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What Socrates Means for Liberal Education in Asia___

---The question of how the Western ideal of liberal education fits with Asian cultures is longstanding.[1] Our present time is characterized by an opening up between Western and Asian cultures. It is no longer sufficient for those in the West interested in liberal education to ignore Asian philosophy, science, and literature, whereas Western sources continue being made more available for Asians.

Even so, for Asians, the precise nature and relevance of Western perspectives in liberal education is elusive. The most common argument that Asian culture is harmonious with Western liberal education is utilitarian and seems to be that liberal education provides critical thinking skills that foster political and economic development. By adopting liberal education, Asia, it is said, can “catch up” to the West. Conversely, the most common argument that liberal education is at odds with Asian cultures is that Western ideals of individualism conflict with Asian ideals of social harmony.

This dichotomy is miscast. First, the “catch up” argument reduces liberal education to a mere instrument and illiberally reduces its aim to wealth and power. Many argue that Asians benefit from Western-style liberal education because such education imparts critical thinking skills that make people better equipped to participate in the global economy and to make them better administrators. While this argument contains much truth, it misses the point of liberal education which obliges us to consider at what such education aims. While for most, the ultimate aim of liberal education need not be asked so long as one can find a well-paying job and live comfortably. However, it is important to understand the proper aim of liberal education. Liberal education is not only about helping people live comfortably (if indeed it is about that), but rather it is about how one lives well. With so much debate in east Asia about a moral crisis and worries over social disintegration and corruption despite increasing standards of living, especially in mainland China, the question of human purpose, the central question of liberal education, has become paramount. The most direct way to understand the aim of liberal education is to consider the figure who stands at its origin and core, Socrates. Socrates shows the aim of liberal education, wisdom, is both useful but also poses a challenge for any political order because its aim transcends political life. This transpolitical aim of liberal education makes it a challenge to integrate into any political regime. Yet it is this very challenge that is a source of vitality for regimes open to the Socratic view.

Socrates cannot be easily assimilated with Asian analogies, including Confucianism. 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. The uncanny freedom of Socrates finds no counterpart in the Confucian courtier. Socrates also talked about daimonia (Symposium, Apology), while Confucius disparaged serving “ghosts and spirits” (though even he notes that understanding “Heaven’s Mandate” is key to self-knowledge).

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. 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.”[2] 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. 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?

Self-rule is also the goal of Confucian education. Like Socrates, Confucius thought good government is impossible without self-rule. Unlike Socrates whose daimon always warned him to avoid politics, Confucius ceaselessly sought to counsel rulers. Schuman explains this was his primary professional goal: “His life was a nearly nonstop quest for senior government office and high-level influence—a perch from which he could proselytize his ideas on good government…. The real Confucius comes across as something of a social climber and self-promoter, constantly networking and schmoozing in his efforts to land a good job.”[3]

The examples of Socrates and his daimon, and the paradoxical proposals of philosopher-kings in the Republic, contrast with Confucius’ aim to counsel rulers. From a Socratic perspective, the Confucian overlooks the paradoxes and problems associated with the political program of combining wisdom with political power. For Socrates, combining these two is inherently problematic if not impossible while Confucius appears to regard them as a natural fit. From a Socratic perspective, the attempt to combine wisdom and power requires that wisdom be compromised, diluted, or lowered. If we cannot expect those who are currently kings to take up philosophy, and if we cannot expect those who are currently philosophizing to become kings, then perhaps the next best thing is to follow Aristotle’s recipe for their rapprochement by replacing the philosophic wisdom of the philosopher with the practical wisdom of the statesman, which aims lower.

Socrates is the model teacher because dialectic or conversation among friends—question and answer with interlocutors — takes the form of a liberation, a releasing, of one’s soul from not only ignorance, but also of the passions and vices that reinforce our ignorance and our vicious presumption that our ignorance is a form of wisdom. Socratic philosophizing is a liberation from ignorance and a turn to the search of wisdom. Perplexity is the essential Socratic condition. I know that I do not know, which spurs me to wonder and to seek and to ask questions with others. Socratic philosophizing is more than a mere academic exercise because it aims at making us just. The most important questions involve asking how I should live my life and how we should live our lives together. Like the gadfly to which Socrates compares himself, philosophizing stings us and thus works to release us from those passions and vices that prevent our wondering and questioning. It stings our pride, love of reputation and honor, fear, sexual immoderation, love of wealth, fear of disrupting social harmony, fear of puncturing ideological lies, fear of suffering injustice, and our fear of violent and ignomious death. It strives to liberate us from the political, social, and individual forces that hinder our ceaseless desire for truth and justice.

Socrates fearlessly told Athenians that he alone, not politicians like Pericles or Themistocles, practiced the true art of politics because he alone was capable of morally improving the Athenians. The so-called great statesmen of Athens were competent only at making Athenians “lazy, cowardly, [and] babbling money-lovers” because they pandered to bodily appetites. No wonder the politicians supported the indictment against him. Recall too that the charge that Socrates invents new gods and corrupts the youth was meant to include that he undermined the family ties of the Athenian people.

Socrates was afraid of nothing except that in ignorance he might commit injustice. Many of his conversations were attempts by him to convince Athenians that committing injustice is the worst of all evils, even worse than suffering injustice. His relentless quest for truth that eventually led to his execution made him the freest man of all. Nothing, not love of wealth, not love of honour, not sexual appetite, not fear of shame, not fear of dishonor, not fear of ostracism, nor fear of being killed could stop him.

Like eros, Socrates is always on the move; he is homeless, a stray dog. He refers to philosophizing as the practice of dying. The freedom of Socrates is the ideal of freedom (liber) that is at the heart of liberal education. Liberal education is liberating and it seems to aspire to the dignity of the person in a way that transcends his or her place in society. Liberal education recognizes that as citizens we are a part of a greater whole but fundamentally the person is greater than the whole. This is why the ancient Greeks placed friendship above the political common good: our human good transcends the political good. Aristotle identifies friendship with liberal education when he describes the core of friendship as constituent of our humanity:

But one’s being is choiceworthy on account of the awareness of oneself as being good, and such an awareness is pleasant in itself. Therefore one also ought to share in a friend’s awareness that he is [or share his friend’s consciousness of his existence – sunaisthanesthai hoti estin], and this would come through living together and sharing conversation and thinking; for this would seem to be what living together means in the case of human beings.[4]

For the ancient Greeks, and I think it is true for us, liberal education is essentially “living together and sharing conversation and thinking” about the good with friends. Our deepest friendships, and the relations that are the most meaningful—more meaningful even than those we share with fellow citizens— are those with whom we are transformed in our shared loving quest to understand what is the human good. Aristotle uses a rare term, “sunaisthesis,” which can be translated as “joint-perception” to describe how souls of friends unite most intimately, most meaningfully, and most strongly, in their co-perception of the good and the beautiful. It is an act of intellectual and emotional triangulation where my perception of the good and the beautiful is inseparable from my perception of it with you who shares that perception while perceiving me. Compared to all other human experiences and relationships, “sunaisthesis” is “most intense and best.”[5] This accords with but pushes further Confucius’ own view, for whom friendship is one of the key human relationships—and indeed he seems to have placed more emphasis on it than on his family relations for reasons similar to what Aristotle lists of the core of friendship.

Liberal education has its origin in the discovery by the ancient Greek philosophers and mystics that human beings discover their humanity in their loving questioning of themselves in community with one another of the truth of their existence. This discovery of our humanity as restless questioners originated in the earlier discovery in history of a unique realm of human interaction and friendship that enables human beings to mature and to actualize our humanity. This unique realm is called “politics.” The Greek discovery of politics is the discovery of a realm of being in which individuals freely come together in a common life, and exercise responsibility for their own actions before one another. This is why liberal education must aim at civic or political engagement, and not just economic or social engagement. The practical experience students gain by interning at businesses is useful but insufficient. The practical experience students gain by interning with service organizations and charities is useful but insufficient. Liberal education must aim too at cultivating the political virtues of deliberation and judging, of acting responsibly on behalf of others and of learning how to negotiate and build coalitions. They must learn the arts of friendship that constitute the basis of political life.

This is not to suggest that liberal education aims at producing “social justice warriors” who protest “the establishment,” which seems to be the aim of liberal education for many deans at North American liberal arts colleges. These warriors might hauntingly remind Asians of the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution: privileged children of elites attacking commoners for being “rightists,” ignorantly intent on burning down the civilizational edifice their forefathers and foremothers have built so they can enjoy their privileges. While protest has its place, it is not the entirety of political virtue. Liberal and civic education aims higher by cultivating the deliberative virtues that go along with responsible self-government. Liberal education can assist freedom and self-government, and liberal education also needs political freedom. Tyrannical regimes suck the oxygen out of the life of the mind, and the hypocrisy lack of freedom produces insinuates self-censorship into the mind, making thought itself extremely difficult. This is why, for instance, students in tyrannical regimes are so prone to replacing critical thought with sloganeering ideological lies. In these circumstances, liberal education is an anamnestic endeavor to recover the reality that the ideological lies have covered.

Socratic irony then is the attempt by the Socratic philosopher to find a home for him and friends of truth in a world that is largely hostile to the quest for justice, and the care of souls. Schools dedicated to liberal education must find their own ways to negotiate a home for themselves with careful attention to the moral and spiritual possibilities their particular political regimes hold. They need to cultivate an intellectually honest and ethically grounded practical wisdom that enables them to make necessary trade-offs that enable them to stay the course of their mission and to avoid straying from it. Concentrating too much on the means of delivering liberal education can obscure its aim and purpose. One can avoid the full implications of one’s aims for only so long, which makes it imperative always to keep the figure of Socrates always in focus.

Staying on course is extremely difficult because of liberal education's mission to wonder and to wander. The course —the pathway out of Plato’s cave— is anything but straight. In the words of Laozi, “A Way that can be followed is not a constant Way.”[6] Stray dogs are homeless and restless, living on the street, much the way Socrates describes philosophic eros when he says: “he’s always poor and, far from being tender and beautiful, as the many suppose, is instead tough and dried out, shoeless and homeless, always stretched out on the ground and without blankets, lying down in doorways and on roads in the open air.”[7]


[1] This article condenses my “The Figure of Socrates and its Significance for Liberal Education in Asia,” Cambridge Journal of China Studies, Vol. 13(1) 2018: 1-22:

[2] Michael Schuman, Confucius and the World He Created, (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 22, citing the report by Sima Qian, Records of the Historian, 11.

[3] Schuman, Confucius and the World He Created, 10-11.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans., Joe Sachs, (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2002), 1170b10–12.

[5] For details, see my The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship, (Montréal-Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2016), chapter 2.

[6] Laozi, The Daodejing of Laozi, translated by Philip J. Ivanhoe, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003) 1.

[7] Plato, Symposium, translated by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2017), 203c-d.

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