Subject: Political Philosophy

Professor: Brian Dunkle, SJ

Scholastic: Peter Lê Hoàng Nam, SJ

Ancient philosophers, Plato (left) and Confucius (right) (from the Internet)

Many philosophers have agreed that humans cannot live authentic lives when separated from each other because they need support from others for their physical and spiritual needs.[1] However, there are many problems arising from living in a group. One of them is that people tend to fight each other to gain authority over the rest and seek benefits for themselves alone. This gives rise to wars and death.

Confronting this situation, many philosophers throughout history have tried to find good and proper methods of ruling a country. Plato[2] in the West and Confucius[3] in the East are among the greatest. Plato expresses implicitly his idea through the meaning of the virtue of Justice. Confucius expresses his viewpoint in his theory of Rectification of Names. Though they lived very far from each other, their main ideas seem to be very similar. This short writing is a small attempt to find out whether there is a similarity between Plato’s view of Justice and Confucius’ theory of Rectification of Names.

First, I shall present Plato’s view of justice which is expressed in the Republic; then I shall discuss the content of the theory of Rectification of Names of Confucius. Finally, I will add my reflections about the two theories.

  1.  Plato’s View of Justice

Plato talks about Justice mostly in The Republic, which is a conversation between Socrates[4] and many other people. The conversation takes place at the house of a rich man named Cephalus. The conversation becomes more intense when the problem of justice is mentioned. A lot of definitions are given[5] but none of them satisfies Socrates. Then, he suggests that because “justice is useful both to the community and to the individual”[6], it is better and easier for us to know what justice is on a larger scale. Socrates proposes that “we start our inquiry with the community and then proceed to the individual and see if we can find in the conformation of the smaller entity anything similar to what we have found in the larger.”[7]

He begins by explaining how a state is established. Because humans cannot live without others, they gather to support each other by a division in labour. Thanks to that, day by day, people have all things they need and life is very beautiful. However, since people always tend to take other’s money and land to be theirs, wars take place. To protect themselves from outside invaders, it is necessary to have some strong men to join the army. Then, since social life is so complex, people need some brilliant persons who have a capacity for thinking and ruling to solve problems in society. Therefore, the state is established with three basic groups: ruler, guardian and workman.[8]

Socrates considers a perfect state the one which has four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice[9]. He sees that a country needs wisdom to know what to do, courage to know when to fear and self-discipline to master bad movements. He attributes wisdom to the group of rulers, courage to guardians, and self-discipline to workmen, because each group needs the equivalent virtue to fulfill its function to get the most benefit for the whole country.[10] The last virtue, justice, will be “to do one job that is naturally most suited for me”; “justice consists in minding your own business and not interfering with other people.”[11]

In sum, justice in Plato’s view does not insist on comparison to find equality in quantity or sameness in treatment. This is impossible since people vary from each other. Justice is, first of all, to accept what is naturally endowed to us and then try to profit from it as much as possible without encroaching on what does not belong to us.

  1. The Theory of Rectification of Names of Confucius

The name “rectification of names” was not from Confucius, but from commentators, who studied Confucianism later. Unlike Western philosophers who usually present their philosophical thoughts through voluminous works with reason and system, Eastern sages express their teachings mostly by telling small stories with profound meanings about certain topics in daily life.

One day, Tsze-lu asked Confucius: “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?” Confucius responded: “What is necessary is to rectify names.”[12] Later, a king asked Confucius about the same issue, Confucius answered: “Let a prince be a prince, the minister a minister, the father a father and the son a son.”[13] 

These two answers of Confucius seem to be very vague and tautologous. In order to understand, we should know what “name” means and why it needs “rectifying”. “Name”, for Chinese people, refers not only to a title or to a label which is attributed to a person who has that name. Rather, a name also expresses the essence of a person. The name will show others who the person is.[14] Specifically, the name “prince” includes the obligation and right of the prince that make him to be a prince. “Rectification” means to correct, to make it to be what it is. Therefore, what Confucius wants to say in answering the king is that, the prince must live according to what is required for a prince, and it is the same for the minister, the father, the son and all other “names” in the society.

Confucius drew this lesson from observing what was happening in the country where he lived. The king did not do anything except satisfy his lust; his son wanted to kill his mother; his wife committed adultery with another man… It led to business becoming slack, disorder arising in the army and chaos  in society.[15] For Confucius, rectifying names is very important because “if the names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded and the people do not know how to move hand or foot.”[16] Hence, what we should do first to build a happy country is to rectify “names”.

  1. Reflection

There seems to be a small difference between Plato and Confucius in their theory of ruling a country. Plato talks about justice in the background of classes (rulers, guardians and workmen) while Confucius concentrates more on the role that a person has in the society. Moreover, Plato starts his theory with the point that one person cannot manage many things, so he had better do only one thing which is most suitable for him, while chaos in society inspires Confucius to the idea of rectifying names.

However, the core of these two ideas is almost the same. Both of them think that a state comprises many members and each has a role that is irreplaceable by any one else. The most important thing for having a prosperous country is to keep the country in order by being who we are and fulfilling our duties that are granted to us by nature. Concretely, for Plato, you have to know what class you belong to; if you are a shoe-maker, do what shoe-makers do, that is, make the good shoes, and do not interfere in the political issues that belong to philosophers. For Confucius, if you are a father in a family, you should have the manners and attitude of a father, that is, you should love your wife and educate your children and take care of them as well as you can.

People can say that this idea implicitly advocates the attitude of accepting fate with resignation, that every one should remain in the place that is determined to him naturally without his choice. If you do not have the ability to rule, accept your lot and do not try to get what is excessive. Others think that this idea lacks any mention of cooperation among members. In fact, what Plato and Confucius concentrate on is the order we should have in society. To have order, every one needs to know where he is and to stay in that place. This does not mean he must not try to develop his ability, but he must try his best to discover the place he has. A merchant may be a talented ruler but it is not good for him to be both a businessman and a leader of a country at the same time. About cooperation, Plato has already said at the beginning of the story, that we have a state because we cannot live alone; one labours on a field, for himself and also for others. When Confucius says “let a prince a prince”, he means the prince should give them the best conditions so that they can work well and build the country. He mentions the relationship or association between the prince and his people.

In brief, this idea may have its weak point, but we cannot deny its value. History and experience about nature have shown that where there is order, there is development, either in a person or a small community or a large state. People cannot choose what they are when they are born, but they can choose who they are through their lives by accepting what has been granted to them (to know their place) and to develop in that place.

Plato and Confucius are both great philosophers who have contributed a lot to philosophy in general and politics in particular. They both think that to have a prosperous country, it is very necessary for every member in the society to keep order by fulfilling their own responsibilities.  This consensus of the two great men on the art of ruling a country shows that the desire for rich country is always a concern of all people regardless of class, age and race to which they belong. In fact, the desire for the common good is not only a desire of philosophers, but also of all individuals who are social beings. If humans are created to live with others, they are also called to build a happy society together in which everyone plays an irreplaceable role.


ARISTOTLE, Politics, from

CONFUCIUS, Analects, from

LƯU VĂN HY, Nhập Môn Triết Học Phương Tây, translated from Elements of Philosophy of SAMUEL ENOCH STUMPF and NONALD C. ABEL, TP HCM,    NXB TPHCM, 2004

GIẢN CHI-NGUYỄN HIẾN LÊ, Đại Cương Triết Học Trung Quốc, tập II, Bến Tre, NXB Thanh Niên, 2004

PHAN BỘI CHÂU, Khổng Học Đăng, TP HCM, NXB Văn Hóa Thông Tin, 1998

PLATO, The Republic, translated with an Introduction by Desmond Lee, second edition, London, Penguin Books, 2003

STUMPF, SAMUEL ENOCH, Socrates to Sartre, A History of Philosophy, India, McGraw-Hill, 1999

[1] In Politics, Book 1, Part 2, Aristotle says: “there must be union of those who cannot exist without each other; namely, of male and female… A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature…” In On kingship: to the king of Cyprus, Chapter 1, No. 4, Thomas says: “It is natural for man, more than for any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group” and no 5: “It is therefore natural man should live in the society of many”.

[2] Plato (424/423 BC – 348/347 BC) is a Greek philosopher, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle.

[3] Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC) is a Chinese teacher, editor, philosopher, politician.

[4] We do not know whether Socrates, a character in this work, is “real” Socrates who was Plato’s teacher, or only a fairy person. However, Socrates appears many times in Plato’s works.

[5] Cephalus thinks: “Justice consists simply and sole in truthfulness and returning anything we have borrowed.” (The Republic, 331c). Thyrasymachus says that “justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party.” ( The Republic, 338c)

[6] The Republic, 333d

[7] Ibid., 369a

[8] S. Ibid., 369b-376c

[9] Ibid, 427e. He also says the same for a person. See, Phaedrus (246a-254e)

[10] S. Ibid., 428a-431d

[11] Ibid., 433a,b

[12] The story is in Book 13, Analects of Confucius, which I take from

[13] PHAN BỘI CHÂU, Khổng Học Đăng, TP HCM, NXB Văn Hóa Thông Tin, 1998, p. 97

[14] FUNG YU LAN, A short History of Chinese Philosophy, translated by Derk Bodde, New York, McMillan, 1996, p. 41.

[15] GIẢN CHI-NGUYỄN HIẾN LÊ, Đại Cương Triết Học Trung Quốc, tập II, Bến Tre, NXB Thanh Niên, 2004, p. 657

[16] CONFUCIUS, Analects, book 13