Of Unswerving Horses and Immortal Souls: A Comparison of Confucius' Use of the Book of Songs and Socrates' Appeal to Poets in the Meno

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Confucius' repeated appeals to the Book of Songs to establish and defend a moral point seem strikingly at odds with the argumentative and discursive methods of classical Western philosophers such as Plato. Easy contrasts on this point, however, are challenged when Socrates, a Western philosophical persona to whom Confucius is often contrasted, himself appeals to classical poets when making a point, as he does with a fair frequency. These poetic allusions are usually ignored by philosophers, who focus on Plato's banning of the poets from the perfect city of the Republic when the matter is raised at all. This paper compares Socrates' use of poetry in the Meno with Confucius' of the Book of Songs. Beginning with Confucius' apparent insouciance in reading the Songs, I argue that Socrates' appeal to 'the poets' actually reinforces the familiar distinctions noted. While Confucius is more concerned to appropriate the familiar for his own creative purposes, Socrates' more literal reading of poets underscore the need for philosophical wisdom, or undermine the authority of the poets themselves.


A cornerstone of classical Chinese literature, the Shijing, or Book of Songs, is widely quoted in the Analects, and Confucius regularly recommends to his disciples a thorough knowledge of the work, congratulating any student who displays such familiarity with the highest praise. This constant reference to the Songs and the high esteem in which the collection is held is an obvious example of Confucius' celebrated love of learning and reverence of tradition. Often, Confucius reaches for the Songs when making a basic moral point about how we should live, or the characteristics of a morally exemplary person (junzi), and he clearly prizes finding an echo of this claim in a verse from the classics. The ability to make a point by way of quoting the Songs is seen by Confucius as an important sign of learning, and he is particularly delighted when one of his followers demonstrates this lamentably rare talent. Confucius summarizes the value of the Songs as follows:

   My young friends, why don't any of you study the Songs? Reciting
   the Songs can arouse your sensibilities, strengthen your powers of
   observation, enhance your ability to get on with others, and
   sharpen your critical skills. Close at hand it enables you to serve
   your father, and away at court it enables you to serve your lord.
   It instills in you a broad vocabulary for making distinctions in
   the world. 17.9 (1)

This typically Confucian insistence on a shared, traditional text and the attitude of reverence for this collection of older works, suggests some familiar and easy contrasts with Western thought. Here we see the aesthetic mindset of the East, the acute sensitivity to the right turn of phrase, combined with the tradition and custom bound deference to the masters of old that is to be contrasted with the critical, argumentative style of the Western philosophers, including Confucius' rough contemporary, Plato. Where Confucius revered the wisdom and beauty of the Songs, Plato, as we all know, distained the works of the poets of his own traditions and opposed the dispassioned appeal to reason to the lazy reliance on what we've been taught. This comfortable contrast, I want to suggest here, is a little too easy. For one thing, Socrates is often to be found in Plato's dialogues quoting poets freely, and not always with distain or skepticism. At times, he seems to rely on the cultural authority of the Greek poetic tradition in much the same way as Confucius does. At the same time, Confucius' own way of appealing to the Songs is not as straightforwardly reverential as we might expect, as the master has a habit of using the poems in ways far removed from their original purposes.

Unswerving Horses

In light of the reverence for the Books of Songs Confucius is known for, it is startling to note that the authority of the Songs is often brought to bear on issues the texts themselves are not in any obvious way about. …