Philosopher King or Junzi (“君子”):
Platonic or Confucian; who’s leader leads?
The following Article represents a prolonged reading and re-thinking of the merits of the political leaders of antiquity. Asking the question: whose leader leads? I am comparing the Confucian concept of leader the Junzi translated into English as ‘exemplary individual’ who following Confucius has a reverence for tradition and who will be shown to have an important origin; being compared with Plato’s leader of the ideal city the Philosopher King in its Republic. The comparison I make centres around these two figures and whether or not they possess the necessary qualities for ruling. I will argue that there is a quality that makes the Confucian leader the Junzi superior to the Philosopher King. I will show and explain how the Chinese concept of familial piety (xiào孝) is a more important and realistic ideal that provides a good grounding in actual leadership. Rather than the emphasis placed on the development of one’s individual rational mind found in the training of the Philosopher King.
Key words: Leadership, Politics, Confucianism, Platonism, Junzi, Philosopher King.
I wish to ask a political question: if humanity had a choice between a traditionally eastern or western idea of a ruler which one should they choose? This question is not intended to be antagonistic but rather serves as the basis for my argument; that the Chinese philosopher Confucius’s “Junzi” would make a much better leader than Plato’s “Philosopher King”. I will endeavour to show that through reading Plato and Confucius’s texts and the accounts of the two leaders and then comparing them through the contemporary literature on this subject will show the superiority of the Asian leader over the Western counterpart. It is also important that this writing engages with a dilemma of comparative philosophy, that when arguing in favour of an idea or culture that is not your own how do you ensure that your perspective is accurate? Do you approach a comparison and maintain an obvious distinction between the thinking of Confucius and Plato or do the differences between them add greater quality to this analysis? A question that poses a methodological demand on existing research on this topic within the global academia.
Acknowledging this leads me to adopt the following method to show the premises that lead to the ancient Asian concept of a leader being superior and at the same time showing how comparative philosophy needs to maintain a self-critical stance. Starting with a detailed description of the two leaders will provide the reader access to the subject under discussion. Then after providing an accurate account of these ancient governors their beliefs and values will be assessed because this will make the reasoning explicitly clear as to why the Junzi should be seen in a more positive light. A conclusion that I believe will come to be more and more important as China exerts a greater amount of influence on our contemporary world. So, let us begin with this paper’s formal argument and then the portrayal of these ancient leaders by those philosophers who both recorded and created them. The argument against Plato’s philosopher King is as follows.
- Confucius has Familial piety and Plato does not have Familial piety.
- To lead a country one needs the capacity to see one’s family among other families.
- The concept of familial piety expands a person’s capacity to expand the family with inclusivity.
- Therefore, Confucius’s emphasis on Familial piety gives the necessary capacity one needs to lead a country.
- Who where this King and the Exemplary Individual?
In Plato’s Republic, a complex discussion on how a state should be organised inevitably leads to a dialogue on how it should be governed and by who. Socrates is the voice whose ancient statement describes the philosopher king, “philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize”(Plato, The Republic, Book IX,5.473d). The argument against Plato’s leader begins with Socrates’s proclamation and how it immediately tasks philosophy itself with a kind of royalty and this is misleading. Socrates’s full speech tells us that the ideal state is unattainable unless it is categorically dominated by a philosopher; this ought mixes and confuses the genuine love of wisdom with an ideal amount and a definite standard. One initial objection to the accusation that Plato’s powerful dialogue imbues philosophy with a false sense of authority and a self confident rationality would be to defend philosophy as being unalterably political. Philosophy’s pursuit of truth is also a political act.
The defenders of Plato could well say that Socrates’s initial statement enacts this by way of the political conflict that is at at the heart and is the essence of leadership. Yet, this categorical “must” remains contradictory because of its multiple directions; either the philosopher becomes a king or the king transforms into a philosopher? Ambiguities are numinous, how are we to derive confidence that the philosopher king’s training in dialectics make him fit to rule? Is it not truer to suggest that all philosophers are kingly, or king like, but not kings? This then results in the dilemma of not being able to distinguish what exactly Socrates was envisioning when he uses descriptive language such as “genuine” and the “adequacy” of a philosophical process of thinking to mark and determine the ruler of the ideal city. This really only paints this Greek ruler with an overly illusory sense of governing; resulting in a criteria and standard driven governor: the philosopher king. Now, let us analyse how the Greek and Chinese leaders differ in how they are described and what beliefs drive them.
- Confucius’s Junzi
In modern scholarship Roger Ames’s has successfully re-defined the Junzi as an ‘exemplary individual’ rather than the older and common translation of ‘gentleman’. Ames’s achievement in re-translation is a good starting point from which to show the qualities the Junzi represents. Discussing very early Chinese ethics Ame’s directs us towards yet more evidence that being Confucian entails a set of beliefs that are unique. A good example is a specifically Chinese notion of themselves the daotong (道统) . We learn from Ame’s study that Confucius was more forthcoming in his debts to earlier ancient dynasties and does so in a spirit of transmission; we also discover the main quality that underlies the Junzi and indeed the Confucianism that nurtures this exemplary individual. In Chinese this is called Xiao (family feeling).
Next to the Importance of this feeling this argument builds upon what Ames also cited; writer David Keightley has usefully simplified, “contrasts a Chinese cosmology of ceaseless process with a classical Greek worldview in which a metaphysical transcendentalism guarantees an idealized reality”(Ames, 2011). Criticisms of Plato will always centre around this notion that our existence is anchored and determined by the existence of and our subsequent participation and engagement with the non-physical realm of the forms. Keightley’s description of a Chinese cosmology enhances the contrast between the beliefs Plato and Confucius would have had in a useful way. Looking at the cosmology of ancient China and Plato’s account the important difference becomes self evident. In Plato’s creationist dialogue Timaeus of Locri splits reality in two. Discussing the causal origins as a craftsman god: the demiurge and its relation to beauty as a kind of perfection.
“what is it that always is, but never comes to be, and what is it that comes to be but never is? The former, since it is always consistent, can be grasped by the intellect with the support of a reasoned account, while the latter is the object of belief, supported by unreasoning sensation, since it is generated and passes away, but never really is. Now, anything created is necessarily created by some cause, because nothing can possibly come to be without there being something that is responsible for its coming to be. Also, whenever a craftsman takes something consistent as his model, and reproduces its forms and properties, the result is bound in every case to be a thing of beauty, but if he takes as his model something that has been created, the product has bound to be imperfect.”(Plato, Timeaus, 28a)
Here we can draw an important distinction a demarcation between Confucianism and Platonism. The latter of them is based upon a split that gives privilege to certain processes over others and the former observes a continuous process of processes; a flux the Chinese called qi or “Chi” an energy universally omnipresent, but shares a symmetry with the necessary causality of Timeaus. Yet, here the powerful connection Confucius drew to the family as a basis for a balanced state surfaces and makes the idea of perfection over imperfection less attainable. One appreciates the sentiment that Plato’s god (the demiurge) desired a cosmos to be as good as possible and so exists as a craftsman creating in a skillful way. But for an individual who has to rule a country and a given populace he is forced to work with and produce from something that has already been created.
The last part of the Timeaus quotation is in favour of the Junzi being prone to imperfection because this exemplary individual can not choose to craft perfection with geometric and mathematical certainty when faced with the earthly demands of changing social phenomena. Instead Confucius and the Junzi were in their own time forced to deal with imperfection, a period of Chinese history called The Warring States (戰國時代, Zhànguó Shídài). This is not to say that Plato and Socrates did not face conflict and imperfection but I believe that the reverence Confucius had for the rituals and traditions of an early peaceful period governed by men such as the Duke of Zhou who acted as a regent imbued his thinking with a practicality. A practice that would better enforce the possibility of attaining a balanced state within a chaotic reality rather than dismissing this chaos as irrational and being in favour of a belief perpetually in need of remeasuring?
This question begins to clarify how Plato’s idealism in his dialogues suffers from its own grandiosity and how Confucius’s idealization of the Zhou dynasty and its rulers is less destructive and distorting; a quality that has better chance of being preserved in a Junzi. An initial description of the Junzi is at the beginning of the Analects; in the words of Master You we begin to see how realism occupies a greater percentage of importance for the Junzi. Here we can start to develop an appreciation for this Asian realism and how it’s concepts are better suited for ruling. How the family acts as a natural regulator for the selfish nature of human intelligence and the larger governing structures that exist to facilitate peace and an abidance to the common laws of both the ancient and contemporary worlds.
“Master You said: “It is a rare thing for someone who has a sense of filial and fraternal responsibility (xiao 孝) to have a taste for defying authority. And it is unheard of for those who have no taste for defying authority. And it is unheard of for those who have no taste for defying authority to be keen on initiating rebellion. Exemplary persons (Junzi 君子) concentrate their efforts on the root, for the root having taken hold, the way (dao道) will grow therefrom. As for filial and fraternal responsibility, it is, I suspect, the root of authoritative conduct (Ren仁).”(Confucius, The Analects, Book I)
- Plato’s Philosopher King
Socrates’s most detailed description of this lover of wisdom who would be king is found in book IV of the Republic. Plato begins by putting a trinity in place by insisting that even in an ideal state this city will also suffer from the very beginning with its citizenry being filtered into classes. The class with the philosopher king is also subdivided into subcategories: beneath the king is a general ruler and then the auxiliaries. Next to this split Plato has no qualms about the movement of children between classes and here myth is unfortunately used to support this selectivity. This is found in the language of book IV where the opening dialogue is littered with superlative descriptive language “the best”; the guardian (the philosopher king) has to be the best.
This then leads straight to the important Platonic concept of the Good and the belief that these guardians will unconditionally follow and enact the “best” and the Good as an omnipotent principle because they would only love the city and therefore care the most. All this is supposed to be a solution to other forms of collective government that Plato deems deficient; such as democracy as a system is too prone to corruption and therefore in need of one ruler. This solution has since its inception unintentionally invited criticism that is fixed around authoritarianism and a state of control. Reading how the Good is inherent to the Philosopher King I find it difficult to not be skeptical; especially when the dialogue mentions the voluntary and involuntary loss of belief. If beliefs are both voluntary and involuntary then this king guardian that is a philosopher is in danger of becoming a truth fanatic.
“But why? Surely you agree that men are always unwilling to loose a good, but willing enough to be rid of a bad one. And isn’t a bad thing to be deceived by the truth, and a good thing to possess the truth? For I assume that by possessing the truth you mean believing that things as they really are.”(Plato, The Republic, Book III, 413 a)
Although fanatic is too strong a word to use for the enthusiasm Plato has for placing authority and access to the truth in the hands of the one over the many. Our philosopher king does suffer from this Platonic schemata. Contemporary thinker Kenneth Dorter’s book The Transformation of Plato’s Republic (2006) features an important commentary on these dilemmas; the authoritarian control Plato exerts is translated into a compulsion to rule. Interestingly this is seen as originating in a fear of being ruled by inferiors. Even though Adeimantus and Glaucon object to this however Socrates insists that, “But once it is pointed out to them they will not refuse because ‘we shall be imposing just behavior onto just people”(Dorter, 2006). Here then is a barrier that other sections of The Republic fail to resolve and only furthers this leader’s problematic character.
It should not be a surprise that the Philosopher king suffers from within its own identity constantly striving in one direction only; to that which is the best. Having the natural qualities to rule in line with the Good. Reading about the philosopher as it has been described in Plato’s simile of the cave it could well read as an apology made on behalf of the human condition. Broken by our access and insight into truth that we are compelled to rule and this is firmly positioned in the domain of philosophy, “And we say that the particulars are objects of sight but not of intelligence, while the forms are the objects of intelligence but not of sight”, and “The sun is not identical with sight, nor with what we call the eye in which sight resides”(Plato, The Republic, Book VII, 514a-521a). The use of the sun to enforce the blinding potentiality of sensory perception may still underline the struggle we all face. But, if truth is indeed so blinding then why gaze at it in the first place? When applied to a ruler it is hard to fathom how many would rise to the challenge of returning to the site of imprisonment in Plato’s cave to free our fellows from illusion?
In the Analects there is not a direct discussion of imprisonment just discourse and it makes it difficult to not accept Dorter’s earlier criticism of fear as an equally strong motivator for human behaviour. Moreover is there anything that suggests that the philosopher would not be prone to irrational fear? Would not be susceptible to evil; and rather than free and aid his citizens not decide to keep them chained and imprisoned for their own good? These questions are the less common aporias Plato’s texts cultivate.
- What values do these two leaders govern by?
- Li, Filial piety, and Ren
There are many Confucian values that the Junzi would possess but there are three that are particularly important. Beginning with Li (禮) meaning ‘rite’ or ‘ritual propriety’ with this respect for one’s family and especially elders and ancestors xiào (孝) . Then from these qualities a Confucian is also equipped with Ren (仁) an essence of being human. We can marginally suggest that Ren differs from the Western notion of essence by remembering the Chinese notion of Chi (universal energy) that is omnipresent in all things and is constantly energizing, moving, and never stationary. The Western essence differs in the work’s of Plato and his student Aristotle because Plato sees the essence as the form of a thing his student puts the form in the essence as a unified substance. One believes that the Junzi would if approached to define Ren choose to locate essence between this world and another.
When compared to Plato’s and Socrates’s good which I will soon show is conditionally defined by a dependency on dialectical thinking wedded to a higher rationality; Confucius’s Ren is more fluid only dependent on the context of the agent and their capacity to intuitively behave in line with what is “a” good and not “the” good; and so being an exemplary individual a Junzi. This is made obvious if we read the collection of this Chinese philosopher’s words, “A person of Ren, wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of realizing ren.”(Confucius, The Analects, Book VI) This demonstrates directly the social implications of this Chinese essence that it is social and therefore both subjected and objected to change. This is why it is an accurate comparison of Ren to essence as being more plural rather than singular.
This comment is divisive and the Junzi differs from the philosopher king in other ways. Confucius himself was not as Aristocratic as Plato and throughout his life did experience some setbacks in his attempts to bring about social change, yet remained positive towards the capacity of a ruler coming from any background; Plato was not so forgiving after his failures in implementing his political ideas and so as I will soon explain was forcefully against democracy; but, what about an ideology like capitalism? Referencing the well known study by German Max Weber, Thomas T. Lennerfors’s paper references Weber’s opinion that Confucianism can not be seen as an origin for Capitalism in the same way that Protestantism and Calvanism could be because the former lacks the transcendental and religious qualities of the later. The reason Lennerfors makes reference to Weber is because he wants to show how Western criticisms of Asian belief as uniformly supportive of capitalism are prematurely made. Take this quote, it shows that Plato is under equal scrutiny in current Asian discussions.
“Constant references were made to Plato’s warning that a democracy can indeed be a path to societal corruption. In opposition to liberal democratic values of alleged rugged individualism and one person-one-vote, the speakers …were inspired by Confucian ideas of harmony and meritocracy to promote the creation of an alternative society.”(Lennerfors, 2015)
Although a brilliant defense of Asian belief’s transformation under contemporary capitalism; overall this study moves the king and the gentleman closer together, and this is problematic for the argument of this paper. So, let us turn to the importance of ritual for Confucians. Specifically, Confucius would maintain and defend the notion that the people already have the ability to self-govern. In the Confucian literature it is ritual li that is the principle that organizes or orders; and how does it do this? It does so by enforcing rite behaviour through every member of a communities capacity to understand and to have already learned the inherited and well versed ways of behaving. Ritual Piety can be seen even in the process of naming when Confucius suggests, “when the name is not correct, then the words are not smooth; if the words are not smooth, then things will not be done”(Confucius, Legge, 1971). Far more than just a correct formal way of speaking li is directly connected to Ren, a uniquely pragmatic ethical structure that has this authentic and realistic character that comes into view in one answer Confucius gives to Lin Fang.
‘The master replied: “what an important question! In observing ritual propriety, it is better to be modest than extravagant; in mourning, it is better to express real grief than to worry over formal details.”(Confucius, The Analects, Book III) This reply brings us to ‘filial piety’ xiao (孝) a reverence and respect for the family. The idea that the Junzi is more realistic due to a more liberal appreciation of form is the distinguishing factor in the exemplary person and nowhere is this more evident and prominent than in filial piety. The family then is the one constant, humans even if they are orphaned or become hermit like never fully leave a family, and it is remarkable that rather than a religious reverence for Confucianism the Chinese venerate this way of thinking because of its longevity, and because of its aesthetic qualities. Confucianism was adopted because its a tradition of teaching and learning that is present in the family. Where every single human being takes its first steps, listens to sounds, sings songs, crys, laughs, dances, and encounters Ren.
This aesthetic quality of Confucianism does not negate the idea that individual expression is not important both the Greek and the Chinese adored music and in many ways the Junzi would have also had its own freedom toward idealization. Supporting individuals being able to express themselves is found when Confucius invites his students to share their dreams. Dian or Ceng Xi literally dreams of happiness in returning home singing. Here music and an appreciation of string and air instruments unite the ancient world and the rulers that found themselves in power. But the power of the organic family supports a belief in a plurality of human relations that extends from within the very first and most simple of social structures: in the words of the Confucian scholar Ames we see the power of filial piety (孝), xiào.
“We might say that Confucianism is nothing more than a sustained attempt to ‘to family’ the lived human experience. For Confucianism, it is through discursive living in a communicating family and community that we are able to enchant the ordinary, to ritualize the routine, to invigorate the familiar, to inspire the customary habits of life, and ultimately, to commune spiritually, in the common and the everyday.”(Ames, 2011)
2.2 Justice, the Good, and Dialectic
‘Justice’ (δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosúnē) is Plato’s concept of human mind and it is to do with the idea of the sovereignty of reason; that the soul is affected by bodily appetites. For Plato the number three is important he splits our individual and collective being into three parts: appetite, spirit, and reason. In the Republic these correspond to the class system of this city those with appetite are the workers artisans and craftspeople, spirited individuals have the courage to serve in the military, and those under the influence of reason are to be governors, gaurdians, and philosopher kings. According to Plato when the human soul is able to act with reason it attains a greater level of virtue. Thus presenting Justice dikaiosúnē as the human mind and the process it goes through towards that which is good. The capacity to be self determining under the power of rationality and its access to the goodness of truth.
Leading to the ‘the idea of the good’ (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα, i toú agathoú idéa) comes before Justice in the possible schematics of Plato’s thought. It is the most important because it gives rise to the contemporary use of the adjective Platonic. That is also called Plato’s ‘theory of forms’ the belief that things exist because behind the appearance or representation of them resides a truer mathematically precise formal basis for reality. Things as they appear to exist only exist in the extent that they participate in the formal version of themselves. Something can be said to be beautiful because it participates in beauty itself. We see Socrates discussing the Good in the Symposium describing its affinity and connection to love and eternity.
If one analyses the language of the quotations below this paper’s criticism of Plato should be becoming clearer. Although the idea of the Good is a powerful driving force throughout Western culture it suffers from a singular belief in truth being one. The Good being representative of this monolithic element of Platonism can not escape its placement and association with one’s own ownership and this is what stands in contrast to the Junzi who would not see truth so formally. In defence of Plato and his theory of the forms and the Good being the best of these forms; it should be noted that for Plato his theory works only to the extent that individuals and thinkers are able to participate in such forms. The Junzi, in my interpretation is closer to Pythagoras in that mathematical entities are identical to the objects they represent.
The philosopher king is different in being preconditioned to appreciate the truth of something in an unchanging structure related to thought and thought alone . Unfortunately, this is potentially corrupt-able, and dailectic fails rather than resolving opposing views through rational debate. If the king focused too much on what is Good how does the Philosopher King safeguard against such a negative possibility as his own thinking becoming overtly possessive and thus distorting his reasoning? Can we really fully trust that people do not fall in love with that which is bad as it is strongly argued in the Symposium below?
‘ “But suppose”, she said, “someone changed the question, using the word
‘good’ instead of ‘beautiful’, and asked: ‘Now then, Socrates, the lover of good things has a desire – what is it that he desires?’
“That they become his own,” I said.
“I don’t think that each of us is attached to his own characteristics, unless you’re
Going to describe the good as ‘his own’ and as ‘what belongs to him’ and the bad as ‘what does not belong to him’. The point is that the only object of people’s
Love is the good – don’t you agree?”(Plato, The Symposium, 1999)
Discussing the ‘Dialectic’ (διαλεκτική, dialektikḗ) we can start by detailing how this is also split into three: geometrical, the mythical, and the pedagogical. The first is found in the form of a divided line, the mythical is expressed in the famous form of a similie of a cave, and the pedagogical being the time based plan for a potential philosopher to follow; this progresses from the necessity of military service and through dialectical training the philosopher is then ready to be of use to her or his state. Remember this is represented by a line from opinion to knowledge.
- The forfeit of the Platonic leader?
Unlike the Confucian exemplary individual a philosopher king has no such evidence to refute the claims that have been made against it and so is not a leader that carries a strong legitimacy. Instead, looking back into ancient history it remains a vague and lofty character both removed from its citizens and also if Plato’s texts are to be believed: this philosopher leader can be trusted to assess and hold such authority that they have the capacity to accurately determine what function a citizen may be best suited for. Thus removing citizens from their capacity to grow and choose for themselves? Supporters of this king might cite the vast experience this breed of philosopher may have already acquired that is before they completed twenty years of training in dialectics (rational and virtuous thought), but this just plays into a selectivity that is not organic but possessive and aggressive.
The Philosopher King and the Junzi have many similarities yet the differences are hard to ignore. Even though they both share an appreciation of the harmony that music represents the Greek leader is more war like and this is understandable if we look at the historical context of this King’s ancient time. Socrates and Plato lived in the heyday of Athens led by the general Pericles; and it is certain that Socrates and Plato would have gone through military service. This selectivity is precisely why the Philosopher King can not be trusted to be a just and balanced leader. I have shown how this is deeply rooted in ancient Greek Idealism found in the Republic where at childhood the “philosopher king” starts to be selected by some divisive criteria and the separated from their families; a structure that remains an abstract necessity. One that is far less supportive and indeed is not a cause of responsible leadership based upon an immediate and relative discussions found within those closest to us.
- The Junzi a more real and relative leader?
One of the main arguments against the Junzi that is left to put to the reader is that this ‘familial piety’ that stands in favour of the Confucian leader is also shared with the philosopher king; because we understand that res Republica has supposedly more than one philosopher king then one can say that they would also possess this piety. This quality of being a member of a family however where is the evidence? If this were true then Plato’s great discourse would feature more than just a description of what qualifies a person to be a Platonic leader and the manner in which they govern. If this king of thought has a family Platonist’s will argue that this lack of family in the ideal republic is down to two things: 1) The philosopher king seeks the truth of the family; the form of the family that would be called humanity.
In this case and at this time I do not see how one can take this as sufficient enough reason to make the claim that the platonic king possesses ‘familial piety’. 2) Secondly, returning to the beliefs of these beings their similarities are not so similar. Both believe in a transcendental power bestowed on the ruler. But, the difference is found if you look at Plato’s theology he believes in a creator god. Confucius portrays his leader as developing an awareness of both the bad and the good including how easy it is to fall into corruption. The Junzi exemplifies this because it is not just a leader. In the Chinese state of Confucius’s time the Junzi attained its position in society due to the leader’s capacity to achieve not only harmony but to deal with a chaotic and corrupt boss. Confucius urged his people towards an awareness of their own behaviour and in what way the state is existing. If the leader is not leading the population to a greater state of well-being then the Confucian would encourage his countryman to actively revolt through civil disobedience instead of violent outbursts.
Such a capacity to naturally deal with oscillations between the positive and the negative, and the one constant (change) is honed and harnessed in the organic social forces of the family. A form that is diverse as the many possible ways of living humans enact. Throughout the Analects we have seen many examples of Confucian ideals merge together as they emerged from the hardships these political thinkers experienced in a violent period of the country’s history. Current Confucianism suffers when viewed from the Western perspective of being nationalistic, but the opposite is closer to the truth. The Confusian Junzi is a better ruler because its version of dialectic is more familiar to resolving conflict between people. I hope this paper makes this clearer to the reader for implicit within my conclusion is a challenge to Plato’s beautiful legacy: is it possible that Confucius’s Junzi be better equipped to govern because it was born and remained in that imperfect earthly form of the family?
‘when he is accompanied by other persons, somebody is certainly able to be his teacher.
(San ren xing, bi you wo shi yan 三人行，必有我師焉。).’