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The works of Confucius, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are important within the history of philosophy. How do their teachings compare? Provide examples.

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While Confucius wrote at a time and place different from those of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, much of his thoughts relate closely with the three Greek thinkers.  In his Analects, Confucius emphasizes the morality of the government and of individuals.  Everything derives from the efforts of individuals.  It was in their ability to perfect themselves, and in doing so would true change occur.  This change was directed as a return to the perfection of earlier times.  An extension of this is the idea of ancestor worship, an important aspect of Confucius's philosophy.  In addition, the pursuit of harmony was perceived as virtue in Confucianism. 

While these ideas may not seem very relatable to those of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, there are numerous threads connecting them.  Much of Socrates's thought is lost; the only real source of his philosophical outlook is through the words of his student, Plato.  Socrates, like Confucius, formulated a system built on social concerns,...

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First, it is important to call attention to the fact that, in the history of philosophy, Socrates (470-399 B.C) and Plato (425-348 B.C) are predominantly coupled together and are identified as a unit. This is because Socrates himself did not write, and the most significant account of Socrates was provided by Plato in his 30 Socratic Dialogues. While there are other accounts of Socrates (such as in The Clouds, a satirical play written by Aristophanes in 419 B.C, wherein Socrates' method of philosophical inquiry, dialectic, is critiqued), Plato's depiction of Socrates overshadows all other accounts.

In his Socratic Dialogues, Plato presents Socrates as the most important character, who engages in dialectic (an ongoing conversation, or dialogue) with others, discussing philosophical topics in an attempt to arrive at truth. According to this method of philosophical inquiry, our understanding of philosophical topics can only be developed when a 'dialectical impasse' (or dead-end in the conversation) is reached in conversation with others; it is at this point that a new conversation revolving around a refined philosophical question must be pursued, in an attempt to arrive at truth: an affirmative answer where a dead-end is not reached. However, the catch is that, for Socrates, such an affirmative truth cannot be reached. Philosophy is a continuous dialogue; philosophy is a way of life. Here, we arrive at Socrates' famous quote: "All I know is that I know nothing." Thus, Plato is -in large part- important for this thoughtful account of Socrates, wherefrom Socrates gains his own importance in the history of philosophy as the one who coined what is now called the Socratic Method. At its core, the Socratic Method assumes that philosophy is none other than an endless dialectic in search of truth.

However, this is not to say that Plato does not have a significant contribution of his own to philosophy. In fact, Plato's theory of Forms is his most notable contribution, and this theory still informs much of contemporary philosophy and continues to serve as a lens for interpreting literature. Plato's theory of Forms states that the material world in which we live is merely an instantiation (an instance, or a copy of) an abstract (non-material) ‘higher reality’ comprised of everlasting, ideal forms. For example, a human in our world cannot exist materially without there being an 'idea' or 'abstract form' of a human that serves as the template for all humans.

Just as Plato was a student of Socrates, Aristotle (384-322 B.C) was a student of Plato. However, Aristotle did not agree with Plato's theory of Forms, or many of his other theories. If we understand Plato's theory of forms as a 'top-down' approach to philosophy that begins with the non-material world, we can understand Aristotle's philosophy as a 'bottom-up' approach that begins with the material world. Aristotle is often noted for his natural philosophy, which acts as the foundation for much of how we categorize items, especially in science (think: A Palm Tree is actually a type of grass, which may seem odd, but it is based on the categorical differences we have assigned between what qualifies as a grass and what qualifies as a tree). Another notable idea of Aristotle’s is the Doctrine of the Mean: an ethical notion which purports that a virtuous action is an action which lies between two vices, or vicious extremes. For example, being angry is not itself a vice; however, to act in a bout of anger can only be considered virtuous if one is angry in the right way, at the right time, etc. (that is., considering all variables involved). According to Aristotle, to be angry to a degree that is not warranted by the situation in which one finds himself or herself will result in one acting with anger that is either deficient or in excess. Acting with deficient or excess anger is a vice.

Lastly, using Aristotle's Doctrine of the Mean as a point of Comparison, Confucius' (551-479 B.C.) most important contribution to philosophy was his emphasis on the moral psychology of the individual and its role in an individual’s actively living a virtuous life. As Aristotle thought that in order to be virtuous, one must in accordance with the middle between the two vicious extremes of excess and deficiency, so Confucius would agree. Quite different, though, was Confucius’ concern with the individual’s reflecting on his or her emotions and the actions he or she performs. That is to say, if Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is thought of as a calculation (considering all variables involved), then for Confucius it mattered, in addition, that the attitude of the individual performing the ‘virtuous act(s)’ was consistent with the virtuous act, in order for the act to be concluded as one of virtue. For Aristotle, it did not; one can act angry in a ‘virtuous manner’ in a given situation without agreeing with how he or she is acting and still qualify as having acted virtuously. According to Confucius, it would not suffice to act angry in a ‘virtuous manner’ on Aristotle’s account and still be deemed virtuous, if an individual did not inwardly agree with the way he or she was acting. Confucius placed an emphasis on the inner-life of the individual and its role in acting virtuously that Aristotle did not find relevant to an individual’s acting, or being, virtuous.

For fun: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristophanes/clouds.html