“..for the relationship between people and government is the most pervasive ideal relationship upon which commerce between teacher and pupil, lord and servants, father and family, general and soldier, master and apprentice have unconsciously been modeled.”—Friedrich Nietzsche.
For centuries, the history of philosophy has explored the general opposition set up between Occidental and Oriental philosophy, especially concerning their respective “origins.” Generally speaking, it has been assumed that Western and Eastern philosophies differ over the metaphysical question of the constitution of the (conditions of possibility of the) universe, ending with the antinomy of a decision concerning Being/Nothingness (Plato vs. Lao-Tzu, both of whom subordinate becoming either to the movement of the idea or the non-activity of the Dao). In the same sense, Aristotle’s political ontology has been argued to end up in another binary opposition with that of Confucius: it is asserted that the former makes the state primary to the family, whereas for the latter this formula must be inverted. Instead, these reflections will attempt to illustrate that the opposition of these philosophical decisions should be shown to be inadequately founded and that a more clarified reading can show that this opposition is both untenable and capable of exemplifying that the problem has not yet been sufficiently determined.
In order to construct a contextual problematic, i.e. one determined by other conditions already present in both philosophies, we should resituate the problem elsewhere before addressing the opposition between family and state. For example, one of the primary conditions for Aristotle in the Politics is that of equality. In book V especially, the problem of equality most especially addresses the ways in which the rich and the poor can be considered to be unequal or disproportionate. These distinctions gain their importance because they define the different ways in which democracies and oligarchies quantify the quality in equality. It could be easy to oppose Confucius to this characterization:
Zigong said: “What do you think of the saying:’ Poor but not inferior; rich but not superior’?” The Master replied: “Not bad, but not as good as: ‘Poor but enjoying the way; rich but loving ritual propriety.’”E2
What Zigong says to the master appears to be the solution to the Aristotelian riddle or problematic concerning the status of the rich and the poor: it is not that they should be considered equal, but that they should not be considered unequal. By inverting the perspective on the relation, Zigong seems to have resolved the oppositions in an almost Hegelian way. But the master answers something that actually resonates with a more fundamental requirement of Aristotle, one that is even more primary than the family (for both philosophers): namely, the question of the perpetuation of noble actions or ritual propriety (li).
Although it could be argued that the perspective of the state dominates the Politics, it is extremely symptomatic that Aristotle obsesses over characterizing the virtues and vices pertaining to individuals, even if it is only through generalized forms, especially in relation to virtuous persons (whom Confucius would call junzi, or “exemplary persons”). It is in this sense that Aristotle also founds his political ontology on the various types of individuals, differentiating them according to vice and virtue, and, more commonly according to the problematic of equality, according to wealth. When Confucius quotes: “Exemplary persons help out the needy; they do not make the rich richerE3,” Aristotle tries to take this one step further (even if it demonstrates his own prejudices of supporting the middle way). In order to regulate inequality of wealth, Aristotle advocates self-moderation for the rich: “The beginning of reform is not so much to equalize property as to train the nobler sort of natures not to desire more, and to prevent the lower from getting more; that is to say, they must be kept down, but not ill-treated.”E4 Although the last part of this statement seems contrary to the Confucian path, it should be noted that both philosophers would subordinate this question of class and wealth to something more primary than the state, which is the perpetuation of noble actions or ritual propriety (ends) which are actualized through the ideal of the family (means).
While it could be argued that Aristotle makes the state primordial in the sense that he argues it precedes the individual like the whole precedes its parts, it can be demonstrated that Aristotle makes the family primary in order to perpetuate a higher goal, namely that of noble actions or precisely li. He writes:
It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life.
When Aristotle reminds us that the end of the state is the good life, he is not making a claim disconnected from the factical conditions of our existence (that we have to be raised, i.e. cultivated), but he is also not simply saying that the family is an end in itself, somehow cut off from ritual propriety. Instead, he emphasizes: “Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of living together” (1281a3-4). It is here in this paradoxical twist where the family is negated and yet raised to a higher level that the political ontology of Confucius and Aristotle merge into a vision where the family only takes precedence due to its capacity for fostering virtue.
Although I have shown that Aristotle and Confucius agree more on the question of family than may be generally thought, I have hoped to be able to extend this to a more interesting conclusion, which is the fact that the more apparent opposition between Aristotle and Confucius actually lies elsewhere. It could be reduce it to the content of their arguments concerning morality, or some other criterion, or instead we could assert that the opposition actually lies in the differences in the form of the presentation and the audience held in mind. For the true opposition actually concerns the fact that Aristotle was thinking of a general (young aristocratic) audience and had no specific concept of a unitary culture motivating his conceptual investigations, whereas Confucius’ entire project is to specify the particular criteria for virtue in a particular, unitary culture (or at least one capable of being unified). It is in this sense that Aristotle’s emphasis on the generality of the state prevails in his discourse whereas the specifics to the dynamism of the family becomes Confucius’ central concern.