CONFUCIUS AND SOCRATES
The Teaching of Wisdom
by Sanderson Beck
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 says 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,"
since 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 goes
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" is a positive connotation word 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
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. However, although higher animals have
the advantage of the five senses common to man, still 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 indicates 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 describes 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. Since 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 he considers to be
good. Or we might say, relative good is what a person loves
as indicated by what he pursues. The difficulty here is that
not everyone agrees as to what is good due to various situations
and sets of consciousness. Yet in each case, love in this
sense is one's movement toward what he 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. It is adaptation to
these types of experiences which 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 he 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, since
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 inter- action 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 also involves the
subjective factor and personal values, due to 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 a comprehension of universal
values are helpful in making wiser decisions which link knowledge
and action, and 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 discusses 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 explains 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 gives
the example of the hydrogen bomb. Alice Bailey describes 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 points 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 of the twentieth century are demanding the
development of greater wisdom. In his book Small is Beautiful,
E. F. Shumacher sees the need for wisdom to solve our economic
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. It is not necessary to cite statistics on
crime or to discuss the problems of human interaction, which
have become so familiar that they are a part of the way of
life 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
since 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 he 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 the 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 summarizes the idea of correct knowledge and action
leading to happiness in the Euthydemus.
Seeing that all men 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
every- body ought by all means to try and make himself as
wise as he can.12
Aristotle supports the point that he who has knowledge of
what he does is better off and wiser than the man who merely
acts, such as the manual worker. Knowledge is also necessary
But yet we think that knowledge and understanding belong
to art rather than to experience, and we suppose artists to
be wiser than men 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 man who knows and of the man 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 men of mere experience cannot.13
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle's definitions of practical
wisdom are very close to ours.
Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom
to be able to deli- berate well about what is good and expedient
for himself, 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 correlates 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 distinguishes 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 he has of virtue and wisdom, and of virtuous
and wise action. God is a witness to us of this truth, for
he is happy and blessed, not by reason of any external good,
but in himself and by reason of his 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 give us an analysis of the relationship between
the good, love, and wisdom in his discourse "On Friendship."
His common-sense psychology comes to the same conclusion.
What a man applies himself to earnestly, that he naturally
loves. Do men 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 he who cannot distinguish good from bad, how can he possess
the power of loving? To love, then, is only in the power of
Another Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, found that several
essential human values depended on wisdom. He asks why temporary
pleasures tend to deceive us, and then writes,
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" focuses 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 men 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 any man attain, he 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 men seek to reach, as I said, though by different paths.
For there is implanted by nature in the minds of men 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
Immanuel Kant in examining virtue also describes 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 make men free,
healthy, rich, a king, etc., nor can either chance or fate
deprive him of this, since he possesses himself, and the virtuous
cannot lose his 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
He who knows himself 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
men 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 sees 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
Thus the development of wisdom may have importance beyond
the physical existence of one lifetime, but 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 discusses the necessity of learning from outer nature
also a greater wisdom. He writes,
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 expresses 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
So we return once more to our own century, where the poet
T. S. Eliot asks, "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 proposes 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 of men throughout history, especially those
who helped to educate others in wisdom. Kant discusses the
awesome characteristics of such an individual.
For a teacher of wisdom would mean something more than a
scholar who has not come so far as to guide himself, 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 man would claim for
himself.... 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 his own
person as an example (in his self-mastery and the unquestioned
interest that he 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 he be wise. Then
we may proceed to examine what he 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 ends
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
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 of men taught or assisted others may give us insights
and guidelines for the education of wisdom today.
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 calls 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 the 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 Orient 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. Due to 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 Tzu, Mencius, Chuang Tzu, Plato, Aristotle, Chu Hsi,
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
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, but though he remained an "amateur"
or informal teacher, it was Socrates who 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 are 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. Since 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. It is hoped
that many of these will 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, dialogues 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 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
emphasizes that he is 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 men since the historical events are less
important for philosophers and teachers than they are for
statesmen. Nonetheless due to the antiquity of Confucius and
Socrates, the historical difficulties are immense. It is necessary
to rely on the written documents of other ancient writers,
and the historical accuracy of those available is questionable
and highly controversial. It is beyond the scope of this work
to attempt to solve these problems which have plagued scholars
for centuries, but how these difficulties will be handled
will be explained.
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 is made to write
a long, philosophical treatise. Other ancient documents from
later periods such as Mencius and Ssu-ma Ch'ien's biography
are used sparingly for background and are specifically mentioned
when so used. Two 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 have been presented
in the Wisdom Classics as Higher Education and The Center
of Harmony, because they express the spirit of Confucius'
With Socrates the situation is much more complex. How the
sources for Socrates are used are explained in an introduction
to the Socrates chapters called "The Socratic Problem."
Since 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
since so many philosophical ones have already been done.
Part I will be an extensive descriptive portrait of Confucius
as a man who sought wisdom and the good life both for himself
and others through learning and teaching. Part II will do
the same with Socrates. Each study will examine briefly what
they did during their lives, and their manner and attitudes
exemplified by their behavior. Then we shall investigate in
detail the pedagogical methods they used in searching for
wisdom and goodness, and also 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
Part III will be a summary and comparison of 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. It
is hoped that an understanding of these principles, based
on the observations of how Confucius and Socrates employed
them, could be useful today to someone 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.
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,
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.