Compare and contrast the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle with Confucius in China and the Buddha in South Asia. What was similar and what was different in their proposals for creating a better world?

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To begin, it's worth noting that there is a somewhat quasi-mythical quality in play within all three of these traditions. The living person of Socrates has largely disappeared within the popular image of Socrates, as the philosopher questioning people in the marketplace, and later as a martyr to philosophy. Likewise,...

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To begin, it's worth noting that there is a somewhat quasi-mythical quality in play within all three of these traditions. The living person of Socrates has largely disappeared within the popular image of Socrates, as the philosopher questioning people in the marketplace, and later as a martyr to philosophy. Likewise, the Buddha and Confucius exist at a similar distance, where what they have inspired (as well as the myths and stories created around them) have eclipsed the historical reality of their lives.

In terms of similarities, I think earlier contributors were right when they stressed the importance of duties and obligations (I'd suggest that ethics, spoken more broadly, was key to all three traditions). Additionally, it's worth noting that life in moderation (while avoiding the excesses of asceticism on one side and self indulgence on the other) are key themes in all three traditions.

However, even if we hold that ethics are a key component to all traditions, distinctions can be made. Confucius, for example, was largely focused on social interactions and the obligations and duties which people have with each other. His was a very unequal vision which tended to distinguish between a superior and an inferior, with each side of that relationship having duties and obligations to the other. Plato, by contrast, was first and foremost interested in the cultivation of virtues. Plato was a moral realist, who held that morality and goodness were written into the universe, as part of a higher transcendent reality (this is most famously expressed with his Theory of the Forms). While relationships, proper behavior, obligations, and duties might be part of this, ultimately the true goal which superseded all others, as far as a Platonist would be concerned, is to cultivate virtue in oneself. The same would apply to Aristotle.

Additionally, it should be noted that these different philosophies attempted to address different questions. For example, Buddhism is ultimately grounded in the problem of suffering, which is perceived as endemic within the human condition. If there is a core question within Buddhism, that question is this: why do people suffer and how can we overcome it? Confucianism, on the other hand, is largely focused on questions of social stability, so the problem of suffering does not have quite the same primacy. The same applies to the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, with tend to place a greater focus on individual excellence and self-actualization.

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Buddha, like Plato, was interested in an understanding of the real world. Plato referred to it as the "escape from the cave," while Buddha called it "rising above the images of the wall."

Despite this need for knowledge of the outside world, Buddha, like Socrates was very interested in introspection.  Both philosophers believe that in order to proceed with an open mind, one must understand the limitations that exist due to one's ignorance. The pursuit of truth with an empty mind is essential to understanding oneself and the world around you. Buddha, like the other four philosophers, believed that knowledge was the true means of salvation, for oneself as well as the world at large.

Many of the beliefs of Buddha, like those of Socrates, specifically leaned towards humanism.  Buddha believed that everybody was responsible for the decisions they make and the outcomes of one's own life is not the result of intervention by gods or spirits.  Buddha, like Socrates, discouraged people from accepting religious truths and asked followers to use insightful reasoning and meditation to arrive at truth.  

While Buddha was not overly concerned with the political realm, he is on record, like the other philosophers, in believing that governments have a responsibility to lead by example and be just.  His belief that philosophical principles should guide and inspire leaders is very similar to the beliefs of Plato and Confucius.  Buddha was also very direct in his belief that greed leads to suffering, a point mentioned above.

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The Greek philosophers and the great Chinese philosopher Confucius wanted to mentor leaders to create a perfect society.  Both groups stressed a censored, state education that taught virtues as well as political skills.  A wise ruling class was not possible except through careful education.  They stressed a need for philosopher kings that were perfectly trained to act as rulers.  Plato and Confucius both believed that if a king was not virtuous, he did not deserve sovereignty. None of the philosophers trusted the governed to rule and hence are interpreted as anti-democratic.  

All three of the philosophers taught that citizens had duties in this world and society could not function without people accepting these duties.  The Greek philosophers and Confucius agree that the purpose of the state is to serve the people.  The state should not harm individuals with taxes and too many laws.

There are three major differences between the views of Socrates and his students and that of Confucius.  Confucius believed that all men were conditioned to do good, while the Greek philosophers believed that most people acted selfishly or out of ignorance.  Another difference is the view of women.  Plato and Aristotle believed that if women were capable and talented, they had an important role in society to perform.  Confucius tends to favor a patriarchal relationship in which women are subordinate to men.  Confucius organizes society into relationships like father and son and the ruler and the ruled.  In the context of these relationships, he mentions the husband and wife relationship.  The husband acts as the ruler, and the wife, the governed.  The Greek philosophers were more interested in science and innovation, while Confucius felt that innovation would only be used for selfish gains.  

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