The anti-Socratic and Socratic Confucius
In another interpretive tendency of the idea of Confucius in the West, modern European thinkers juxtaposed the figures of Socrates and Confucius, asking whether (1) Confucius inaugurated a revolution in enlightened ethical reflection or whether he was a tradition-bound moralist of the kind whom Socrates would have questioned; (2) Confucius practiced a form of logical or “scientific” argumentation comparable to Socrates; and (3) Confucius had a sense of the transcendent and the religious akin to Socrates or at least Plato’s vision of Socrates ascending toward the form of the good in the Symposium.
Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Diderot and Voltaire in France, envisioned Confucius as “the Chinese Socrates”—an expression adopted by Kant despite his generally negative assessment of Chinese thought and culture—who could be enlisted against the repressive otherworldly dogmas of the Christian church.34
The historical linking of Confucius with the European Enlightenment would produce its repudiation in critics of the Enlightenment such as Hegel and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), who both negatively linked Chinese thought with the Enlightenment.35 Schelling interpreted Confucius in his Philosophy of Mythology as an anti-Socrates of quietist social conformity who lacked the philosophical movement from the everyday order toward the transcendence of the divine recognizable in Socrates.36 We find here yet again the idea of the practical pragmatic character of Chinese thinking and the lack of philosophy as an ascent from the ordinary world of sense perception to the ideal forms. Schelling, like most of the German reception of Chinese thought, takes no notice of the complex and sophisticated Neo-Confucian discourses of the mind (xin D), patterning principle (li M), and material force (qi ^) that are analogous in ways to the Western Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition to which Schelling appeals.
Schelling’s Confucius relied on public life and opinion, whereas Socrates challenged it and placed it deeply into question for the sake of a higher truth and way of life. Confucianism consists merely of pragmatic advice about moral and political life such that it cannot compare to authentic Socratic questioning or philosophizing.37 Schelling concluded that despite the appearance of an overcoming of mythology in Confucianism, “Confucius shared nothing in common with Greek philosophy” because of its exclusion of what he described as the higher potentiality of the true living God in knowing consciousness that is revealed in Greek and Christian philosophy.38
The vision of a proto-modernistic secular and enlightening Confucian ethics continued to fascinate Enlightenment-oriented thinkers in later periods. Some imagined Confucius as a progressive or hyper-progressive thinker whose teachings could instruct and help reform the troubled contemporary West.
Inspired by Voltaire, the Austrian scientist, secular public intellectual, and social reformer Josef Popper-Lynkeus (1838-1921), a friend of Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein and possibly a distant relative of Karl Popper, repeatedly expressed intense enthusiasm about Confucius as a progressive secularizing Enlightenment philosopher; he aligned Confucius—in an 1878 work on the contemporary significance of Voltaire—with Caesar and Voltaire as the three “greatest” persons of world history, asserting that Confucius was the greatest of the three.39 Popper-Lynkeus depicted Confucius as a philosopher who surpasses Socrates and other Western philosophers; he is the “Newton of morality.” Confucius offered a “precise codification” of the fundamental ethical feeling of human piety (which should be freed of superstitious elements associated with the ancestral cult), and—via a quotation—is claimed to be the teacher for whom Europe has long been waiting.40
This genuinely universalistic Enlightenment philosopher from Eastern antiquity stood in opposition to the irrationalist, nationalist, and racist particularism of the modern West. Confucius, like Alexander the Great and Goethe, is conceived of as an advocate of cosmopolitanism in contrast with the narrowness of racial hygienists and ideologists of Aryanism such as Otto Ammon, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Alfred Ploetz.41 He described in his autobiography (Selbstbiographie, 1917) how he became fascinated with China in 1865 through reading a work of Gustav Friedrich Klemm (1802-1867) on the history of culture that led to his subsequent studies of Confucian ethics and Chinese poetry that led to his deep appreciation for the Chinese way of life. In notable contrast to Rosenzweig’s assessment of Confucius in The Star of Redemption, Popper-Lynkeus remarked that Confucius offered a teaching that could cultivate and elevate the “Aryan” West’s ethical sensibility, although it would be a difficult struggle for “cold” Western thinking and poeticizing to appreciate the sensitivity, nuance, and depth of Chinese feeling and imagination.42 While thinkers from von Haller to Rosenzweig identified the Chinese with impersonal indifference and coldness of feeling, this condition described modern Western humanity more than any other for Popper-Lynkeus.
Popper-Lynkeus is an heir to the Enlightenment’s employment of the idea of the secular ethical character of Eastern philosophy to criticize Western belief in faith and revelation. In a posthumously published work on religion, he argued that the ethical significance and exemplarity ofConfucius and the Buddha are “far superior” to the contradictory teachings of Jesus.43 The essence of Confucianism could be separated from Chinese myths and superstitions in a way that Christianity— intrinsically interconnected with the magic and myths of the Gospels—cannot be. Confucianism promoted the cultivation of the highest level and purest form of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) in China based on natural moral feelings, such as piety and respect for other persons, without appealing to superstition or the supernatural that promote enthusiasm and fanaticism rather than practicing morality.44
The China and Orient constructed by Popper-Lynkeus are more progressive and advanced than the Occident in understanding, teaching, and practicing the ethos of human piety and genuine autonomy. The Confucian cultures of the East teach the value of and respect for the life of each individual person, including those who are lowly and abject, and had a greater tendency toward peace than a Western civilization that was organized for war and exploitation. This idealizing portrait of the Confucian Far East had motivations internal to his own hermeneutical situation. This model of Confucian life was critically deployed to confront the brutality and corruption of Western colonialism in East Asia as well as the ethical and social-political failures of Western societies, in which individuals were used, degraded, and tossed aside under industrial capitalist conditions. The Confucius-image of Popper-Lynkeus is one of a cosmopolitan, humanistic, progressive, Enlightenment-oriented philosopher attuned to the educational formation of elemental moral feelings and care for the welfare of others in ethical and social-political life. Confucian ethics was, for the individualistic half-socialist Popper-Lynkeus, more comprehensive and insightful than Western ethics in comprehending the whole of human life; both its natural sentiments and cultural cultivation, individual self-development and other-oriented responsibility.
The Vienna Circle logical positivist philosopher and socialist Otto Neurath (1882-1945) expressed similar views to Popper-Lynkeus. Neurath claimed that “at least in one ancient and traditional society, China" there was a philosophy that was “on the whole untheological and concerned with the architecture of living together” and consequently is the only philosophy of antiquity that prefigures the modern need for an ethical “socialism of real life”45 Neurath remarked in another work, taking aim at the Orientalism of Western intellectuals and their faddish appropriation of Chinese philosophy, that it is not a fair exchange between Europe and China that a few educated Europeans delight in the fruits of Chinese civilization and literature while China is looted by the Western powers: “What significance does it have if a few European men of letters tell a small circle of educated people about Chinese philosophy, about Confucius and Lao-tse [Laozi ^^], when set against the fact that the blessings of world traffic first enabled the Chinese properly to get to know Europe as an international organization for robbery...”46 Neurath contended in the context of a critique of bourgeois liberal pacifists, and the hypocrisy of their internationalism, how Orientalist enthusiasm was interconnected with the active expropriation of and violence against Eastern peoples.
The comparison between Confucius and Socrates was not only a Western concern. It was also pursued in Chinese contexts where it could serve as a device in support of either modernization or advocating for the Confucian tradition under modern conditions in defense of Confucius by associating him with Socrates. There are a range of examples of the problematic of what Shengqing Wu described as “modern archaics” in Republican China: a group of conservative intellectuals, who promoted traditional Chinese culture in response to the New Culture Movement (xin wenhua yundong from 1915
to 1923 and the associated May Fourth Movement (wusi yundong 5ЩЖШ) in 1919, published the inaugural issue of their journal Xueheng ФШ (Critical Review, published from 1922 to 1933) in January 1922 with juxtaposed pictures of Confucius and Socrates.47 The figure of Socrates was utilized by the Xueheng school, with their belief in the compatibility of traditional Chinese and Western cultures, to strengthen the standing of Confucius who was under attack from iconoclastic intellectuals of the Republican era. The critique of Confucianism would be intensified under communism, as Confucius was denounced as an epitome of the “feudalistic” past and an enemy of modernization during the Maoist period.