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Fang Zhaohui: Why Confucius and Plato focus on ‘virtue’

More than 2,000 years ago, both Confucius and Plato held ‘virtue’ as the cornerstone of life in the Axial Age. Confucius advocates that ‘set your heart on the truth, hold to virtue’ while Plato believes that citizens should be equipped with four cardinal virtues. Both philosophers share a similar mindset, reflecting Confucius’ words — Virtue is not left to stand alone, He who practices it will have neighbours.

Confucius and Plato share substantial similarities in academic interests and mindsets, said to Fang Zhaohui, Professor of the Department of History at the School of Humanities and Social Science of the Tsinghua University, who was interviewed exclusively by China News Service East Meets West Program. The sage of East and West have a strong passion for applying academic knowledge to the governance of state affairs and pay great attention to fostering virtue. They regard virtue as the essence of human life and the fundamental factor in determining the rise and fall of the nation. However, they follow different research paths, offering a deeper insight into the divergence in the paths of Chinese and Western scholarship later in history.

China News Service Reporter: You mentioned that Plato and Confucius both focus on "virtue" in Chinese and Western Studies: Reinterpreting the Academic History of Modern China. Why did the sages of the East and West spontaneously focus on "virtue"? What are the similarities between Confucius' "virtue" and Plato's "Four Cardinal Virtues"?

Fang Zhaohui: "The Analects" recorded that Confucius believed to set your heart on truth, and hold to virtue. He also marvelled that he had never seen a man as virtuous as he was lustful and that few people knew virtue. In The Republic, Plato stressed that citizens should possess "the Four Cardinal Virtues," which are wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.

Both Confucius and Plato lived in the Axial Age of Chinese and Western culture. Their mindset has had a decisive impact on Eastern and Western academic development over 2,000 years. The pioneers in China and Ancient Greece both paid attention to virtue with major differences in historical contexts.

The ancient Greeks, a conglomeration of hundreds of city-states, frequently waged war amongst themselves. The Peloponnesian War, in particular, fully revealed many political issues in Athenian society. Plato’s virtue is largely based on his reflection and criticism of democracy in Athens and the ancient Greek Society of his time. Socrates, his mentor and one who was sentenced to death, was the victim of the flawed democratic system. Plato felt deeply that the relentless populism and emotional tendencies in the city-states under such a political system would go in the opposite direction without a virtuous leader.

The background of Confucius' virtue stems from the moral degeneration in the West Zhou Dynasty and the decline of the aristocratic and hereditary system. Its virtue is based on the fact that the hereditary system is not good for the selection and cultivation of skilled talents to a large extent, thereby emphasizing the development of the leader. Since then, Confucianism has emphasized virtue for thousands of years and advocated governing the country by virtue. Western philosophers, following Plato, placed less emphasis on virtue but promoted cognitivism in his philosophical thinking.

The ethic proposed by Aristotle, Plato's student, is called virtue ethics. From his point of view, ethics is part of political studies rather than the first philosophy. In other words, ethics is the science of virtue. He paid less attention to the practical value of virtue than Plato.

Confucius' concept of setting your heart on truth, and holding to virtue shares many similarities with Plato's "Four Cardinal Virtue" as both refer to courage, wisdom and justice. However, Plato's course of discussion in "The Republic" is very different from that of Confucius. Confucian virtue calls for a feasible method of cultivating virtue, while Plato’s virtue is close to basic common knowledge. Socrates' discussion with his disciples in "The Republic" was characterized by a more abstract, metaphysical and discursive approach, delving into the exploration of universal concepts and definitions. Although Plato's ultimate pursuit of virtue is consistent with Confucius, his discourse may not be as practical for everyday application.

Statue of Confucius made by clay pottery craftsmen in Shandong, Photo by Liu Mingxiang.

China News Service Reporter: You mentioned in the book that the virtues taught by Plato were mostly based on the principle of "seeking the truth." Confucianism, represented by Confucius, was based on the principle of "seeking the answer." How did this difference lead to the divergence in Chinese and Western studies?

Fang Zhaohui: When examining Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the primary purpose of ancient Chinese studies is to seek goodwill, while the secondary purpose is to solve practical life issues. On the one hand, ancient Chinese studies focus on belief systems, spirituality, values and outlook on life. On the other hand, it adheres to pragmatism serving the purpose of governing the states. Various human civilizations seek goodwill and meet practical needs with diverse development paths, leading to the emergence of different mindsets, ideologies and religions.

Greek is the only civilization that has developed the quest for truth and knowledge to the highest level by seeking knowledge for the sake of truth and seeking truth for the sake of knowledge. From the Greek point of view, philosophy is the foundation of all science. Until the 20th century, Martin Heidegger still stressed that the wisdom of philosophy lies in explaining science using the scientific method.

The quest for knowledge and truth may often be detached from the necessities of daily life. Plato once held the view that one could attain true virtue based on established knowledge (science) about the nature of virtue. However, Aristotle figured out that the knowledge or science (ethics) about the nature of virtue was not necessarily useful for cultivating virtue as it required practices. It is akin to repeatedly throwing a rock into the air 10,000 times, and the rock will never learn to fly on its own.
If we classify human knowledge into three domains, namely truth, goodness, and beauty, ancient Chinese studies seek the good while Western philosophy, humanity, and social science seek the truth. This is why I distinguish between Western and Chinese studies based on 'seeking truth' and 'seeking response', 'knowing' and 'doing' illustrated in my book.

The image of Plato collected by the Louvre Museum displayed in the Capital Museum in Beijing Photo by Zhong Xin.

China News Service Reporter: You suggested that the most comparable is the Hebrew tradition represented by Christianity, which is what you call seeking the good when comparing Chinese studies and Western studies. Why is it more comparable?

Fang Zhaohui: Confucianism is essentially a spiritual tradition. I prefer the expression closer to religion than philosophy if we cannot call it religion. First, one of the defining characteristics of religious traditions is that they are centred on spiritual beliefs, as are Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. Confucianism also has its own beliefs, such as the way of heaven, natural law, or the five-character motto: "Heaven, Earth, Emperor, Parent, Teacher."

Additionally, Religion has its eternal scriptures, while philosophy has only the classics. Sacred Scripture is different from classics represented by the works written by Plato and Aristotle. It was called the eternal Bible or Canon by Christianity. Classics are open to criticism, negation and demolition which scriptures cannot. Regardless of the 'Six Classical Arts', 'Four Books and Five Classics', or 'Thirteen Classics' proposed by Confucianism, they were regarded as classics. Buddhism also claimed that Tibetan Tripitaka, Diamond Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra and Heart Sutra are timeless classics.

Furthermore, the major difference between religion, philosophy and science is that religion should provide the ultimate sanctuary and home for human life while philosophy and science derive satisfaction in seeking knowledge. The Confucian’s concepts of "Settling down and Getting on with one's pursuit", "Self-Cultivation, Family Regulation, State Governance, Bringing Peace to All Under Heaven", and the unity of man and heaven signifies the spiritual home. Confucianism and other religions gave clear answers in this regard, albeit the answers may differ.

Moreover, religion pays great attention to social etiquette, which is often referred to as sacred rules. It is not merely a theoretical construct, but a set of compulsory actions for beginners. Most of the rules outlined in "The Rite of Zhou", "Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial" and " Book of Rites" (The Three Rituals of Confucianism) are similar to sacred rules.

Finally, another major difference between philosophy and religion is that philosophy is characterized by rational thinking while religion is characterized by asceticism, reflected by internal and external elixirs in Taoism, meditation retreat in Buddhism, and the cultivation of the body in Confucianism.

We know that Confucianism has prioritized cultivation for thousands of years. When Confucius discussed learning with his peers, he believed that it did not mean that one was great in knowledge but one with strong morals. "Learn" is a frequent word in ‘"The Analects", for example, Lu Aigong asked: " Which of the disciples is a good learner? " Confucius replied: "Yan Hui is a good learner because he does not change his anger and does not repeat his mistakes". This reflects the fact that the core qualities of Confucianism are based on cultivation and the religious nature of Confucianism.

People often think of Confucianism as philosophy, and if one does not acknowledge this, they are seen as lacking in comparison to Westerners. But Confucianism, as an academic discipline, is closer to Western religion (Christianity and Judaism) than philosophy. Recognizing this will not stop us from studying Confucianism from a philosophical standpoint, just as some people study Christianity from such a perspective.

In September 2023, a cappella with the theme of The Analects - Excerpts from the Analects, premiered at Peking University. Photo by Jia Tianyong.

Fang Zhaohui: Let me give you a simple example. Suppose that you are a physicist who loves music. While studying physics, you will adhere strictly to the principles of physics. Conversely, when delving into music, you will follow the prescribed theories of music. These two disciplines will naturally intersect in real life. For example, Einstein was a music lover and violist. But he did not create a theory that interwoven music theory and the theory of relativity. It is said that playing the violin inspired his studies in physics. We refer to as a practical amalgamation of two separate disciplines.

Newton believed in Christianity by strictly adhering to a believer's way of worship. But he strictly followed the methodology of physics when doing scientific research. Newton believed he was greatly inspired by the Christian belief that fueled his passion for scientific research. Despite his adherence to Christianity was problematic, his faith gave a boost to his physics research in practice. This integration did not require the establishment of a theoretical system that combined Christianity and physics.

All disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences, draw their origins from philosophy, a spirit that fuels to seek the truth and knowledge. Similarly, Confucianism, which encourages self-cultivation and a peaceful mind can contribute to the development of science, a practical endeavor that thrives on understanding and exploration.

Guest Profile:

Born in Zongyang, Anhui Province, Fang Zhaohui is a professor and doctoral supervisor in the Department of History, School of Humanities, Tsinghua University. He is a doctor of philosophy at Fudan University. He joined the Tsinghua University since 1996. He was a senior visiting scholar at the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University (2003.9-2004.6), a visiting researcher at Seoul National University, South Korea (2008.9-2009.8), and a visiting professor at Chinese Fo Guang University (2006.4-5), and his part-time commitments include member of the International Confucian Association (2014), member of the Chinese Confucian Academy (2015), Taishan Scholar of Shandong Province (2020), and a distinguished expert from the Confucius Institute (from 2020).

East Meets WestKailun Sui

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