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A Platonist Critique of Confucius and Socrates' Phaedo: Analytical Essay

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The two seminal philosophers, Confucius, and Plato whom we have known as the “father of philosophy” in their respective cultures, though separated by thousands of kilometres and half a century apart, still arrived at similar answers to complex questions. In this essay, I will be discussing the similarities between Socrates as presented by Plato and Confucius in their common pursuit of wisdom as philosophers, and how Confucius displays characteristics and embodies beliefs that Socrates himself preached in Phaedo.

Firstly, in Phaedo, Socrates described a genuine philosopher as one who ought to welcome death. According to Socrates, “a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy feels confident when about to die, and is hopeful that, when he has died, he will win great benefits in the other world” (Plato, 1911, 63e). To elaborate on this, in Phaedo’s Cyclical Argument on Soul’s Immorality, Socrates states that “everything comes to be in this way: opposites come to be only from their opposites” (Plato, 1911, 70e) and he further elaborated with examples such as when something comes to be “larger”, it must have been “smaller” before, and something “weaker” presumably was “stronger” (Plato, 1911, 71a). This showed a relationship between a mortal body and the soul that it bears, which are polar opposites. This means that if there is life, there is death. Hence, he explained that a true philosopher is someone who has been spending his entire life searching for wisdom by questioning everything and seeking answers to those question wherever they lead, with no predetermined conclusion, just like living each day as if it is their last day of life. Therefore, they should not be resentful when death comes. Instead, they should be hopeful that there is something in store for those who have died, as Socrates is assured that the true philosophers will find a better company of good men in the afterlife. He accompanies this remark with the conviction of “something far better for the good than for the wicked” (Plato, 1911, 63c), which emphasizes that there is an afterlife which is good for those who have been practicing good to the people around them in this life , and bad for those who have been wicked.

Secondly, a genuine philosopher should disregard the external factors that could “stop” them from becoming a true philosopher. The external factors that Socrates gave are types of pleasures that result in a form of disruption in the search of wisdom. For example, the pleasure on food, drink, sex as well as smart clothes and shoes and other bodily adornments (Plato, 1911, 64d). Rather, true philosophers are only concerned with the well-being of their souls and want to free the soul as much as possible from the associations from the body (Plato, 1911, 65c). Socrates regards the needs of the body as a form of disruption for philosophers who seek wisdom as he feels that his senses are “neither accurate nor clear” and will contribute to confusing the soul (Plato, 1911, 65b). Some examples are: a straw appears to be straight in the air, but bent when it is placed in the water, and our ability to smell when we are having a flu et cetera. Socrates states that the senses do not give us the true knowledge of reality since he encountered the world through his senses and this is problematic because that perception is subjective understanding instead of the truth (Plato, 1911, 66a). Hence, Socrates declared that the philosopher’s search for knowledge is the most successful when his soul is separated as far as possible from his senses or rather when the soul is “most by itself” (Plato, 1911, 65b). He then uses an analogy of evil to represent our body: “as long as we possess the body, and our soul is contaminated by such an evil, we’ll surely never adequately gain what we desire” (Plato, 1911, 66b). In this case, he used ‘contaminated’ to emphasize on how polluted our body is from all the countless distractions and described body as an evil to show the nurture of the body as “it fills us up with lusts and desires, with fears and fantasies of every kind, and with any amount of trash” (Plato, 1911, 66c). Therefore, death should only be seen as a helping hand to the philosophers, giving them even greater separation between soul and body, in order to pursue the true wisdom. Following which, I will attempt to hold Confucius up to this benchmark of philosophers that Socrates has set out.

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According to the Analects, Confucius said : “If at dawn you learned of and tread the way (Dao道), you can face death at dusk” (The Analects of Confucius, 1998, 4:8). Confucius states that life is all about the pursuit of truth, to see the truth about life, and die for the truth, and hence die without regret. He feels that the whole purpose of life is to seek wisdom and pass it down to the people around him. The most terrible thing to Confucius is to confuse life without knowing the truth and to die with less truth than knowing the truth. As a result, he does not mind dying after knowing the truth. Similarly, Socrates stated that a true philosopher constantly searches for wisdom through questioning everything, and seeks answers to questions without a predetermined conclusion, as if each day is the last day of their life. In this aspect, both Socrates and Confucius stated a similar point of welcoming death. However, they differ in subject of not afraid of dying. Socrates said that a philosopher should welcome death, whereas Confucius believed that people in general should not be afraid of death.

Additionally, in the Analects, Confucius stated Five Constant Virtues of a Junzi, that is, to be an ideal person. The Five Constant Virtues are Benevolence, Righteousness, Propriety, Wisdom and Fidelity. In the virtue of Wisdom, Confucius said “Those who are born with the possession of knowledge are the highest class of men. Those who learn, and so, readily, get possession of knowledge, are the next. Those who are dull and stupid, and yet compass the learning, are another class next to these. As to those who are dull and stupid and yet do not learn – they are the lowest of the people.” (The Analects of Confucius, 2014, 16:9). Based on my interpretation, the search of wisdom is like a pleasure journey to Confucius, a never ending process of gaining self-knowledge and constantly reflecting on why you do what you do because “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned?” (The Analects of Confucius, 1998, 1:1). Likewise, Socrates described philosophy as the love for the practice of continuous learning and prizing the accumulation of knowledge above all else (Plato, 1911, 61a). Therefore, without a doubt, both Socrates and Confucius were describing the same kind of person with different titles.

Next, Confucius strongly critiques material disposition in Analects. When Confucius was asked about the root to ritual, he answered: “In festive ceremonies, it is better to be sparing than extravagant. In the ceremonies of mourning, it is better that there be deep sorrow than a minute attention to observances.’ (The Analects of Confucius, 2014, 3:4). He made it clear that the fundamental problem to ritual is not the form that is created from materialism such as money. Rather, it is from the heart. Instead of just staying on the surface of ritual, what is more important are truth and sincerity, and sincerity is the root of etiquette. In comparison, Socrates disregarded material disposition because he felt a true philosopher should disdain material pleasures as it served as a form of disruption for the philosophers who seek wisdom, whereas Confucius disregarded material disposition as he felt that what was more important than material pleasures was wisdom and treating others genuinely. Later on, he proceeded with “The noble man cares about virtue; the inferior man cares about material things. The noble man seeks discipline; the inferior man seeks favours” (The Analects of Confucius, 2018, 4:11), where he described a Junzi as a noble man who cares about doing good to others , and always in search of discipline and will enforce it on himself. He continued with criticizing an inferior man who only understands control, resulting in abuse of power due to his inferiority, and described him as one who cares about materialism such as power and control for his own pleasure. On the other hand, Socrates used an analogy of evil to represent our body which illustrates how much disruption it will cause the true philosophers in searching for wisdom which is similar to how Confucius uses an analogy of an inferior man to illustrate how this material pleasure gain him no wisdom but rather losing loyalty from his people. Thus, this implies that both Socrates and Confucius disdain material pleasures.

All in all, Socrates defined a genuine philosopher as someone who ought to welcome death and should disdain factors that potentially stop them becoming a true philosopher. Identically, Confucius is open to death as he have enjoyed spending his entire life seeking for wisdom, and disdains material desires. Therefore, I conclude that Confucius is a philosopher based on the benchmark of philosophers Socrates has set out.

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A Platonist Critique of Confucius and Socrates’ Phaedo: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-platonist-critique-of-confucius-and-socrates-phaedo-analytical-essay/
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A Platonist Critique of Confucius and Socrates’ Phaedo: Analytical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-platonist-critique-of-confucius-and-socrates-phaedo-analytical-essay/> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
A Platonist Critique of Confucius and Socrates’ Phaedo: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-platonist-critique-of-confucius-and-socrates-phaedo-analytical-essay/
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