelerated by material gaining when they are in the secondary society, their society may periodically end with collapse.


The subsequent two thousand year history in Europe and in China after those six philosophers and their times was also characterized by the above difference between Confucius’ and Plato’s, Aristotle’s political philosophies. European history was fulfilled by warfairs while Chinese history restricted non-human-heartedness among the imperial court and its officials at different levels. In the coming imperial age in China, human-heartedness was readily transformed into so-called shameless black-heartedness: violence and killing to promote the wishes of social power.



6) Conclusion


Confucius was as ideal as Plato and was as practical as Aristotle in his political philosophy.

As mentioned above, we are essentially what we make ourselves. Both Confucius and Plato refused to accept such a view: both man and his society are made by himself. Plato thought that all our ideas were created by God and sitting deep in our mind while Confucius thought that our human world was based on nothing but pure uncontaminated human nature. Mencius says that human-heartedness is nothing but human beings.

Since Plato and Confucius idealized different societies: secondary and primary society respectively. They showed quite different attitudes towards poetry and arts. In the super state of primary societies, the ruling class lived in their own primary societies but living an artistic life: chanting poetry and performing rites on social occasions as Chinese people did when Confucius was alive.

Clearly both Confucius and Plato faced the same dilema of early human civilization but idealized at primary and secondary society respectively: Confucius was headstrong in refusing to go into the field of original thinking while Plato forbid both the rulers and gardians to have families and properties. They both were far from reasonable.

The social structure of the period of early Chinese civilization from 2200 to 476 BC was idiographically modelled 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


Theoretically the kings and vassals in the above idiogram live in a secondary society since they are functioning as the ruling class, but in fact they still lived a nearly primary society or quasi-primary society. Vassals are the state level where Confucius lived. Both kings and vassals functioned like the United Nations in our world, namely, to keep peace and balance among local powers and societies. It must be pointed out that the social power was much less developed in the Chinese world where was a powerless king. With a United Nations, the modern world is like the ancient Chinese world but both modern world and the acient Greek world are in the secondary society.

In Plato’s ideal world, there is no slave but is equality between men and women. Aritotle took slavery and inequality between men and women as normal. In today’s world, economical classification has gone further than the ancient Greece though slavery is liminated while inequality between the two sexes is still there.

The function of the Plato’s philosopher kings was partially played by the Roman Catholic Popes in the middle age Europe and by the United Nations in the modern world. Although the United Nations can be seen as the king and his court in the ancient Chinese world, they are fundamentally different societies. The six thousand years of upgrading warfairs up to the two world wars is essentially astray from Confucius’ ideal human world of primary societies.

The six thousand year of civilization and upgrading warfare was only a proof that the secondary society is uncontrollable by man. The theory of two levelled society comes to the same belief as Plato: our six thousand years of civilization was designed by God and not by man. Like fish moved onto land and became mammals, birds, and reptiles in the biological history, humans moved into the secondary society where they were fighting each other in order to accumulate enough knowledge for a new human world in the future.




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(submitted to and accepted by THE X×VTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE OF PHILOSOPHY, 2016 in Ancient Olympia, Greece)