Ethical Development in Stoicism and Confucianism by Brittany Polat

How do we make progress as Stoics? After we accept the theoretical tenets of Stoic philosophy, how do we put them into practice, day in and day out? I think these are all pressing questions for anyone who identifies as a Stoic and truly wishes to live in accordance with nature. And yet, not only is it difficult to follow the Stoic path, sometimes it’s even difficult to know what that path is. We’ve lost both the ancient institutions of philosophy (in which the school’s philosophical way of life was transmitted directly from master to student) and most of the original literature, as well. I’m guessing not many of us have ever seen another person living a Stoic life—we are pretty much winging it as we go along. We do the best we can with what we have. But I keep wondering what the process of ethical development really looks like, both on a day-to-day basis and over a lifetime. 

That’s why I’ve been looking into Confucianism. Like Stoicism, Confucianism is an ancient wisdom tradition with a focus on virtue, ethical development, humanitarian care for others, attention to the present moment, and the ideal of the sage. Like Stoicism, many key Confucian ideas are based on a theory of human nature and have a practical or therapeutic intent. But unlike Stoicism, Confucianism has been a revered and living tradition in Asia for 2,500 years, where it still continues to influence millions (billions?) of lives today. A wealth of Confucian thought has been passed down over the generations, and it has responded to and been informed by competing philosophies such as Daoism and Buddhism. In some important ways, therefore, Confucianism stands in for something we modern Stoics can only dream of: an ancient system of virtue ethics that has flourished at the heart of a remarkably rich culture for thousands of years. 

I’m just beginning my study of Confucianism, but it’s not hard to see its similarities to Stoicism. I believe we can round out our understanding of Stoic ethical development by learning how Confucians see things. Just to be clear, I’m not claiming that any Confucian and Stoic concepts are identical, or that Confucius’ conception of virtue is necessarily related to Zeno’s or Epictetus’ understanding of virtue. The two philosophies are completely independent of one another, and there are significant differences between the two that we need to keep in mind. (For example, their conceptions of virtue have different historical bases and different emphases.) Nevertheless, I’ve found that as a modern person who is trying to reconstruct habits of virtue in my own life, learning about another virtue-centered tradition has helped me better understand the process of ethical development. Greek philosophy does not have a monopoly on virtue, so why shouldn’t we learn as much as we can from other traditions?

Obviously, in this brief essay I will not have space to do justice to the richness of Confucianism, or to really offer a proper comparison between Confucian and Stoic concepts. I will just barely scratch the surface by focusing on two areas that have enhanced my thinking on ethical development: the sprouts of virtue and the unity of knowledge and action.  

The Sprouts of Virtue

The first idea comes from Mengzi (391-308 B.C.E.), a philosopher who lived soon after Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) and fleshed out several principles that Confucius had alluded to but not clearly explained. For one thing, Confucius taught virtue and wisdom but did not clarify his views on human nature: why doesn’t everyone become virtuous? Is human nature inherently good or inherently bad? Different philosophers in the Confucian tradition put forward various and opposing answers to these questions over the next two thousand years. 

Mengzi, who is often considered the second sage of Confucianism, believed that human nature is inherently good, and that everyone has the “sprouts of virtue” within them. People do not always realize their potential for virtue if the sprouts are not properly tended. Factors such as a bad environment could cause the sprouts of virtue to wither, but more often it is “pernicious doctrines” and “lack of individual effort” that cause people not to reach their full moral potential.

For this reason, Mengzi insisted that we engage in active reflection about our behavior and our ethical context. It is through this reflection that we learn to extend our innate capacity for virtue outward into our lives. Modern Confucian scholar Bryan Van Norden describes the process like this:

“All of us will have righteous or benevolent reactions to certain paradigmatic situations. We feel love for our parents, which is a manifestation of benevolence…However, there are other situations in which we do not have these reactions, even though they are in the same ‘category.’ For example, a person who would find it shameful to have an illicit affair might think nothing of lying to his ruler to achieve some political benefit. ‘Reflection’ is a process by which we identify the relevant similarities between those cases in which we already have the appropriate reactions and those cases in which we do not yet react appropriately. This guides our emotions so that we come to feel similarly about the cases.”

There is a famous story about how Mengzi guided the ethical development of a king by helping him to cultivate the sprouts of virtue in his nature. The king once took pity on an ox that was being led to slaughter because the animal was frightened and bellowing; the king ordered the ox to be spared. Mengzi used this opportunity to point out the king’s budding sense of benevolence, and how he could cultivate and extend this same sense of benevolence to his human subjects. In the same way, we can all reflect on those times we have acted virtuously, and our sense of joy and pride in our actions will spur us on to more virtuous action. As Mengzi said, “If one delights in them then they grow. If they grow then how can they be stopped?”

Anyone familiar with Stoic philosophy will notice the parallels between Mengzi’s sprouts of virtue and the seeds of virtue discussed by Stoics like Seneca and Musonius Rufus. Musonius, like Mengzi, also had a quite optimistic view of human nature; he tells us, “There is an inborn capacity in the human being’s soul for proper living and the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.” 

But what I really like about Mengzi’s thought is his idea of extending our nascent virtue to a wider and wider range of contexts. Rather than trying to conquer a part of ourselves that is in conflict with virtue, we simply concentrate on what is already virtuous within us and apply it more and more broadly. This approach also seems to complement the idea of outwardly expanding concentric circles that we find in Hierocles’ description of oikeiosis: we expand what is already within us. We do so (it seems to me) through a cyclical process of enjoying and taking pride in our past virtuous actions, reflecting on how we can apply those same positive behaviors to new contexts, and then taking pride in our new virtuous actions. 

I really like Mengzi’s progressive, reflective, and encouraging approach to ethical development. It’s one that I think can help beginners as they get started on the path to virtue and can help all of us as we try for a deeper application of virtue in our lives.

The Unity of Knowledge and Action

Another Confucian idea that has influenced my understanding of ethical development is Wang Yangming’s theory of the unity of knowledge and action. Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.) lived considerably later than Mengzi and was part of a revival movement known as Neoconfucianism. In the two thousand years that separated Wang from Mengzi and Confucius, Confucianism in China had faced serious competition from Buddhism and Daoism. Neoconfucians, therefore, were influenced by and forced to respond to Buddhist and Daoist ideas. Instead of focusing on the slow cultivation of virtue, as Mengzi had, many Neoconfucians sought to reach an enlightened state by eliminating selfish desires from their minds. They emphasized constant vigilance over one’s mind as a way to root out selfish thoughts and recover our original, pristine mental condition. Here is Wang’s description of the vigilance required to purify our minds:

“This effort must be carried out continuously. Like eradicating robbers and thieves, one must resolve to wipe them out completely…One must resolve to pluck out and cast away the root of the sickness, so that it can never arise again. Only then may one begin to feel at ease. One must, at all times, be like a cat catching mice—with eyes intently watching and ears intently listening. As soon as a single [selfish] thought begins to stir, one must conquer it and cast it out. Act as if you were cutting a nail in two or slicing through iron. Do not indulge or accommodate it in any way. Do not harbor it, and do not allow it to escape.”

This approach is intriguingly similar to the Stoic conception of prosoche, particularly as taught by Epictetus. And like Epictetus, Wang Yangming was a very inspiring teacher and moral therapist; in fact, he explicitly compared his instruction to medicine, declaring that he cured each student’s specific spiritual malady. 

Where Wang has helped me move forward in my own ethical understanding, however, is through his proposal that “knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge.” He believed that knowledge and action are simply on different ends of a single continuum. But not just any kind of knowledge will work; it must be real knowledge. Real knowledge is distinct from ordinary knowledge because is based on personal experience and touches all levels of the mind, including cognition and emotions. People may fail to act appropriately if they have merely ordinary knowledge about a situation. In contrast, once someone has real knowledge, they will always act appropriately:

“Real knowledge embraces both proper cognitive and affective aspects. In cases requiring moral action, one not only knows what to do but finds oneself properly motivated to do so. In genuine cases of real knowledge, an agent simply spontaneously moves toward the proper end. Those who possess such knowledge cannot help but act in accordance with it; this is what separates them from most of us, who possess only ordinary knowledge.”

I think this offers a satisfactory explanation of why people often act against their better judgment, and it makes wonderful sense in light of Stoic moral theory–with some modifications. Given the Stoic conception of impressions and assent, we could say that our judgments hold the power Wang Yangming ascribes to real knowledge. Judgment is so powerful that our actions will automatically follow from our judgments. When we have an impression, either we assent to something or we don’t. If we assent—that is, if we really, actually believe this is what we should do—we will automatically do it. It’s not possible to truly assent to a proposition and then fail to act on that assent. If that happens, then we haven’t fully assented in the first place.

The unity of judgment and action helped me realize that if my thoughts and actions do not align with my espoused principles, there can only be one thing to blame: my judgments. If we get our judgments right, we will get everything else right, too. Once you understand this, you understand why we must take such great care with our judgments. Everything else falls into place when we have and apply real knowledge of what is good, bad, and indifferent.

I hope you’ll agree with me that the Confucius, Mengzi, and Wang Yangming offer some delicious food for thought for Stoics. In Confucianism we find a long, rich, living tradition of ethical cultivation that emphasizes internal attention, appropriate actions, caring for other people, living in the present moment, and finding contentment in everyday life. Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and there are many other points of convergence between Confucian and Stoic theories, as well as some significant areas of divergence. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that studying Confucianism will tell us anything about how the ancient Stoics practiced their philosophy, but rather that it can inform our conception of a philosophical way of life moving forward into the 21st century. As we all make a sincere effort toward virtue, we should welcome guidance from the sages of another accomplished, ancient, and influential tradition.

Further Reading

For this essay I have leaned extensively on two excellent books, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the Confucian tradition:

  • Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2011).
  • Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self Cultivation (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2000), 2nd ed.

Also check out Eric Scott’s short but insightful blog post comparing Stoic and Confucian ethics.

Brittany Polat is the author of the recent book Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged. You can follow her blog at Apparent Stoic or on Twitter @brittanypolat.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

2 thoughts on “Ethical Development in Stoicism and Confucianism by Brittany Polat”

  1. I just prefer a la carte stoicism to go with Christianity, the actual one, not the organized one so much. Stoicism, itself seems to be for individual choice not some organized with religiosity and with uniforms, dogma and such. This only encourages bossism and assertion of power, pecking order and the like. My dad can beat up your dad mentality, losing the whole idea that stoicism intends. You didn’t see Marcus converting his wife or son, and he compartmentalized being emporeor and a private person with stoic beliefs which he discussed but rarely practiced in his public life.

  2. Social media is inherently antithetical to Stoic Philosophy as the later is about philosophical experiential practice not continuous information exchanges of uncritical uniformed monologues that create tarahi not ataraxia a key concept of Stoic Philosophy (emphasis on philosophy!) It may suit the silicon valley hype and style of stoicism but it isn’t stoic philosophy whatever else it is.

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