Stoicism Vs Confucianism

This paper is a comparison between two major schools of thought from two different areas of the world and their intrinsic similarities through their approach to political philosophy. Each work chosen for comparison represent a different philosophy from different areas yet hold striking similarities. The two source documents for this paper are “Meditations” by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and “Analects” by Chinese philosopher Confucius, both of which represent Stoicism and Confucianism respectively.

These two works were chosen for this paper due to their similarities concerning subjects such as self-improvement thought self-judgment and parallels of what a good person is in order to rule as good leader. Aurelius was trained as a Stoic, a philosophy that encourages self-restraint, harsh reality based outlook, and a strong sense of civic responsibility. This system of beliefs carries over into his reign, which he writes about in his personal journal of thoughts as to how to rule as a better leader.

Interestingly, what Aurelius writes about closely parallels what Confucius’ teachings are; self-disciplined in order to achieve the betterment of both one’s self and the society that one inhabits. This belief in both works relates directly to the political philosophy of ruling, that through a ruler’s ability to govern himself, he can govern his people. Since what Aurelius writes in his book are taken and paraphrased from the Stoic philosophers who taught him, what he writes ends up as a Stoic teaching to those who would read it even if that were never his intention.

Both writers take similar approaches in their writing when discussing the topic of leadership and the qualities of the person who inhabits this position of power. By constructing an analysis and interpreting the evidence in historical context in order to discover the reasons behind each writer’s teachings, the writers and their respective philosophies are to be shown as closely intertwined.

It is an interesting occurrence when texts from completely different time periods and geographic locations run in such clear parallels with one another. This is so the case with the “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and the “Analects” by Confucius, with both writings concerning the relationship between how the betterment of one’s self helps that person lead in a better way. Even in terms of a potential audience, both works were written under the assumption that would never be read.

Indeed, Aurelius wrote “Meditations” for his personal use as a thought journal on how to lead Rome and “Analects” was compiled by followers of Confucius, not by the philosopher himself. The overarching theme which trickle down into the more minute detail is the relationship between what Aurelius describes as “being a good man” and ren and de, both central components of Confucius’ teachings. Both concern how achieve being good through self-discipline and acting in a morally good way.

One such quotation from Aurelius states this clearly, “Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains…” This quotation closely follows numerous Confucius saying such as “The day when self-discipline fulfills the rites, all under heaven would be with benevolence” and when asked to elaborate on how one achieves benevolence, “Courtesy, tolerance, trustworthiness, quickness and generosity.

While these are cherry-picked examples out of many others paralleling quotations, the ability to rule oneself trickles down into the ability to rule many. The emphasis being on ruling with the right mindset and state of being, the community as a whole will prosper. This is Aurelius’ way of leadership stemming from Stoicism and Confucius’ idea of ren, which will be discussed and built upon later. This gives a rough and broad overview of the two writers’ ideas which are distinct from many yet similar to each other in their common goal of a morally good leader.

Both Marcus Aurelius and Confucius make statements as how one should live their life in order to act as good as possible. “Good” as a state of being is a broad term and that’s exactly what both writers are attempting to discover. Whether it’s ren – which is the belief that through various practices one may grow their own moral “goodness” – as Confucius suggests it is or simply as state of mind as Aurelius says, both of them have similar points of view as to how to achieve the lofty goal of being “Good. However, both authors specifically narrow in on the ability to rule with goodness using a set of moral philosophy guidelines to achieve that.

Confucius states that “…Lead through virtue, discipline through the rites, and there will be a sense of shame and conscientious improvements” which would agree with Aurelius’ statement of “If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee…” Through working as level-headed disciplinarian in ones self will carry over to the people one rules and cultivate a sense of moral self-discipline.

Confucius calls this de, which translates to the ability to rule without need for intimidation and acts as a two-part need in a ruler alongside ren. A theme of non-coercive ruling aims to provide a state that is changed for the better in the eyes of the ruler by following the moral cultivation of the ruler and this theme is observed throughout both texts. The quotation from Confucius, “When he himself is right, there is action without his orders.

When he himself is not right, he is not obeyed despite his orders” demonstrates the absolute need for a leader whose strength comes not from strong-arming his will upon his people but the knowledge of what action to take when the need arises. Aurelius takes a similar approach as Confucius in non-confrontational change, “Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.

But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful…” followed by “nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, […] To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. ” Change in the eyes of Aurelius and Confucius does not happen by imposing the will of the ruler upon his subjects but rather leading by example what is good in a person. Through showing what a

Both authors came from differing backgrounds, cultures and time periods with Aurelius living and ruling from 121-180AD and Confucius living and teaching from 551-479BC, respectively. Aurelius ruled as a Roman emperor ruled for 19 years and is regarded as one of the so-called “Five Good Emperors” whose death brought about the beginning of the end for Pax Romana. Confucius taught his disciples the knowledge of ren, which sought to cultivate through certain actions to elevate one’s own moral standing and de, an extension of ren but with an emphasis on leadership; both of these becoming highly influential components to Chinese philosophy.

With more than 600 years apart from one another and on completely separate continents even; there are most likely few reasons as to how the aforementioned similarities could occur. One of these, however, was a similarity that the two cultures shared in their respective timeframes: the need for strong, morally capable person. Confucius emphasized “…a small minority of superior men was destined by their talents and sense of duty to govern and set an example for the common people.

A small group of people capable of leading China was needed and this political aspect of Confucius’ teachings acts as an important contribution to the paralleling philosophies. Moreover, while Aurelius did not consider him particularly superior to any other person, he did believe in leading his people by example using his knowledge of Stoicism as groundwork for his leadership. So, the question then becomes was there an urgent need for a capable leader during their respective lives? Yes there was a rather urgent need as the time period both inhabited was a time of unrest and war.

Indeed it is shown that Book II of “Meditations” was written in the Roman fortress of Carnuntum during a military campaign in the region it occupied. Moreover, Aurelius was one of the aforementioned “Five Good Emperors” and the decline of Rome was already happening and only intensified after his death. In a similar vein, followers of Confucius compiled “Analects” in part during the “Warring States Period” in China, which as the name suggests was a period of unrest between warring factions and regions all of which were vying for control over China.

With no uniting force over a country, it is doomed to fall apart into infighting for the remaining power. Both authors faced challenges during the time they wrote their writings and both attempted to find a solution to the problematic aspects of their societies. The emphasis on a strong, morally capable leader stemmed from a simple need for one. It was a want and need for someone to be able to lead not by force or intimidation – as that was exactly what the authors were trying to get away from – but through a uniting force for all of the peoples in the land.

In a historical context of unrest and uncertainty, these two writer’s social climates are not so different from each other. Despite the time, space and status differences, both Marcus Aurelius and Confucius aimed to apply their teachings to a society in order to improve it. Through Aurelius’ education as a Stoic and Confucius’ teachings from his wisdom, both authors had similar viewpoints with regards to allowing a strong morally capable to lead by example.

If this leader could rule through their ability to discipline themselves, act calmly and with purpose and lead not by force but by their own characteristics to their society, then – that according to the authors – is how one should do it. Through the analysis of what each author means by their teaching and by interpreting the evidence in a historical context, the paper aimed to show that both writers take closely similar approaches to social philosophy.

Taking the texts from a simple reader’s perspective both Stoicism and Confucianism are close to one another in how to chose the right ruler. From a historical context both texts came from roughly the environment, a declining empire which was starting to fragment. Thus in conclusion despite many differences, both writers as philosophers and leaders had a common dream and goal for how the leadership of their respective societies should be upheld.