What is there in common amongst Marcus Aurelius (a Roman emperor), Epictetus (a slave), Seneca (a wealthy man,) and Confucius (a Chinese teacher.) Yes, they are all great philosophers of the past. This month, let’s talk about PHILOSOPHY! The word “philosophy” literally means the “love” (philo in Greek) of “wisdom” (sophia).
I started reading philosophy last year, not for the exams but more because I was curious to understand the great minds of those who came before us. Like many in ASEAN, I grew up in a traditional Chinese family (my maternal grandfather was a Confucius scholar in the late Qing Dynasty); my mother decided my early education should include the study of Confucianism. Later, she sent me to pursue an western education to discover the world of sciences, music, arts, and business. Therefore, my thinking process and behaviours have been influenced deeply by both Confucianism and Stoicism.
While we always think that people with eastern philosophy differ from those from the west because of different viewpoints, one may be surprised to find many similar shared concepts.
Let me share an example. The translation of the Confucius Analect above is, “Do not worry or be upset about others not understanding you, but worry about you not understanding others.” (孔子说：“不要担心别人不了解自己，应该担心的是自己不了解别人。”)
There is a similar saying in English, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The teaching is especially useful when we are in disagreement with another person. However, it is not an easy task when one has a preference for “direct communication” and is from an “individualist” culture (e.g., Anglo-Saxon.) Moreover, if one is taught like me in my western education, i.e., that if I do not speak up on what I disagree with, I therefore condone and assume a position as a passive participant.
Whereas, suppose I were to follow Confucius’ teaching. In that case, I should not be bothered about others not understanding my position, but I should be patient first to understand why people behaved the way they did that triggered the angst.
While the two approaches seem to be very different, I finally realised we can still have the same purpose and goal. That is, if I were to take the Confucius way, once I have understood why people have behaved the way they did, I will be able to find a more convincing way to speak my mind that will help reach an agreement with them, albeit taking a longer time.
In today’s chaotic world, with political tension brewing between nations and the pandemic outbreak, a traditional Confucius scholar will cite 修身,齐家,治国,平天下。 translating to “first focus in addressing and developing oneself, then handling one’s home/family in harmony, followed by managing one’s country/nation well, before bringing peace to the world.)
While I stand proud of speaking my mind when I disagree with certain actions and will continue to do so, I really think there is much for me to learn from Confucius. Practicing the concept of “be worried if I failed to understand others.” Taking the extra time to understand others and adjusting my viewpoint accordingly may help resolve an issue more effectively.
Besides being a Stoic, as one born in the east, I should retrace my Confucius root to continue my self-development. Ultimately, in true pursuit of wisdom, we should include all viewpoints and leverage our philosopher friends’ insights to make the world a better place.