Throughout the history of mankind, people have searched for answers to the basic philosophical questions of existence, purpose, and society. Greek and Chinese philosophers wrestled with the simple and complex questions of human relationships in order to create a more perfect social order.
Although there were clearly distinguishable differences between Chinese and Greek cultures, their philosophical ideas balanced between similarities and differences. Aristotle’s views were not so different from Confucius’ ideals, and the differences they had were not differing values but contrasting ideas on how to prioritize the questions of family, government, education, and goodness of character.
Confucius and Aristotle both acknowledged the importance of the family unit with varying degrees of priority. In Confucianism, family was the highest order. This idea of family-comes-first was called filial piety, which required a love, respect, and reverence for parents and ancestors. Filial piety was the supreme form of judgment of one’s character. Goodness was first achieved by someone who would, “behave well toward his parents, and, when abroad, respectfully to his elders” (Confucius, 1).
Aristotle also noted the importance of family, because, “the offspring derive their natures from their mothers as plants do from the earth” (Aristotle, 6). However, Aristotle’s goal was not filial piety. While he acknowledged that some believe nurture, or family environment, affects goodness, he stated that, “their nurture and occupations should be fixed by law” (Aristotle, 1). Confucianism maintained that family is supreme over law and is the benchmark for goodness, while Aristotle stated that law should correct the inevitable mistakes that a family environment can create.
He also asserted, “paternal command indeed has not the required force or compulsive power…but the law has compulsive power” (Aristotle, 2). Confucius believed that loyalty toward family was most important, even above the relationship of ruler to ruled, but Aristotle argued that states needed ultimate sovereignty in order to create a more just society.
Both philosophers agreed on the importance of family, but prioritizing affected their philosophies and created immense differences between the societies. Government was also major difference in Aristotelian and Confucian thought. They both believed in a virtuous world, but differed on how to create this ideal society through government. Confucianism did not advocate for harsh government or tough laws. Confucius believed that punishment was useless, saying, “If the people are governed by laws and punishment is used to maintain order, they will try to avoid the punishment but have no sense of shame”(Confucius, 4). He claimed that government should lead by example, stating, “The relation between superiors and inferiors is like that between the wind and the grass: the grass is bound to bend when the wind blows across it (Confucius, 4).
Aristotle believed the opposite, stating that punishment was incredibly important in governing, because, “people obey necessity rather than argument, and punishments rather than the sense of what is noble” (Aristotle, 2). Aristotle also disagrees with Confucius’ idea of ruling by example, saying, “Then ought the good to rule and have supreme power? But in that case everybody else, being excluded from power, will be dishonored” (Aristotle, 4). In essence, Aristotelian government does not create a government of people to model a society after, because it would be unjust to exclude part of the population from government because they do not fit into the moral code, while Confucianism creates a moral government, and, by extension, a moral society. Because of these conflicting points of view, Confucius and Aristotle had entirely different models of a perfect government on which to build their ideal societies. Likewise, Aristotle and Confucius disagreed on the weight their ideal societies placed on education.
Aristotle claimed that, “Reason, more than anything else, is man” (Aristotle, 1). His view was that all of the goodness in human beings came from contemplation and knowledge. Comparably, Confucian thought placed a hefty weight on education, stating that, “Anyone learning without thought is lost; anyone thinking but not learning is in peril” (Confucius, 3). However, while Aristotle believed that knowledge was the primary virtue, Confucius stated that filial piety came first, then friendship and love to all, and after these duties, one should study, “When he has time and opportunity” (Confucius, 1). Aristotle placed a huge priority on education, stating that a man must have leisure, or free time set aside for contemplation and education. In contrast, Confucius believed that education was a virtue but of lesser importance than filial piety and friendship. Without the difference in priorities, these philosophies could be identical, but the changes make them unable to coexist.
In the same way, Aristotle and Confucius prioritize the path to goodness for humankind differently. Aristotle asserted that philosophers were closest to the gods, and that, “the philosopher will more than any other be happy” (Aristotle, 1). In his views, the best life to live was a life of contemplation and leisure. This ideal man in Aristotle’s views would not be as virtuous in Confucianism. Confucius believed that the way toward goodness is through filial piety and love toward all. Leisure and learning were not valued as highly as respect toward parents and friendship. These values were the most important in Confucian thought, and “A gentleman not, even for the space of a single meal, act contrary to virtue” (Confucius, 2).
While Aristotle doubted the virtues of the family and preferred law to steer people toward righteousness, Confucius held them in the highest regards. While Aristotelian thought was more individualized toward self-actualization and contemplation, the only way to achieve goodness in Confucianism was through filial piety and love toward all. Learning, contemplation, family, and community were important steps toward goodness, but the rearrangement of importance changed the philosophies of Aristotle and Confucius into differing virtues. Questions of values, virtues, and morals have been debated for centuries, and they adapted for the societies in which the philosophy is born. Though, naturally, the specifics of Confucianism and Aristotelian philosophy changed the priorities of the family unit, government, education, and morality, surprisingly, there were fibers of the unifying thread of humankind’s struggle toward a more virtuous society. Although they differed in many respects, Aristotle and Confucius rearranged common virtues in attempts to progress into their ideas of the ideal society.