Stoicism and Confucianism: a comparison

Massimo Pigliucci
Mar 20 · 8 min read
(First entrance gate of the Temple of Confucius in Zhenhai, Wikipedia)

As I mentioned before, with my friends and colleagues Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, I recently co-edited How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy. It seems like a good opportunity to make some constructive comparisons between my chosen philosophy of life, Stoicism, and some of the 15 other traditions presented in the book. Last time I explored the convergence, as well as the differences, between Stoicism and Buddhism. Today is the turn of another influential eastern philosophy: Confucianism.

The pertinent chapter in How to Live a Good Life was written by Bryan W. Van Norden, and it is on his treatment of Confucianism that I will rely here. Bryan begins by telling us that the cardinal point of Confucian philosophy is that we should develop loving relationships with others, beginning within the fundamental unit of society, the family. Outside the family, we should also strive to take care of others, whether we are coworkers, supervisors, or, especially, political leaders. Broadly speaking, we should have compassion for our friends, members of our community, and people in general, in the way in which we do (or should do!) for our siblings. Confucian Zhang Zai puts it this way:

“The people are my siblings, and all living things are my companions. … All under Heaven who are tired, disabled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows or widowers — all are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to. To care for them at such times is the practice of a good son.”

This has strong resonance with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the notion that we should “appropriate,” so to speak, the concerns of others. The second century Stoic philosopher Hierocles wrote:

“Each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended. … The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters. … Next to this is that which contains the common people, then that which comprehends those of the same tribe, afterwards that which contains the citizens; and then two other circles follow, one being the circle of those that dwell in the vicinity of the city, and the other, of those of the same province. But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race. … It is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavour earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.” (How we ought to conduct ourselves towards our kindred)

This is the Stoic ideal of cosmopolitanism, one that we very much need in the current time of crisis. Stoics too are big on the family as the natural place where we learn the rudiments of ethics, where the process of oikeiosis itself begins. An excellent discussion of this point is found in Liz Gloyn’s The Ethics of the Family in Seneca.

Bryan goes on to explain that we are defined relationally, by the way we handle the various roles we play in life: father, mother, son, daughter, friend, co-worker, teacher, and so forth. This implies that there is no sharp distinction, in Confucianism, between self interest and concern for others, because if I am a bad father, or friend, I am a bad me. Doing a good job in those roles does not just help other people, it helps me as well.

Again, there is here a strong concordance with Stoicism, and particularly the concept of role ethics articulated by the middle Stoic Panaetius and, especially, by Epictetus:

“For, if we do not refer each of our actions to some standard, we shall be acting at random. … There is, besides, a common and a specific standard. First of all, in order that I [act] as a human being. What is included in this? Not [to act] as a sheep, gently but at random; nor destructively, like a wild beast. The specific [standard] applies to each person’s pursuit and volition. The cithara-player is to act as a cithara-player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the rhetor as a rhetor.” (Discourses III.23.3–5)

Confucianism, like Stoicism, urges us to practice a set of virtues. In Stoicism the four cardinal virtues (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) are highly interdependent, basically four different aspects of the same underlying virtue (wisdom in the broad sense). Confucians, by contrast, rank their virtues according to their scope and importance. The two most crucial virtues in Confucianism are benevolence and righteousness.

Benevolence means having compassion for others, all others, since, as Bryan puts it, “we are all under Heaven.” That said, Confucians think that we have special duties toward people we have a direct relationship with, beginning with our family and friends, and then people we know or who live in our same community. Righteousness, the second virtue, has to do with preserving our moral integrity, disdaining to do what is ethically shameful.

The third Confucian virtue is wisdom, which helps you decide the best course of action when navigating ethically complex situations. In this sense, Confucian wisdom is analogous to the Greco-Roman concept of phronesis, or practical wisdom. Wisdom is also what allows you to be a good judge of character of others, to develop a prudent concern for your own wellbeing, and generally to work well with others, having developed a practical sense of how the world functions.

So far so good, but then I stumbled onto a bit from Bryan where I think Stoicism differs sharply from Confucianism: “Ask yourself: as disappointed as you would be to discover that your father is a crook, would you actually turn in your own father to the police, or do you think that your obligation to him as your father trumps your normal obligation to report the guilty?”

With the only minor caveat that this would depend, to an extent, on what my father was actually guilty of (and, of course, of my confidence that he was) my response as a Stoic would be different. I do have special duties toward those I directly interact with, because they depend on me, and because we have had a relationship over time. But such duties do not trump those toward the human cosmopolis at large, as Epictetus makes very clear.

The fourth and final Confucian virtue is propriety, which is concerned with respect of etiquette and the like. This is obviously less important than what we have been discussing before, and Bryan accordingly ranks propriety lower than the other virtues. Nevertheless, respecting social customs is one key to peaceful living, so one can see the point. Here too, however, there is a significant point of departure with Stoicism, since there is little trace that the Stoics cared much about local customs, especially those — like Epictetus — who were more influenced by the Cynic “wing” of Stoicism.

Interestingly, Confucians think that human beings are naturally prosocial (or “virtuous”), although to an imperfect degree. And that we can perfect our virtue with reflection and practice. Which is exactly the Stoic position:

“At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XLIX.11)

Here is how Bryan summarizes the point: “We certainly think that people, through long and hard work, can get better at non-moral skills like playing tennis or poker, writing and painting, and appreciating fine wines and works of art. Wouldn’t it be remarkably odd if being a good person were the only thing we could not get better at with practice, dedication, and education?”

Interestingly, this leads Bryan to talk, critically, as it turns out, of the concept of sudden enlightenment, and therefore (in a more positive fashion) of the concept of sagehood. He argues that the notion of sudden enlightenment is dangerous, because it may undermine people’s day to day efforts to make progress. As he says, “real ethical development is hard work and takes a long time.”

The Stoics did think that it is possible to become a sage. But they thought this to be a very rare accomplishment (as rare as the phoenix, the mythical bird), and that it does require sustained, lifelong effort and commitment. So how do Confucians think that we develop ethically? Confucius says:

“If you learn without thinking about what you have learned, you will be lost. If you think without learning, however, you will fall into danger.”

Confucians learn from the texts of their philosophy, from biographies, works of history, novels, and especially from others:

“When walking with two other people, I will always find a teacher among them. I focus on those who are good and seek to emulate them, and focus on those who are bad in order to be reminded of what needs to be changed in myself.” (Confucius)

Stoics too have developed a number of techniques that include those listed above. And we do learn from our association to others, both in the positive and in the negative:

“Choose therefore a Cato [as a role model]; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XI.10)

And:

“Avoid fraternizing with [people who do not practice philosophy]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 33.6)

Near the end of the chapter Bryan turns to concrete advice that Confucians give us for living a good life, mentioning the following points:

(i) Pick friends and romantic partners who inspire you to be a better person.

(ii) You can’t pick your family, but you need to remind yourself that you love them.

(iii) Pick a career that is beneficial to others (benevolence) and not shameful (righteousness).

Regarding point (iii), you can, for instance, be a Confucian attorney, that is one who does not take advantage of her clients, or prolongs cases unnecessarily. You can be a Confucian businessperson, who doesn’t cheat his customers or exploit his workers. You can be a Confucian general contractor, who builds good houses at reasonable prices. Or you can be a Confucian waiter, who does his job well and is not ashamed of it. You could simply substitute “Stoic” for “Confucian” above, and those guidelines would still be appropriate.

Bryan quotes Mengzi to summarize the Confucian message:

“The way lies in what is near, but people seek it in what is distant; one’s task lies in what is easy, but people seek it in what is difficult. If everyone would treat their kin as kin, and their elders as elders, the world would be at peace.”

In my mind this is not far at all from the Stoic take:

“As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.23)


A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://massimopigliucci.com/essays/

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

More From Medium

More from A Philosopher’s Stone

More from A Philosopher’s Stone

Saving Descartes’ Theory of Mind

More from A Philosopher’s Stone

More from A Philosopher’s Stone

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade