Questions on Plato and Confucius

Lucie asked:

I have two questions.

1) What form of government does Confucius favor? What are the key, specific ways in which he thinks a virtuous government should operate?

2) Both Plato and Confucius emphasize the connection between education and proper governance. Explain the role that education plays for each of them and the similarities/differences between their accounts.

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

Much of Confucius’s teachings focused on the art of government and how a ruler should act. He developed a concept of a moral statecraft in which he advised the ruler how to appear just in order to gain the trust of the people. Plato does not ask the people to trust his governors.

Confucius argued for true justice and compassion on the part of the ruler and the ruled. Only by being a just ruler would the ruler enjoy the continued right to rule.

As with his social teachings, Confucius believed that the key to good governance lay in each man carrying out his duties as prescribed by his position within the hierarchy. He stated:

‘Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son.’ Plato had a similar opinion, although it emphasised a different social issue. He wanted one man, one job to prevail, so that there would be no competition. E.g. if your soul was a baker’s soul, you would be obliged to be a baker. He did not consider that there might be 500 baker’s souls being born in his state!

For Confucius it was essential that the ruler possess virtue. Virtue would enable the ruler to retain the supreme position. ‘He who governs by means of his virtue is, to use an analogy, like the pole-star: it remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it.’

Remarkably Confucius believed that rulers should not have to resort to force or the threat of punishment to maintain power. He said: ‘Your job is to govern, not to kill.’

As in the case of social relationships such as those between parents and children, husbands and wives, Confucius believed that the rulers should observe proper ritual in order to maintain their position and right to rule.

He viewed education as central to achieving proper conduct both within Society and in Government. Confucius believed that people, because of their nature, desire to live in the company of other people, that is, in society. It is only in society that people reach their fullest development. Therefore, it is important for a ruler to know how to provide the opportunities for the people to follow their inclinations towards self-development.

This answer your first questions and half of the second.

Plato differs in being immensely more complicated in his philosophy than Confucius. So to simplify his doctrine is not easy. But you will get by, if you take notice of these two important points:

In Plato’s political philosophy, chiefly The Republic, the governors are a plurality. There is no king or prince or despot. All governors are equal to each other. They can come from any social level at all, e.g. a cobbler’s daughter can become a philosopher king (i.e. governor) if she has such a talent.

Their training is lifelong, and they are secluded from society, in order to prevent that they are corrupted by having personal interests and friendships.

Unlike Confucius’ ruler, they do not intervene in the affairs of the people. Their role is nothing other than to pass laws, to ensure that justice prevails in that society. But they also control foreign affairs of course.

Justice is the most important issue in Plato’s state. He believes that with appropriate education for the governors, they will be able to pass just legislation.

But you need to see this in a different light from Confucius. In a sense, the governors are like the invisible gods. Every so often a law comes down into society, without a name, completely emotionless and quite intellectual in its origin. The police is there to ensure everyone obeys. This is one reason why many of his critics don’t like Plato’s political system.

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