- The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue
The Ethics of Confucius and Aristotle: Mirrors of Virtue by Jiyuan Yu offers an introductory comparison in overview between Confucian and Aristotelian understandings of virtue. By "Confucian ethics" Yu means, in a broad sense, what is included in the four classics: the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. On the Greek side, the author draws mainly on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The topics covered, or at least touched upon, are many. Among them, after an introductory discussion of the nature of comparison in general, are: eudaimonia (happiness) and aretē (virtue) in comparison with de 德 (virtue) and ren 仁 (benevolence); the nature of humanity in general; Aristotle and Confucius in opposition with Socrates; ergon (function) compared with xing 性 (nature); the mean as inner and outer; disposition and archery; li 禮 (ritual) and ethos (habit); the political animal in Aristotle compared with the relational self in Confucius; the interplay between human nature and cultivation; the role of family and politics; phronesis (practical wisdom) in comparison with yi 義 (appropriateness); the relevance of traditional values; the plurality and unity of virtue; forms of individuality and self-love; the highest good (God or Heaven) and external goods; and theoria (contemplation) versus the more practical cheng 誠 (self-completion).
Besides Yu's book, there is another monograph on the same topic that appeared in the same year: Remastering Morals with Aristotle and Confucius, by May Sim (Cambridge University Press, 2007). I will not make comparisons with this other work or comment on it.
The idea of Yu's book, as the subtitle suggests, is to use Aristotle and Confucius as "mirrors" for each other. Yu is inspired by Aristotle here. He quotes the following [End Page 303] passage: "when we wish to see our own face, we do so by looking into the mirror, in the same way when we wish to know ourselves we can obtain that knowledge by looking at our friend. For the friend is, as we assert, a second self" (p. 4).
Yu argues that "Confucius' dao 道 corresponds to Aristotle's eudaimonia in the sense that each refers to the highest good" (p. 25), that is, a good life, and that from there "the next step on each side is strikingly similar: that is, to focus on virtue" (p. 28), which is aretē for Aristotle and de and ren for Confucius. Yu portrays Socrates as their common opponent, because for Socrates virtue is knowledge, whereas for Aristotle and Confucius virtue is more than just knowledge. Socrates is overly critical of tradition, but Aristotle and Confucius try to learn from the past. Yu here rightly points out Aristotle's method of "saving the phenomena" and the fact that both Aristotle and Confucius try to provide positive guidance and not just criticism. In fact, Yu himself tries to adopt this method when making his comparisons.
Although Yu knows the meaning of eudaimonia well and gives an explanation of it, he chooses to translate it as "happiness." He is not alone in doing so, but I think this can be misleading in places. Eudaimonia literally means "having a good guardian spirit," and it also means "flourishing" (qua human being) and "making a success of life." One might say that Wittgenstein had a successful life but not a happy one.
Another parallel Yu draws is between ergon (function) and xing 性 (human nature) (which he takes from Mencius). Mencius argues that human nature is basically good, and that it merely needs to be cultivated. Aristotle, on the other hand, takes it as a fact that human ergon (function) is rationality and that it is mainly this feature that distinguishes us from animals. "For both, the distinctive human feature is what distinguishes human beings from animals, and the foundation of virtue is a special part of human nature" (p. 61). Although Yu explains that for Aristotle reason has two aspects, a theoretical one and a practical one, it seems to me that he nevertheless tends to downplay...