Confucius And Socrates

Confucius and Socrates have been chosen here for a humanistic study of learning and teaching. By “humanistic” is meant an attitude of concern for human values such as freedom, individual dignity, justice in relationships, self-knowledge, the improvement of character, and a love for one’s fellow humans.


When contemplating what philosophical contribution can be made to education, one way to begin is to look at the origin of the word “philosophy,” which derives from Greek, and means literally “the love of wisdom.” In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates said that those whose ideas are based on the knowledge of the truth and who can defend or prove them, when they are put to the test by spoken arguments, are to be called not merely poets, orators, or legislators, but are worthy of a higher name, befitting the serious pursuit of their life. However, we cannot give them the name of “wise” because only God is worthy to be called wise. Therefore we call these lovers of wisdom “philosophers.”1


Let us pursue this idea of wisdom to see what it might be and whether it would be worthy of our attention. Then we can consider the role of education in the development of wisdom. Wisdom is described in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy as being a practical knowledge based on reflection and judgment concerned with the art of living.2 In this article Brand Blanshard went on to point out that many modern philosophers have given up the pursuit of this wisdom either because they feel that judgments of value are based upon feelings and desires rather than knowledge, or that judgments are based on intuition which is difficult to defend by logical arguments.3 However, if the art of living is based on value judgments which involve intuitions, feelings, and desires, then we must take these into consideration if we are to truly discover what wisdom is and how it works psychologically. Also “wisdom” has a positive connotation implying more than being concerned with the art of living but also being successful at this art.

Before we examine some of the ideas about wisdom expounded throughout the history of philosophy, let us first explore the nature of wisdom through our own investigation. What is the origin and source? How does it work? What are its goals and values?

First, it may be helpful to begin with the broad distinction between living things and inanimate objects. Living creatures are characterized by the ability to move and grow, whereas dead or non-living matter can only be moved by something else outside of itself. Even in plants, the simplest forms of life, we see the abilities of self-organization (all living organisms have this) and adaptability through mobility to be much more developed and complex. Although higher animals have the advantage of the five senses common to man, their activities are guided by instinct rather than deliberate reasoning. In discussing the hemispheres of the human brain as the seat of memory, William James indicated how other animals are lacking in prudence, which is a similar concept to the “practical wisdom” (phronesis) of the Greeks.

First, no animal without it can deliberate, pause, postpone,
nicely weigh one motive against another, or compare.
Prudence, in a word, is for such a creature an impossible virtue.
Accordingly we see that nature removes those functions
in the exercise of which prudence is a virtue
from the lower centers and hands them over to the cerebrum.
Whenever a creature has to deal with complex features
of the environment, prudence is a virtue.
The higher animals have so to deal;
and the more complex the features,
the higher we call the animals.4

For example, the animal’s inability to transcend the instincts for food or sex make it incapable of making a decision based on a higher value than immediate nourishment and reproduction or pleasure. James also described how humans may vary in the use of their intelligence in relation to time.

In all ages the man whose determinations are swayed
by reference to the most distant ends
has been held to possess the highest intelligence.
The tramp who lives from hour to hour;
the bohemian whose engagements are from day to day;
the bachelor who builds but for a single life;
the father who acts for another generation;
the patriot who thinks of a whole community and many generations;
and finally, the philosopher and saint
whose cares are for humanity and for eternity,-
these range themselves in an unbroken hierarchy,
wherein each successive grade results
from an increased manifestation of the special form of action
by which the cerebral centers are distinguished from all below them.5

We see here that what James calls “intelligence” exists in degrees on a continuum. If wisdom is similar to intelligence, then it is likely also to exist in varying degrees. Animals which depend on instinct do not require a long period of development, and in fact cannot be educated beyond the level of training. However, humans require a longer period of care and development in the early period of life, being uniquely educable. Recent man is in fact the only species named “wise”-homo sapiens. Having looked at wisdom in a broad way as being in some way a process of life as movement and adaptability, and that beyond the instinctual level it may be particularly important for man, let us now turn to examine wisdom in human experience.

We experience life through consciousness and awareness, in which we may also include unconscious processes. Because awareness is only found in living beings, it is likely that awareness is a function of life. As wisdom is not active in non-living matter, so too wisdom is also experienced as a characteristic or result of some awareness. Yet as we indicated earlier its connotation implies a value. Wisdom has been valued in virtually every age and society. Why is it valued? To perceive what something non-material is, we may use our spiritual intuition. Then we can employ reasoning to ascertain whether our intuitive understanding is correct or will work. Let us then begin with an intuitive description of wisdom and then analyze it rationally. Wisdom is the awareness used by the self to relate successfully to the environment; to be practical in acting upon the environment it must include both knowledge and action. We have described awareness as the consciousness of life. By “self” is meant our subjective identity as an individual, and we might describe “environment” as the field of experience for the self.

Now we must explore what constitutes “success.” Since wisdom is defined as including both knowledge and action, then we must discover what is the success of each. The goal of knowledge is to understand the truth, and the purpose of action is to do what is good. Understanding of the truth can be described as awareness of reality, of what is actual, which usually can be objectified by inter-subjective agreement with others. However, to universalize “good action,” we must develop a theory of values.

Let us begin by analyzing how people experience what is valued as good. Everyone desires or loves what one considers to be good. Or we might say, relative good is what a person loves as indicated by what one pursues. The difficulty here is that not everyone agrees as to what is good because of various situations and sets of consciousness. Yet in each case, love in this sense is one’s movement toward what one believes is good, whether it be love of security, love of excitement, love of money, love of power, love of affection, love of truth, etc. By analyzing these expressions we may find that some of these goods are more temporary or selfish than others, seeming at first better than they actually are in the long run. In fact, in-depth study and the results of experience may reveal that some temporary pleasures valued as good may have painful consequences not recognized by the consciousness which is seeking them yet be eventually experienced nonetheless. Adaptation to these types of experiences tends to develop greater wisdom through the life-process of trial and error. To the extent that the end good which is sought is found to be a limited or lesser good, the love moving toward it must be less pure and limited by the goal it is seeking. The greater the good is, the greater will be the love experienced moving toward it, and the more fulfilling will be the results. This is so because the nature of the love is conditioned by the good it is pursuing. Wisdom is what enables the consciousness to perceive what is truly good in the widest context through the love of greater and more universal values. The wisest person will know and act for the highest good, that is, for the highest good of all who are concerned in the action. A person is wise, then, to the extent that one knows what is for the highest good of all concerned and acts accordingly.

What are these universal human values? A universal value is one which is good in every situation, unless another higher universal value for some reason takes precedence over it in a certain situation. A primary value is life from which we derive the value of health. Perhaps the most essential value is happiness, from which some philosophers have derived calmness and imperturbability as the most stable forms of happiness. All other human values may be related to happiness because happiness generally means the achieving or experiencing of what is good. Certainly liberty is recognized as a fundamental value by many because it allows people to seek the good in their own way and thus develop their own wisdom. An overview of human relations has made justice a value of society as a protection for each individual, and the consequences of injustice have shown that justice is for the highest good of all concerned. When a human consciousness is able to interact with others and the natural environment so as to attain universal values such as these, then we usually call it wisdom.

Now, how can we achieve this wisdom? Whereas everyone desires happiness just as we love what we believe is good, again we find that we are not always happy, which indicates that we do not always know the true path to happiness. Or shall we say, there are degrees of happiness, and most of us have plenty of room for improvement, considering the varying levels of happiness among humans. Yet by means of everyday trial-and-error experience we tend to grow wiser throughout most of life; but obviously some are wiser than others, and some increase in wisdom more rapidly than others. Wisdom is in fact learned or developed, even if it is not taught by a person. How is it learned? If wisdom involves an interaction between the self and the environment, then a greater knowledge of the environment makes wiser action possible. Yet wisdom is not merely objective knowledge or science; but it also involves the subjective factor and personal values because of each person’s unique situation and choices.

People must act for themselves and are responsible for their decisions even if they are influenced by others, if for no other reason than it is they themselves who do their own actions. To know one’s own consciousness in terms of desires, feelings, intuitions, reasoning, and one’s various predilections and tendencies psychologically is to be able to make better decisions. Therefore self-knowledge and self-improvement along with the comprehension of universal values are helpful in making wiser decisions, which link knowledge and action, the subjective and objective. The learning of wisdom, then, may be accelerated by self-examination and the directing of one’s love or motivation toward greater values. Although these things may or may not be taught per se, we may be able to investigate how another human being may assist, stimulate, awaken, and encourage a person in this striving for wisdom by looking at his or her actions and words in helping others to become wiser themselves. There is also the spiritual and religious perspective which holds that the good itself, an all-wise being, or God, can communicate with and guide the individual who directs his or her consciousness towards these things. Wisdom then becomes an attribute of a higher reality which can be our teacher and guide.

Is wisdom needed today? From the above discussion it is not difficult to see that wisdom could be helpful in any human situation. In fact it appears that wisdom is needed now more than any other time in history. In the ancient times wisdom was proverbially sought after, but in the modern age science and technology have dominated. With these advances the decisions we must make are even more critical and consequential. Joseph Wood Krutch discussed the dilemma.

Perhaps we are wiser, less selfish and more far-seeing
than we were two hundred years ago.
But we are still imperfectly all these good things,
and since the turn of the century it has been remarked
that neither wisdom nor virtue
have increased as rapidly as the need for both.6

In an article on “Humanism” he explained the difference between science and wisdom. “Science can tell us how to do many different things but not whether any specific thing which can be done, ought to be done.”7 He then gave the example of the hydrogen bomb.

Alice Bailey described the difference between wisdom and science as relating to the spiritual and material respectively.

Wisdom is the science of the spirit,
just as knowledge is the science of matter.
Knowledge is separative and objective,
whilst wisdom is synthetic and subjective.
Knowledge divides; wisdom unites.
Knowledge differentiates whilst wisdom blends….
Wisdom concerns the one Self,
knowledge deals with the not-self.8

She also pointed out the importance of wisdom in the world today.

Wisdom, actuated and motivated by love,
and intelligently applied to world problems,
is much needed today, and is not yet to be found,
except among the few illumined souls in every nation-
in every nation I say, without exception.
Many more must love with wisdom,
and appreciate the group aspiration,
before we shall see the next reality to be known
and to emerge out of the darkness
which we are now in the process of dispelling.9

The world crises since the twentieth century are demanding the development of greater wisdom. In his book Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher saw the need for wisdom to solve our economic dilemmas.

The neglect, indeed the rejection of wisdom has gone so far
that most of our intellectuals have not even the faintest idea
what the term could mean.
As a result, they always tend to try and cure a disease
by intensifying its causes.
The disease having been caused by
allowing cleverness to displace wisdom,
no amount of clever research is likely to produce a cure.
But what is wisdom? Where can it be found?
Here we come to crux of the matter:
it can be read about in numerous publications
but it can be found only inside oneself.
To be able to find it, one has first to liberate oneself
from such masters as greed and envy.
The stillness following liberation-even if only momentary-
produces the insights of wisdom
which are obtainable in no other way.

They enable us to see the hollowness
and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life
devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends,
to the neglect of the spiritual.
Such a life necessarily sets man against man
and nation against nation,
because man’s needs are infinite
and infinitude can be achieved only in the spiritual realm,
never in the material.
Man assuredly needs to rise above this humdrum “world;”
wisdom shows him the way to do it;
without wisdom, he is driven to build up a monster economy,
which destroys the world, and to seek fantastic satisfactions,
like landing a man on the moon.
Instead of overcoming the “world” by moving towards saintliness,
he tries to overcome it by gaining preeminence
in wealth, power, science, or indeed any imaginable “sport.”
These are the real causes of war,
and it is chimerical to try to lay the foundations of peace
without removing them first.
It is doubly chimerical to build peace
on economic foundations which, in turn,
rest on the systematic cultivation of greed and envy,
the very forces which drive men into conflict.10

Yet how many courses in our traditional education deal with self-knowledge, self-improvement, or human values? Our schools and universities are so objectively oriented that most educators would not even understand what is meant by subjective knowledge or self-awareness. Although some individuals and a few groups are beginning to pursue this awareness, we certainly have a long way to go. One does not need to cite statistics on crime or discuss the problems of human interaction, which have become so familiar in modern times.

Before we compare our description of wisdom to that of various philosophers, let us summarize our preliminary definition. Wisdom is the knowledge of and action for the highest good of all concerned. There are two necessary conditions, neither of which is sufficient by itself: 1) knowledge of the highest good, and 2) action for the highest good. To know what is right to do and not to do it certainly is not wisdom, though it is a kind of knowledge. Also to do what is right without knowing it is right is not usually considered wisdom, but rather good fortune. However, it is difficult to judge this because the person may know what is right unconsciously, a process which we might call innate wisdom. Both of these conditions together might be considered sufficient, if indeed any verbal definition could be sufficient unto wisdom which is infinite. At least we have a definition, even if it does not explain the dynamics of how wisdom works. There are certain enabling conditions which can make wisdom possible, namely the virtues of courage and temperance or propriety. Courage is the power which enables one to do what one knows is right, while temperance and propriety restrain and moderate one’s desires and instincts into expressions which are appropriate.

Now let us briefly look at some of the descriptions of wisdom throughout history to compare them with our preliminary discussion. Wisdom was often mentioned in ancient religious books, particularly those of Judaism. In the book of Job we find confirmation for the idea that it is not the material but the spiritual awareness which deals with wisdom. “Let days speak, and many years teach wisdom. But it is the spirit in a man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.”11

Plato summarized the idea of correct knowledge and action leading to happiness in his Euthydemus.

Seeing that all people desire happiness,
and happiness, as has been shown, is gained by a use,
and a right use, of the things of life,
and the right use of them, and good fortune in the use of them,
is given by knowledge,-
the inference is that everybody ought by all means
to try and make oneself as wise as one can.12

Aristotle supported the point that the one who has knowledge of what one does is better off and wiser than the person who merely acts, such as the manual worker. Knowledge is also necessary for teaching.

But yet we think that knowledge and understanding
belong to art rather than to experience,
and we suppose artists to be wiser than people of experience
(which implies that Wisdom depends in all cases rather on knowledge);
and this because the former know the cause, but the latter do not….
And in general it is a sign of the person who knows
and of the person who does not know,
that the former can teach,
and therefore we think art more truly knowledge than experience is;
for artists can teach, and people of mere experience cannot.13

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s definitions of practical wisdom were very close to ours.

Now it is thought to be the mark of a person of practical wisdom
to be able to deliberate well about
what is good and expedient for oneself,
not in some particular respect,
e.g. about what sorts of things conduce to health or to strength,
but about what sorts of things conduce to the good life in general….
Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state
of capacity to act with regard to human goods.14

Aristotle also correlated happiness with virtue and wisdom.

If happiness is activity in accordance with virtue,
it is reasonable that it should be in accordance with the highest virtue;
and this will be that of the best thing in us.
Whether it be reason or something else that is this element
which is thought to be our natural ruler and guide
and to take thought of things noble and divine,
whether it be itself also divine or only the most divine element in us,
the activity of this in accordance with its proper virtue
will be perfect happiness.15

Likewise he distinguished the happiness based on wisdom from good fortune which does not derive from any virtue.

Let us acknowledge then that each one has
just so much of happiness as one has of virtue and wisdom,
and of virtuous and wise action.
God is a witness to us of this truth,
for God is happy and blessed,
not by reason of any external good,
but in itself and by reason of its own nature.
And herein of necessity lies the difference
between good fortune and happiness;
for external goods come of themselves,
and chance is the author of them,
but no one is just or temperate by or through chance.16

Epictetus analyzed the relationship between the good, love, and wisdom in his discourse “On Friendship.” His common-sense psychology came to the same conclusion.

What a person applies oneself to earnestly,
that one naturally loves.
Do people then apply themselves earnestly
to the things which are bad? By no means.
Well, do they apply themselves to things
which in no way concern themselves? Not to these either.
It remains, then, that they employ themselves earnestly
only about things which are good;
and if they are earnestly employed about things,
they love such things also.
Whoever, then, understands what is good,
can also know how to love;
but the one who cannot distinguish good from bad,
how can that one possess the power of loving?
To love, then, is only in the power of the wise.17

Another Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, found that several essential human values depended on wisdom. He asked why temporary pleasures tend to deceive us and then wrote,

And consider if magnanimity, freedom, simplicity,
equanimity, piety, are not more agreeable.
For what is more agreeable than wisdom itself,
when you think of the security and the happy course of all things
which depend on the faculty of understanding and knowledge.18

Plotinus in a passage on “Dialectic” focused on the decision-making process which unites knowledge and action, and which according to wisdom must consider universals.

And while the other virtues bring the reason to bear
upon particular experiences and acts,
the virtue of Wisdom is a certain super-reasoning
much closer to the Universal;
for it deals with correspondence and sequence,
the choice of time for action and inaction,
the adoption of this course, the rejection of that other:
Wisdom and Dialectic have the task of
presenting all things as Universals and stripped of matter
for treatment by the Understanding.19

Another Neo-Platonist, Boethius, who synthesized much wisdom in his Consolation of Philosophy, described the highest good.

The trouble of the many and various aims
of mortal humans bring them much care,
and herein they go forward by different paths
but strive to reach one end, which is happiness.
And that good is that, to which if anyone attain,
one can desire nothing further.
It is that highest of all good things,
and it embraces in itself all good things:
if any good is lacking, it cannot be the highest good,
since then there is left outside it something which can be desired. Wherefore happiness is a state
which is made perfect by the union of all good things.
This end all humans seek to reach,
as I said, though by different paths.
For there is implanted by nature in the minds of people
a desire for the true good;
but error leads them astray
towards false goods by wrong paths.20

Thus we see the need for greater wisdom to discern the true good.

Immanuel Kant in examining virtue also described practical wisdom as the cause of various human values.

It is also called the true wisdom, namely, the practical,
because it makes the ultimate end
of the existence of man on earth its own end.
Its possession alone makes humans free, healthy, rich, a king, etc.,
nor can either chance or fate deprive one of this,
since one possesses oneself,
and the virtuous cannot lose their virtue.21

In the modern context we find a description of wisdom related to the inner self given by a Mason to Pierre in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The highest wisdom is not founded on reason alone,
not on those worldly sciences of physics, history, chemistry,
and the like, into which intellectual knowledge is divided.
The highest wisdom has but one science-
the science of the whole-the science explaining
the whole creation and man’s place in it.
To receive that science it is necessary
to purify and renew one’s inner self,
and so before one can know,
it is necessary to believe and to perfect one’s self.
And to attain this end,
we have the light called conscience
that God has implanted in our souls.22

This leads us into the esoteric and mystical views of wisdom such as those of Emerson and Maurice Maeterlinck, who wrote in his book Wisdom and Destiny about depths of wisdom beyond conscious reasoning.

The one who knows oneself is wise;
yet have we no sooner acquired real consciousness of our being
than we learn that true wisdom is
a thing that lies far deeper than consciousness.
The chief gain of increased consciousness
is that it unveils an ever-loftier unconsciousness,
on whose heights do the sources lie of the purest wisdom.
The heritage of unconsciousness is for all people the same;
but it is situate partly within and partly without
the confines of normal consciousness….

We shall not become wise through worshipping reason alone;
and wisdom means more than
perpetual triumph of reason over inferior instincts.
Such triumphs can help us but little
if our reason be not taught thereby to offer
profoundest submission to another and different instinct-
that of the soul.
These triumphs are precious,
because they reveal the presence of diviner instinct,
that grows ever diviner still.
And their aim is not in themselves;
they serve but to clear the way for the destiny of the soul,
which is a destiny, always, of purification and light.23

Alice Bailey also saw a wisdom which is greater than reasoning and which continually develops over many lifetimes.

(Wisdom) has to do with the development of the life within the form,
with the progress of the spirit through those ever-changing vehicles,
and with the expansions of consciousness
that succeed each other from life to life.
It deals with the life side of evolution.
Since it deals with the essence of things
and not with the things themselves,
it is the intuitive apprehension of the truth
apart from reasoning faculty,
and the innate perception that can distinguish
between the false and the true, between the real and the unreal.
It is more than that, for it is also the growing capacity
of the Thinker to enter increasingly into the mind of the Logos,
to realize the true inwardness of the great pageant of the universe,
to vision the objective and to harmonize
more and more with the higher measure.24

Thus the development of wisdom may have importance beyond the physical existence of one lifetime and may actually promote the spiritual evolution of the soul.

In returning to earth, we turn to the ideas of a hard-headed scientist, Jonas Salk, who in his book The Survival of the Wisest discussed the necessity of learning from outer nature also a greater wisdom. He wrote,

Importance is attached to the notion that
wisdom is of ‘practical value’ for human survival
and for the maintenance and enhancement of the quality of life.
The hypothesis proposed and elaborated in this book is
that Man can learn wisdom from Nature.25

In his conclusion he expressed the need to overcome the recent purposelessness and pathological behavior.

By suggesting the idea of survival of the wisest
I mean not only that the more discerning will survive
but also that the survival of Man, with a life of high quality,
depends upon the prevalence of respect for wisdom
and for those possessing a sense of the being of Man
and of the laws of Nature.26

Wisdom Teachers

So we return once more to our own century, where the poet T. S. Eliot asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”27 How can we become wiser? Salk proposed learning from Nature, which has been the way of modern science and through which we certainly have made great gains. Yet as we noted earlier, the great need today appears to be in the subjective areas of self-knowledge and human values. How can we stimulate the present generations to take up these studies? One way is to examine the wisest individuals throughout history, especially those who helped to educate others in wisdom. Kant discussed the awesome characteristics of such a person.

For a teacher of wisdom would mean
something more than a scholar
who has not come so far as to guide oneself,
much less to guide others,
with certain expectation of attaining so high an end:
it would mean a master in the knowledge of wisdom,
which implies more than a modest person would claim for oneself….
and no one would be justified in professing
to be in possession of it so as to assume
the name of philosopher who could not also show
its infallible effects in one’s own person as an example
(in one’s self-mastery and the unquestioned interest
that one takes pre-eminently in the general good),
and this the ancients also required as a condition
of deserving that honorable title.28

If, then, we are to learn about wisdom by studying another individual, the first requirement is that the person be wise. Then we may proceed to examine what he or she did to help others to become wiser. Kant also indicated that this process of guiding others toward wisdom is an important aspect of philosophy. He ended his Critique of Practical Reason with these statements.

In one word, science
(critically undertaken and methodically directed)
is the narrow gate that leads to the true doctrine of practical wisdom,
if we understand by this not merely what one ought to do,
but what ought to serve teachers as a guide
to construct well and clearly the road to wisdom
which everyone should travel,
and to secure others from going astray.
Philosophy must always continue to be the guardian of this science;
and although the public does not take any interest
in its subtle investigations,
it must take an interest in the resulting doctrines,
which such an examination first puts in a clear light.29

Now if we are concerned not merely with the practice of wisdom but also the teaching of it to others, then we must also select someone about whom we have adequate information as to their methods, style, and results in educating. Investigating how the wisest persons taught or assisted others may give us insights and guidelines for the education of wisdom today.

Socrates on Justice

Socrates on Justice

In the history of civilization there are four men who created and demonstrated a way of life which caught on in their own time and has been followed by countless numbers of people for centuries since. Karl Jaspers called them the “four paradigmatic individuals;”30 they are Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus. Each is unique, and they sprang from four quite different cultures-India, China, Greece, and Israel. Each of them exerted a profound influence on his culture in terms of fundamental beliefs, philosophies, and the methods of carrying them out in daily living. In the east Buddhism and Confucianism eventually became complementary to each other as in the west Christianity and philosophical inquiry have for the most part been able to co-exist. This is probably because Buddha and Jesus were spiritual teachers and founders of religions employing meditation and prayer, while Confucius and Socrates were primarily educators emphasizing learning. Consequently instead of being mutually exclusive and conflicting with each other as two religions tend to be, the religious and educational approaches were able to complement and supplement each other. Because of this similarity of emphasis, comparisons between Buddha and Jesus or between Confucius and Socrates would be most likely to show parallel methods.

There are no writings by any of these four men today. However, in each case their disciples wrote about their lives and teachings in remarkable detail. Consequently we have more information on their actions, manners, and teaching styles than on those of the great philosophers who wrote down their own ideas such as Lao-zi, Mencius, Zhuang-zi, Plato, Aristotle, Zhu Xi, Aquinas, Kant, etc. Confucius and Socrates have been chosen here for a humanistic study of learning and teaching. By “humanistic” is meant an attitude of concern for human values such as freedom, individual dignity, justice in relationships, self-knowledge, the improvement of character, and a love for one’s fellow humans.

Confucius Sage The Chinese People Wax Music

Confucius Wax

That both Confucius and Socrates pre-eminently represent rationality and a concentration on educational pursuits was recognized by Carl G. Jung when he wrote, “Confucius and Socrates compete for first place as far as reasonableness and a pedagogic attitude to life are concerned.”31 Both of them appeared at key transitional periods in the evolution of culture when their fellow humans were ready for educational methods of self-improvement and discussions on ethical questions. Confucius is credited with being the first professional teacher of higher education in China and their first and greatest ethical philosopher. In Greece the professional sophists sprang up during Socrates’ lifetime; although he remained an “amateur” or informal teacher, Socrates was recognized by Aristotle for introducing the study of ethics in addition to the use of inductive logic and universal definitions.32 It is hard to imagine the history of Oriental culture without Confucius, and it would be difficult to conceive of Plato without Socrates, Aristotle without Plato, and western philosophy without any of them.

Confucius and Socrates were outstanding examples in humanistic education, and by studying their lives and pedagogy in detail, we may gain a greater understanding of what good humanistic pedagogy is. Because there was no known influence between Chinese and Hellenic culture before 400 BC, these can be treated as independent case studies. Both of these men spent their lives learning and seeking wisdom and the good life. What was wisdom and goodness for Confucius and Socrates, and how did they attempt to realize them themselves and help others to achieve them also? By examining the actions, manner, methods, and subjects of discussion for each of them, it will then be possible to compare them to each other and to formulate key principles and techniques which were successful for them. Many of these may be applicable today by formal teachers and informal seekers of greater wisdom and a better life. An underlying assumption is that human nature has not changed too much in the last 2500 years. In spite of the accumulation of culture and the advance of technology, the fundamental ethical problems of right and wrong, justice, goodness, self-knowledge, and the improvement of character still persist.

Both Confucius and Socrates used a conversational style, and with the recent increase of leisure time and the advent of radio and television interviews, which for many people are beginning to replace some of the burden of reading, dialogs are as important today as ever. As to the importance of this study, what could be more valuable than to learn how to improve one’s life? Confucius and Socrates have inspired countless men and women over two dozen centuries; a description of what they were doing may not only be able to inspire readers today to pursue a better life, but it may give some perceptive readers tools they can use to stimulate and assist others to greater wisdom.

The method employed in this study is comparative biography. The original model for this is Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, though he only selected politicians and generals. At the beginning of his life of Alexander, Plutarch emphasized that he was not writing histories, but lives.

Therefore, as portrait-painters are more exact
in the lines and features of the face,
in which the character is seen,
than in the other parts of the body,
so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention
to the marks and indications of the souls of men.33

In this work even more of the emphasis is on the character and teaching of the two men because the historical events are less important for philosophers and teachers than they are for politicians. Nonetheless because of the antiquity of Confucius and Socrates, the historical difficulties are immense. We must rely on the written documents of other ancient writers, and the historical accuracy of those available is questionable and controversial. Although I may be unable to solve these problems, which have plagued scholars for centuries, I will explain how these difficulties will be handled.

In the case of Confucius, the primary source used is The Analects, which was compiled by disciples within a generation or two of Confucius’ death. These anecdotes and conversations between Confucius and his disciples (students) are simply and realistically portrayed, as no attempt was made to write a long, philosophical treatise. Other ancient documents from later periods such as Mencius and Sima Qian’s biography are used sparingly for background and are specifically mentioned when so used. The other two primary Confucian classics, usually translated as The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean, were probably written about a century or more after the time of Confucius. They have not been used to describe Confucius as a teacher, but the texts without their commentaries are presented in the Appendix as Higher Education and The Center of Harmony because they express the spirit of Confucius’ teachings.

Purpose and Methods

Because the purpose here is to study the pedagogy of Confucius and Socrates, their philosophies will only be discussed in relation to how and what they taught. For this reason also the scope of this can not go into elaborate detail and analyses of their philosophical positions. The main contribution intended here is to the field of education rather than philosophy, and there is a much greater need for an educational study because so many philosophical ones have already been done.

This book is a descriptive portrait of Confucius and Socrates as a men who sought wisdom and the good life both for themselves and others through learning and teaching. Each study will examine briefly what they did during their lives, and their manner and attitudes exemplified by their behavior and words. Then we shall investigate in detail the pedagogical methods they used in searching for wisdom and goodness, and then the subjects on which they concentrated their energy. After having examined their teachings we shall review the correspondence between their actions and their teachings to see if they set a good example for their students. Finally we shall note the results of their educational pursuits on the lives and characters of their immediate students or listeners.

The summary will compare the lives and teaching of Confucius and Socrates to see what similarities stand out and also the reasons for and significance of any differences. These will be analyzed to see what changes they might have caused in the teaching and on the students. Although these are only two case studies, they have been selected as the two best examples of humanistic pedagogy. Therefore based on the success of their methods, the key principles of learning and teaching which they exemplified will be formulated. The goal is to understand these principles, based on the observations of how Confucius and Socrates employed them, in order to make them useful today for anyone who is pursuing greater wisdom and a better life through a conversational process of learning. These may prove beneficial to students of life and to teachers inside and outside the classroom. Teachers may be able to employ specific techniques and topics in discussions, and the non-professional may use these principles as guidelines in examining his or her own actions, values, attitudes, and conduct. Readers who are able to pursue wisdom and the good life more effectively through learning these things may even become positive examples for others.

By Sanderson Beck


  1. Plato, Phaedrus 278.
    2. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, p. 322-324.
    3. Ibid., p. 123.
    4. James, William, The Principles of Psychology, p. 13-14.
    5. Ibid., p. 15.
    6. Peter, Laurence J., Peter’s Quotations, p. 495.
    7. Strain, John Paul (ed.), Modern Philosophies of Education, p. 378.
    8. Bailey, Alice A., Initiation, Human and Solar, p. 11-12.
    9. Bailey, Alice A., Esoteric Psychology I, p. 342.
    10. Schumacher, E. F., Small is Beautiful, p. 38-39.
    11. Job 32:7-8.
    12. Plato, Euthydemus 282.
    13. Aristotle, Metaphysics 981.
    14. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1140.
    15. Ibid. 1177.
    16. Aristotle, Politics 1323.
    17. Epictetus, Discourses II, 22.
    18. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V, 9.
    19. Plotinus, First Ennead III, 6.
    20. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy III.
    21. Kant, Immanuel, Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics XIV.
    22. Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace V, ii.
    23. Maeterlinck, Maurice, Wisdom and Destiny, p. 70-72.
    24. Bailey, Alice A., Initiation, Human and Solar, p. 11.
    25. Salk, Jonas, The Survival of the Wisest, p. x.
    26. Ibid. p. 122.
    27. Eliot, T. S., The Rock I.
    28. Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason Part I,
    Book II, Ch. I.
    29. Ibid. Conclusion.
    30. Jaspers, Karl, The Great Philosophers, Vol. I, p. 13.
    31. I Ching, Wilhelm/Baynes edition, Foreword, p. xxxii.
    32. Aristotle, Metaphysics 987b and 1078b.
    33. Plutarch, Alexander.

This article is borrowed from

This chapter has been published in the book CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES Teaching Wisdom.

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