Confucius and Aristotle on Virtue Unit

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Confuciusand Aristotle on Virtue


Confucius and Aristotle are some of the greatest thinkers in thehistory of mankind. While Confucius was born in China and spearheadeda new way of perceiving morality, Aristotle was born inMacedon/Greece and also immersed his philosophical work to addressingmoral thinking. Both philosophers have addressed similar subjectswith major points of divergence and convergence. On virtue, these twoauthors have almost similar opinions. However, it is their points ofconvergence or agreement that have had a huge impact on the modernworld’s thinking and understanding of virtue and moral behavior.

According to the Standard English dictionary, virtue is defined asbehavior showing high moral standards. This definition is borrowedfrom both philosophers who tend to agree by laying emphasis oncharacter or behavior as opposed to the actions themselves. ThusAristotle and Confucius agree that virtue is entrenched in one’scharacter and thus should be visible in all kind of situations andnot in specific situations (Yu, 1998).

The two philosophers also agree chiefly on some components of virtuebut disagree on others. One of the chief virtues that the two agreeon is piety. According to Aristotle, humans serve the gods byimproving the moral state of the human soul. To him, being virtuousis a form reverence to the gods. Confucius has a similar take onpiety noting that by following the ‘dao’ in heaven embedded in‘li’, human beings act in accordance with the wishes of the gods(Yu, 1998).

Aristotle has different set of key virtues to Confucius. Aristotlebelieved that the main virtues were courage, generosity,magnificence, high mindedness, gentleness, friendliness,truthfulness, wittiness and wisdom. On the other hand, Confuciusbelieved that the major virtues are propriety (li), filial piety(hsiao) and humanity (jen). Humanity can be achieved by practicingearnestness, liberality, truthfulness, diligence, and generosity(Peimin, 2009).

Based on these virtues, the two philosophers differed in what theybelieved to be the most important virtue. Aristotle believed thatfriendship or friendliness was the most important virtue. It allowedpeople to be kind to one another and even facilitated people to haveother virtues such as truthfulness and generosity. On the contrary,Confucius believed that propriety, which is obedience to the set lawsand regulations, was the greatest virtue. It allowed people to existpeacefully. He indicated that

it is by the rules of propriety that the characteris established……. Respectfulness, without the rules of propriety,becomes laborious bustle carefulness, without the rules ofpropriety, becomes timidity boldness, without the rules ofpropriety, becomes insubordination straightforwardness, without therules of propriety, becomes rudeness” (Confucius cited in Slote1998, p. 139).

It is this take onobedience to the authorities that have been attributed to the Chineseculture that restricts government criticism in modern times.

On the source of virtuousness, both Confucius and Aristotle agreethat individuals should undertake self-cultivation of virtue.Aristotle believed that virtue was the key to a flourishing life(eudaimonia) and thus for a man to have a flourishing life insociety, he must work on his attitudes, habits and behaviors to beacceptable in that society (Santiago, 2008). Similarly, Confuciusbelieved that individuals had to cultivate virtue by not seeking toimprove and correct the virtues of others but by being a livingexample. This would entail altruism and showing humanness to othersas well as having a disposition to behave properly in the society(Yu, 1998).

The two philosophers believed that virtuousness had a role to play intrue happiness. Confucius was more direct in indicating the perceivedsource of true happiness as being virtuousness or good moral life. Byrejecting the material trappings of this world and aspiring to live agood moral life, Confucius believed that man would attain truehappiness. On the other hand, Aristotle notes that virtuousnesscontributed to happiness but only partially. He believed thatvirtuousness as well as good health, moderate wealth and untarnishedreputation were essential to happiness. To him, true happiness is thehighest goal of any man but he does not specify whether man shouldstrive to achieve this goal or just simple happiness (Gier, 2007).

However, none of the philosophers took time to define what theybelieved was true happiness. Aristotle mentioned happiness as knowingone’s purpose in life and maintaining a balance in life againstextremities. In spite of that, the philosophers agree that forhappiness to be achieved, it has to be worked on consistently.Therefore, in the same way as virtuousness, happiness becomes a habitas opposed to being defined by specific events in life (Gier, 2007).

From the above comparisons, it is clear to see that the two greatphilosophers have influenced modern thinking on virtue and happinessin life. Their contributions towards moral behavior continue to shapereligions and even corporate ethical codes. Governance and leadershipcan also benefit very much from the views of the two philosophersespecially on the need for politicians and leaders to moderatematerial things as a source of happiness and instead work on theircharacters along the mentioned specific virtues.


Gier, N. (2007). Areview of Ji Yuan Yu`s the ethics of Confucius and Aristotle:mirrors of

virtue. Thejournal of Chinese philosophy 35(4): 303-306.

Peimin, N. (2009).How far is Confucius an Aristotelian?: Comments on May Sim’sRemastering

Morals withAristotle and Confucius. Dao, 8, 311–319

Santiago, J. (2008).Confucian ethics in the analects as virtue ethics.Philosophical Ideas and

Artistic Pursuits in the Traditions of Asia and the West: An NEHFaculty Humanities Workshop.

Slote, W. (1998).Confucianism and the family. New York. Penguin.

Yu, J. (1998).Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle. Philosophy East and West48(2), 323-347


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