The creation of ancient societies require the participation of the individual either as an ordinary member of the community or as a leader. Both ruler and subject require a set of principles or a belief system that will guide them. In most cases this is provided by the state religion. In others it is supplied by a philosophy that guides them in their thought process and provided ground rules in making crucial decisions.
In ancient India one can find a religion established by Gautama Buddha. In ancient China one can find Confucianism as a guiding light. In Greece one can find the Socratic philosophy that was so influential it even transformed the whole of Western civilization. In this study Buddhism, Confucianism, and Socratic philosophy will be examined side-by-side to understand how principles gleaned from these three systems of belief were used to help individuals discover their role in ancient society.
In Buddhism one of the most influential principles can be gleaned from Gautama Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In the First Noble Truth there is an important teaching about misery its causes and how to eradicate from a person’s life. This idea has transformed the way Buddhist societies functioned especially when it comes to the role that individuals should play in society.
One of the most significant idea that can be found under the First Noble Truth is the one that says: “to wish for what one cannot have is misery” (Stearns, p.70). It was a radical statement in those times.
Just like today, people in ancient worlds lusted for power, wealth, and prestige. One can just imagine the striving, the competition, the desire to get ahead and the need for more influence, clout, more money, more servants, more properties. All of a sudden this teaching comes along and people were told that the desires of men is the root cause of misery.
It must had been a sobering thought for many. For those who struggle to get ahead in the social rat race the idea was revolutionary. It was as if a burden was lifted from the shoulders of those who cannot handle the competition and the exploitation.
When this teaching became popular it was no longer necessary to aspire for greatness and to accumulate wealth because all were vanity. More importantly these things will not make a person happy. This is probably the reason why Buddhism became very popular in this region during ancient times. It gave people hope. It gave them direction in life. It gave them rest, a respite from a life full of strife, deceit, and suffering.
From a political standpoint the teachings of Buddha is also very important because the leaders, especially if they were Buddhists themselves can make the people calm down, make them less restless and help them feel more contented with what they have. In other words leaders can actually use these principles to create a society filled with individuals that are less prone to rise up in rebellion and demand for more benefits and more individual rights.
Buddhism also teaches that it is the unfulfilled desires of men and women that causes misery and therefore the removal of these desires from the consciousness of the individual will solve all of society’s problems. This is why in the Third Noble Truth, one can find this maxim: “Where anything is delightful and agreeable to men; there desire wanes and disappears, there it is broken up and destroyed” (Stearns, p.72).
One can easily imagine the consequence of this belief system, especially when Buddhism became the state religion. This meant that political leaders who were Buddhist can make the general population submissive to their ideas without them knowing that they are being subjugated.
On the other hand a good leader, one who is truly noble can use the same belief system and inspire people to build a just and humane society. Rules need not be enforced by strong-arm tactics because the citizens will come to realize the importance of peace for it is one of the paths to the cessation of misery. In theory there will be less conflict because the community who embraced the tenets of Buddhism need not struggle for material wealth, fame and power. They had everything they need by letting go of their desires.
In comparison to Confucianism, Buddhism seems to lack focus, structure, and direction. Buddhism is more fluid while Confucianism is more rigid. However, there are similarities. Buddhism aims to remove misery and therefore it abhors conflict. It strives to remove conflict within the individual and within society. Nirvana the state of bliss which is the primary goal of all Buddhist is characterized by inner peace and an existence without misery.
In Confucianism, bliss is understood to come in the form of a stable government and structure of governance that can help all those who are under it experience a better life. But this means that the people will submit to this government and even contribute what they can to sustain it. Buddhism asks the individual to let go of his desires. Confucianism asks the individual to have more restraint especially when it comes to dealing with the government.
In Buddhism the goal is the cessation of misery. In Confucianism the goal is tranquility. It can be argued that there are major similarities here because Buddhism also talks about inner-peace. However, the methodology differs because in Confucianism there is a principle that says tranquility can be achieved by abiding in the highest good and by loving the people (Strearns, p.36). This is very important because Confucianism teaches the individual to put society above self.
The Socratic philosophy is centered on the individual. The core ideal of Socratic philosophy is the importance of the individual. This is seen in the life and teachings of Socrates who was sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens.
But in his trial he pinpointed the main reason why he was put on trial, and it was the charge that he was responsible for undermining the morality and religious traditions of Athens (Bulliet et al., p.122). In other words Socratic philosophy did not only encourage people to value the person but also to question what was perceived to be irreversible trends and to challenge traditions that were in existence for hundreds of years.
The Socratic philosophy is also based on the Socratic method of asking questions. An individual was taught to ask hard questions regarding life, society, and politics.
Even if Greek city-states were ruled by aristocrats, as time passed by, an ordinary person in Athens was given the chance to acquire rights, privileges and even the capability to say and do what he believes is important. As a result a democratic movement was birthed and henceforward, “Athenians of moderate or slender means could hold office and participate in politics” (Bulliet et al., p.119).
Power was transferred to popular organs of government such as the Assembly, the Council of 500, and the People’s Courts so that the Assembly of all free citizens “held open debates several times a month; anyone could speak to the issue of the day” (Bulliet et al., p.119). Without a doubt this system of governance was far from perfect but it was a precursor to modern democracies.
The ability to debate the aristocrats and the right to question traditions is something that is uniquely Greek. No one in the ancient world could challenge the gods but they did, especially Socrates who blazed a path for them. This is very interesting because it contrasts with other forms of nation-building mofrld discussed earlier. Buddhism was purely spiritual and although its main goal was to free human beings from the negative effect of unfulfilled desires the ultimate goal was intensely personal not the establishment of a nation.
Socratic philosophy as utilized by the Greeks also differed sharply from Confucianism because in China the individual is not the most important component of society – it is the State or the government. Everyone will benefit if they focus on building a centralized government that in turn will be the source of administrative power that will ensure stability and peace.
If one will compare and contrast Buddhism, Confucianism, and Socratic philosophy in the context of the individual then one can see only a few similarities but many differences. Although Buddhism deals with the individual, it is done from a spiritual perspective. In fact it does not bother with the evolution of human society from primitive to modern. It is not even concern with the eradication of poverty and the establishment of a just government that will serve the people.
Without a doubt Buddhism can still be utilized by power-hungry men who would love nothing more than to dominate others. They can profess their adherence to Buddhist teachings and for them to effectively rule they can convince others that the path to nirvana is by learning how to let go of all forms of desires.
However, this kind of position is difficult to sustain because ideally speaking the ruler does not have any incentive to govern his people. Confucianism and the Socratic philosophy offers a more practical solution to socio-political problems.
Confucianism and the Socratic philosophy are philosophical frameworks that are also interested in the plight of the individual but less concern with the spiritual aspect of life and more on the political. Confucianism in a nutshell asserts that an individual will benefit greatly not from being individualistic but in the acknowledgement that he must serve society and the State.
In ancient China, just like in other ancient civilizations the masses were forced to obey by coercion such as the teaching that Kings descended from the gods. But with the correct application of Confucianism there was no longer any need for all of that. The main thrust was to educate the individual and make him understand that being part of a system – in their case it is the Civil Service – is not only beneficial for the individual but also the whole of society.
Socratic philosophy applied to the individual is less rigid compared to Confucianism. The State or the ruling class does not impose its will on the individual but a democratic form of government is preferred. This is less stable, and based on the history of the Greek people not always reliable. One has to remember that Alexander the Great came after Socrates and Plato. This is proof that Greek people clamored for a tyrant to keep them safe from their enemies and ensure stability.
Buddhism, Confucianism and the Socratic philosophy gave birth to different models of how individuals should behave in ancient societies. Buddhism is focused on the spiritual aspect of the individual and cared less about the socio-political consequences of its teaching. Confucianism on the other hand offers a solution to problems of society but requires absolute adherence to rules and systems.
The Socratic philosophy values the individual by giving him freedom to ask questions, to challenge the status quo. However, it proved to be unreliable in many occasions. Nevertheless, it became the precursor to establishment of modern-day democratic societies.