Compare and Contrast the Ethical Positions of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius


Ethics refer to a conflicting area of philosophy, which is largely intertwined and related to our everyday lives. It can also be considered a study that helps in determining the differences between the wrong and the right, approval and disapproval, bad and good and the other conflicting sources of advice within its greater realm. Innumerable thinkers and philosophers have had their contributions to explain morality and value as the source of ethics based on their personal perspectives (Skakos “Harmonia Philosophica ~ Philosophy portal against dogmatism of any kind, religious and scientific”). The two thinkers, who form the significant aspects of this discussion, are Confucius and Marcus Aurelius, both of them well known for developing their philosophies pertaining to ethical contexts. The concept of space to survive plays a significant role amid the thinkers but is known by two varied names, i.e. Cosmos in case of Marcus (Stoics) and Tianxia for Confucius (Confucianism) (Chen 324-325). Confucius was an outstanding teacher, philosopher and political figure of Chinese origin and is well-recognized for initiating the tradition of Confucianism, his well-accepted aphorisms as well social interaction model. He was born in the 551 BC and left for the heavenly abode in 479 B.C. During his lifetime Confucius had solely focused on ethical models that he had framed not only on public but also on family interactions, thereby setting up the most appropriate standards of education in the then era (A&E Television Networks, LLC. “Confucius”; Richey, Jeff. Confucius 551—479 B.C.E.).

On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius was known to be a Stoic philosopher and one of the most extraordinary rulers of Rome and is hence named as the “philosopher king”. He was born on 121 C.E. (26th April) and became for his contributions in spreading the philosophy of stoicism following his predecessors, which mostly exemplified the aspects of reason, self-restraint and fate. Marcus was highly influenced by the discourses of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher and a former slave. He also framed his own perspectives on Stoic philosophy, which was later published with the name Meditations. His Golden Age of the Roman Empire ended with his death in 180 C.E (Crook “Marcus Aurelius”; A&E Television Networks, LLC. “Marcus Aurelius”). The essay therefore intends to compare and contrast the ethical juxtapositions of the two well-known philosophers and thinkers, Confucius and Marcus Aurelius.


Conflicting Philosophies. Confucianism, the philosophy of Confucius concentrates strictly on hierarchically structuring a society, while Stoicism, the belief of Marcus, emphasizes the requirements to lead a proper and independent life, free from any sort of external conditions (Redner 87-90). The source of the thoughts of Confucius in the benevolence or the ‘inter-personal Ren’, while that of Marcus is a reason of the ‘individual logos’. Although both Confucian cosmopolitanism and Stoic cosmopolitanism focused on the factors present only within the human community, certain contradicting points were evident behind their existence. Confucius and his thoughts revolved around family, while the Stoicism principles of Marcus emphasized cosmos as the fundamental and ultimate reality (Chen 322).

Confucius, in his teachings, mentioned that man lives within the constraint of Heaven that is under the influence of ‘nature’, a Supreme Being and fixed patterns as well as cycles. He also stated that the accomplishments and recognitions are predestined by these constraints and hence cannot be changed by any means. However, his beliefs contradict at the point that man is accountable for their own activities and will get the same treatment that they give to others. Confucius also tried to make his followers understand that he had been sent on the earth as “a transmitter and not a maker” and that his actions be considered as “reliance on and love for the ancients” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy “Confucius”).

On the contrary, Marcus believed that living with self-reliance, empowerment, and independence is significant for the accomplishment of spiritual contentment. The effective combination of this spiritual contentment and worldly attainment is something that is problematic for the mankind to achieve during their lifetime (Forstater xi-xii). Marcus also stated that it is not an effective option to be concerned about playful people as they do not possess any capability of portraying any positive impact on other individuals. Moreover, Marcus once wrote that “You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve” as these may bring about negativity into one’s life (Feloni “9 timeless lessons from the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius”).

Overlapping Philosophies of the Thinkers. Although both Confucius and Marcus Aurelius belong to completely different communal backgrounds and perceives the philosophies, which initiates from completely varied standpoints, the ending point or their destination seems to be the same. At the final stage, both the thinkers, Confucius and Marcus Aurelius with their philosophies of Confucianism and Stoicism aim at the similar endpoint that is to create an integration between “Self” and “Others” pertaining to the practices as well as duties taking place within the global community. This implies that both the philosophers possess similarities in their core values, which is evident in the modern theories to some extent as in case of the present era’s international relations (Chen 322). The general problems faced by both the thinkers based on their respective philosophies are similar. It therefore needs to be noted that daily pressure and stress in one’s life can emerge as extremely exhausting and at times, may feel that they are struggling without any reason, thereby considering their life to be “short, fragile, and lacks meaning”. They also believed that tensions always have existed between historicism and individualism dimensions in the life of humans, principally being social creatures. Besides, a contradiction in the belief of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius on personal ideals as well as historical reality creates a discomfort in the minds of the every individual. These thoughts and beliefs are similar in cases of the Confucianism and Stoicism (Zhu, 116).

According to Hierocles, one of the stoics, concentric circles as “beginning with that representing our own body, then the circles representing our parents, siblings, spouse and children, and on to more remote relatives, and then to members of the same deme and tribe, to fellow citizens, to those who belong to the same people or ethnos, until we arrive at the widest circle, which is that of the entire human race” (Chen 327). This is similar to the meaning of illustration by the Confucians that the circles “expand from self (body) to family, to state, and finally to Tianxia (Liji-Daxue)” (Chen 327). This therefore clearly proves that both the thinkers followed a similar approach for portraying one’s interaction circles and hence “admit that one can own different identities, belong to smaller units and to Cosmos/Tianxia at the same time” (Chen 327).

Influence of One on the Other. Evaluating the ethical aspects from the viewpoint of both the selected authors, it can be observed that some amount of Stoic influences the Confucianism belief but the vice versa is not evident as such. The reason behind this might be the fact that the philosophy initiated by Confucius was more primitive in comparison to that of Marcus. Stoicism, as preached by Marcus, was altered with the passage of time with the proper involvement of the experts and well-known scholars. This, in the later period of time, influenced the believers of Confucianism to a large extent, thereby being influenced in certain aspects to increase the rationale behind its existence (Redner 87-90).

Sharing some Common Root. Both the philosophies of Confucius and Marcus can be observed to share the similar root and space, where all human being resides. Although the perspectives are same, the group of ancestors used different terms for addressing the events, such as the Confucianism cosmopolitan used the name of Tianxia and the Stoics termed it as Cosmos (Chen 328-329). Furthermore, at a point of time, it was discovered by Marcus that the journey of his life was largely similar to that of Confucius, as their works and administrative roots were common to a large extent. For instance, both of them took efforts in reducing the tensions, degeneration, conflicts, and disorder that existed amid the people. Moreover, they believed that invoking moral standards within the students is the foremost priority for mitigating the stated problems as these ethical values would help in mitigating the issues and tensions from the roots. Another common root shared by the thinker was their belief that good men coming together can help in creating a better world. In this context, they emphasized “setting a good example to encourage others to imitate good and reject evil”, possible only by enabling the individuals to imbibe ethics in their hearts (Scott 99-101).

Differently Viewing Human Nature. The thought-processes of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius depict the differences in their views towards the nature of mankind, especially through the emotional and irrational aspects, which can be identified from certain principles of Confucianism and Stoicism. Confucius had once stated in the Analects, ““The superior man is quiet and calm, waiting for the appointments of Heaven… The superior man is all-embracing and not partial… When the superior man eats he does not try to stuff himself; at rest, he does not seek perfect comfort; he is diligent in his work and careful in speech… This is the kind of person of whom you can say, ‘he loves learning’” (Brown “The Millennial’s Guide to Philosophy: Stoicism”). Based on the similar aspects, the difference in their views was observed, which implied that the early Stoics believed it was not so easy for an individual to stay away from irrational and emotional thoughts. They also understood that a ‘true man’ must fight against one’s own intentions on a regular basis through continuous practice of meditation and rigid self-discipline and these is the virtue “that make a man a man” (Brown “The Millennial’s Guide to Philosophy: Stoicism”). In this context, Marcus Aurelius in his work, The Meditations, had focused largely on individualism stating “Only attend to thyself, and resolve to be a good man in every act which thou doest: and remember… Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig” (Aurelius, The Meditations).

Viewing the Ultimate Source of Ethical Value. Confucius views the concepts of xi, zhi, li, yi, wen, and ren as the basic sources of ethical value. In this context, xi refers to the fact that an individual is born with “the original good, evil or nothing”, i.e. it comprises the in-depth learning related to truth, ethics, morality, and virtue. Zhi, on the other hand, implies the natural substance with which a man is made up. It cannot be considered as one’s “innate human attribute”, but can be acquired with the support of education. The next concept of Li implies the social skills that are necessary for personal development within a society. Confucianism hence describes Yi as “the standard by which all acts must be judged while there is no further standard by which yi, itself can be judged”, which comprises the traits of right action, righteousness, and duty. The concept, wen from the perception of Confucius implicates the “the icing on the cake or something that one does at leisure” such as art, poetry or music portraying the presence of virtue within a society. Lastly, ren is the most significant virtues with regard to Confucianism, which refers to the “the loftiest ideal of moral excellence, the most difficult of attainment, and the highest development of the individual’s distinctive nature”. It comprises a summation of varied virtues such as benevolence, humaneness, and love among others (Waxman “Ethics of Confucius”).

However, the ultimate source of ethical value, from the viewpoints of Stoicism as preached by Marcus Aurelius is Cosmopolitanism, comprises the values of the individuals (mankind) instead of national communities. This concept states that “all individuals, solely by virtue of being human, have rights that no state can deny and that warrant global protection”. This ultimate source also portrayed upon the factors of unity as well as equality. Cosmopolitanism also highlights the notion of “common humanity”, implying that is no other state can be harmed for the purpose of maintaining the well-being and betterment of the people of one particular state (Kegley and Raymond, 332).

Claiming the Constituents of a Good Life. According to the views of Marcus, good life implies living a life in a meaningful way, by fulfilling one’s desires. In order to lead a good life thus, an individual must be free from any kind of sufferings or failure (Irvine 4). The primary component of the good life, as per Stoicism, is to stay away from negative elements such grief, pain, sufferings, thereby removing negative emotions and negative visualizations. Marcus Aurelius had also once stated in this context, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing”, which means it important to fight the bad in order to attain a good life (Daily Stoic “A Guide To The Good Life: An Interview With William B. Irvine”). Contrastingly, Confucius had focused on depicting virtues, practicing rituals, morals as well as obeying parents as the foremost components of good life, as it can guide the individuals towards accomplishment of defined ethical standards. Besides, abiding by the norms of loyalty, obedience, and truthfulness, the humankind must keep their commitments and promises, by being kind to people. All these aspects, constituting a good life, are together termed as jen, which refers to humanity, goodness, and love from the viewpoint of Confucius. He, therefore, believes that it is the ultimate need to lead a good life than just leading a life and hence every individual has the potential to choose their actions. It is evident in case of sages that they hold complete knowledge, as deemed necessary for a good life (Philosophy Lessons “The Good Life According to Confucius and Socrates”).

Highest Value for Each. Both Marcus Aurelius and Confucius have certain values of their own, which is expressed apparently through theory theories and explanations. The teachings of Confucius comprise primarily three ethical values, which are filial piety, ritual, and humaneness. Among these, filial piety is considered to be the highest one, which refers to the concept of “Respect for one’s parents” and is the initiation point of Confucianism values that further gives rise to the humaneness, the ultimate goal of the community (Oxnam and Bloom 1). However, in case of the philosophies propounded by Marcus Aurelius, the rational virtue can be regarded as the highest value, as it protests against the “brutalities of life”. This virtue comprised the identification of means to avoid pains, sufferings, the contradiction of emotions, to prevail over false value-judgments and other negative aspects of life for being able to lead a meaningful life under the pre-determined cosmos (Luke Mastin “Stoicism”). Moreover, the rational virtue was found to have certain restrictions, thereby forming a significant perspective of stoicism. Marcus was one of the Stoic thinkers, who believed that human beings are ought to enter into an agreement of varied things in life. This is because, every event takes place, based on God’s plans and therefore, human beings must build up self-control within them to attain satisfaction and happiness at all phases of life. In this context, the thinker meant to state that the problems and brutalities can be prevented once and for all only if the individuals learn to control their emotions and take charge of their own actions and nature for the common well-being (Hadot 155-158).


The essay aimed at evaluating the similarities and differences between the philosophies of the thinkers Confucius as well as Marcus Aurelius. It contributed largely in identifying their ethical stances, which were then onwards followed as traditions by the two different communities of Confucianism and Stoicism. The believers of Confucius were known to follow the tradition of Confucianism, while Marcus was himself the follower of Stoicism and preached it among others. From the discussions, it can be inferred that Confucius primarily focused on the interactions within a society as well as family. On the other hand, Marcus was responsible for spreading the belief that a man must lead an independent life and good life as an individual instead of getting distracted by the external world (Redner 87-90). Although both the thinkers and their philosophies comprised completely different initiation points, their end results were the same. Confucius felt that his philosophy started with the feeling of benevolence and was mostly concerned about the family, while Marcus believed the ‘individual logos’ to be the source of his viewpoint and the cosmos to be the actual truth. The ultimate outcome of both the philosophies was hence present in the amalgamation of the “others” with “self” to make the community a better place to live in. It has also be understood from this essay that both the thinkers have different standpoints but all aiming at the similar objective with a common root, as the place of sustenance, which Confucius has termed as Tianxia and Marcus as the Cosmos.



Works Cited










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