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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.1 (2002) 1-17

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What if the Father Commits a Crime?

Rui Zhu

Apparently, Socrates and Confucius respond similarly to the question if a son should turn in his father in the case of the father's misdemeanor. When Euthyphro, flaring his pride of his moral impartiality, tells Socrates that he is on his way to report his father because he has thrown one of the household slaves into a ditch and left him bound there until he was dead, Socrates says, "Good Heaven! Certainly, Euthyphro, most men would not know how they could do this and be right. It is not the part of anyone to do this, but of one who is far advanced in wisdom." 1

According to Socrates, only a man of high wisdom knows how to prosecute his father righteously, but Euthyphro does not appear to have this wisdom. When his interlocutor observes that an upright man in his state would bear witness against his father if he misappropriates a sheep, Confucius contradicts the interlocutor's understanding of uprightness by speaking in a matter-of-fact tone: "In my country the upright men are of quite another sort. A father will cover up for his son, and a son his father—which incidentally does involve a sort of up—rightness." 2

Confucius stands on the same line with Socrates but seems the more radical of the two. Socrates does not directly refute Euthyphro and only suggests that he make sure he understands what he is doing before going any further. Socrates is not only typically Socratic—indirect and suggestive—but also sounds so reasonable that Euthyphro appears in contrast to be a reckless youth who harbors [End Page 1] only a faint understanding of morality. Confucius's response is more rigid, for he categorically dismisses an act of the Euthyphroian kind. He demands that father and son cover up for each other in the case of either one's guilt. Compared to Socrates, Confucius advocates the position that seems a little too strong and leaves no room for justice, while Socrates does not have that problem with justice. This is how we feel about Socrates and Confucius on our first impression. The prima facie observations that we make from the remarks of Socrates and Confucius seem both plain and unproblematic.

By embedding these remarks into their respective social or philosophical cultures, this paper will show that our previous observations are not quite accurate. The apparent affinity of the Socratic and Confucian stances belies different underlying moral philosophies. We want to use their comments as bridges to explore the early Greek and Confucian ethics and show how different a picture we see after things are examined within their traditions.

The issue of a possible father-son conflict may be treated as a case study of the early Greek (the Heroic era until the age of Socrates) and early Confucian (Confucius and Mencius) morals. There is a strong theme in the early Greek morals that allows, or sometimes demands, a son such as Euthyphro to prosecute his father for the sake of justice, because justice, instead of love (philein) or filial piety, is the governing principle in the early Greek ethics. Confucian ethics is founded on love (human-heartedness), which in turn is extended from the love between father and son. All moral principles including justice are derived from this extension of love. The mutual love of father and son then becomes the governing principle in the case of Confucianism.

A Guilty Father: The Greek Motif

The question, "What if the father commits a crime?" has a certain realistic aroma to a boy coming of age in the Hesiodic Greek world. That father has to be overcome by son before some relief from strife becomes possible is a familiar theme in Greek literature. In Hesiod's Theogony, Uranus (the sky) incurs hatred from all his newborn children since he hides them in their mother Gaia's womb and does not let them return to the light, for no reason...


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