The Figure of Socrates and its Significance for Liberal Education in Asia

NB: An interesting essay. However, Heyking seems to conflate China and ‘Asia’. DS

John von Heyking

In order to cut through the two false alternatives – “catch up” and “social harmony” – I appeal to the original figure of Western liberal education, Socrates. Socrates indeed embodies the individual as it has been transmitted throughout the West, but he is not about individualism, which, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the nineteenth-century, is a pathology specific to liberal democracy. Tocqueville defines individualism as: “a reflective and peaceable sentiment that disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of those like him and to withdraw to one side with his family and friends, so that after having thus created a little society for his own use, he willingly abandons society at large to itself.”[34] Individualism is a process by which the moral, spiritual, intellectual, temporal, and spatial horizon of the individual shrinks into nearly a singularity.

Tocqueville worries the solitary self makes it easy for despotism to thrive because it replaces the bonds of affection, friendship, and institutions of civil society that fill the gap between state and individual.[35] Conversely, for Socrates the individual who is not an individualist, political life is a form of friendship. However, Socrates also shows us how the critical thinking ideal of liberal education — or to use a better term, philosophizing — cannot be contained within the bounds of society nor in political friendship. Socrates shows us how liberal education is first and foremost care for the soul.

Socrates cannot be easily assimilated with Asian analogies, including Confucianism.[36] Rei Yang argues that “[T]he Confucian educational ideal of ‘junzi’ shares much resemblance with the ‘gentlemen’ in the Western context.” However the Socratic philosopher differs from the Confucian gentleman (junzi) because the search for wisdom is superior to the virtue of magnanimity, which characterizes the gentleman.[37] The uncanny freedom of Socrates finds no counterpart in the Confucian courtier.[38] Socrates also talked about daimonia (SymposiumApology), while Confucius disparaged serving “ghosts and spirits” (though even he notes that understanding “Heaven’s Mandate” is key to self-knowledge).[39]

The Socratic philosopher is more like a “stray dog,” which indeed is how Professor Li Ling of Peking University once described Confucius and produced considerable controversy.[40] The label derives from Sima Qian’s historical description of Confucius’ wanderings where he faced assassination attempts and impoverishment. Michael Schuman describes one occasion: “When Confucius arrived at one walled city and became separated from his traveling companions, a local citizen saw him outside the gate and remarked: “Lost as a stray dog he looks!” When Confucius heard about the man’s comment, all he could do was laugh. ‘That is certainly true!’ he exclaimed.”[41] Indeed, “stray dog” is hardly a suitable translation of “sang jia zhi quan,” which carries a more foreboding meaning of one who is cursed and whose house or perhaps even his regime is cursed.[42] This of course fits with the Athenian charge that Socrates had committed impiety and indeed that his acquittal may also ruin Athens. Indeed, could a regime ruled by Socrates function?…