BMCR 2022.01.07

Confucius and Cicero: old ideas for a new world, new ideas for an old world

, , Confucius and Cicero: old ideas for a new world, new ideas for an old world. Roma Sinica, 1. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. 222. ISBN 9783110616606 £65.50.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Born from a conference in 2017, this edited volume seeks to pioneer a new series in comparative studies: Roma Sinica: Mutual Interactions between Ancient Roman and Eastern Thought. The series is nothing short of ambitious: ‘Roma Sinica sets out to open new perspectives in comparative studies, taking a multidisciplinary approach within the humanities and offering scholars (…) an opportunity to exchange ideas’. This particular volume, focusing on a comparison of Confucius and Cicero, brings together sinologists, Classicists, and comparative historians. It establishes itself firmly in the budding field of Sino-Roman comparative studies as one of the first works to examine two individuals, rather than comparing broader social, political, or economic frameworks.[1] The volume is split into five sections. Sections A and E form the introduction and conclusion of the work, respectively. Section B concentrates on philosophy. Section C investigates the translation of Confucian works in Latin. Section D takes a broader view, examining philosophy, literature, and culture in general.

Fritz-Heiner Mutschler sets the overall theme of the book as a ‘scientific comparison between the two intellectuals, i.e. Confucius and Cicero, taken as symbols of their respective cultural worlds’, aimed at ‘expanding our understanding of the commonalities and differences between Chinese and Western civilizations in toto’. He astutely notes several potential objections to this exercise, such as the extent to which the pair can be considered ‘symbols of their cultural worlds’, the variance between the sources available for the study of each figure (the breadth of the corpus of work left behind by Cicero, compared to Confucius, who left no writing that can be undeniably attributed to him), and the dissimilarities in their cultural and philosophical contexts. In response, Mutschler proceeds with three case studies to establish the validity of a comparative approach: the Analects compared with De Officiis, ren compared with humanitas, and Confucius compared with Cicero as role models. With circumspection and caution, Mutschler argues that a comparative study would teach us much not only about the two individuals but also about the cultures to which they belonged.

Tongdong Bai opens Section B with a fascinating investigation of the ‘threat of the private to the public’ in Plato’s Republic and early Confucianism (Confucius and Mencius). Bai uses Mencius to show that early Confucianism stressed the need for a strong private sphere: the people required stable possessions and familial ties to have stable moral characters. With one’s loyalty thus torn between public and private, Bai argues that the Confucian model breaks down in extreme cases, such as in the dilemma of whether one is morally obligated to turn over one’s father for committing murder. In contrast, Bai contends that the Platonic model circumvents such Confucian problems by ‘almost completely supressing private interest’. The Platonic model, however, is not perfect either, and its critic Aristotle adopts, as Bai notes, a curiously Confucian bent, stating that, without private property or strong family ties, one cannot learn genuine affection. By comparing the models, Bai demonstrates ‘the merits and demerits of each model in the light of the other’. This chapter deploys the comparative methodology admirably. It not only directs the reader to new ways of approaching Confucian and Platonic political philosophy, but also paves the way for complex discussions of the balance between private and public in modern politics.

Graham Parkes follows in the next chapter by arguing for the applicability of Confucianism, Daoism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism to cope with the dilemmas raised by global warming, while Jungsam Yum ends the first section with a chapter on the Confucian idea of ren (virtue) in Xunzi, a later Confucian scholar. While interesting as chapters, they do not fit well with the overall goal of the book, providing little insight into a comparative understanding of Cicero and Confucius.

 Section C concerns Latin translations of Confucian works. Michele Ferrero delivers an intriguing overview of this topic, examining Latin translations of the Analects from early Jesuit projects to the modern day. Ferrero selects numerous key words as case studies, such as junzi (gentleman), ren (virtue), and tian (heaven). Ferrero notes how classical ideas of virtue affect word choice in translating Confucius and what they reveal about the translators’ Western attitudes. For example, for junzi, whether the translator chooses probus, sapiens, or bonus reveals their personal focus on whether it is knowledge or moral behaviour that makes a junzi (gentleman).

The second chapter of this section is by Jaewon Ahn, examining the translation of the Confucian text Zhong Yong(Chum-Yum) by the Jesuit priest Prospero Intorcetta (1626–1696) and how it may have been read by him through Ciceronian and Christian lenses. Ahn’s analysis reveals three ‘stylistic colors’ – termed color Ciceronis, color Lactantii, color philosophi moderni ut Wollffiani. These colours are invisible if reading Confucius in the original language and appear through the Latin translation. Ahn shows how Intorcetta’s descriptions of Confucian virtues were undoubtedly inspired by Ciceronian attitudes. Furthermore, by viewing concepts such as ren (virtue) or tian (heaven/sky) through a Christian lens, Intorcetta also read sections of Confucian works as religious in nature, an aspect entirely missing in the original text. Through this detailed case study, Ahn commendably displays how examining a text through a translation, due to the different cultural lens applied, can divulge new understandings which would not arise in a monocultural or monolingual study.

Christian Høgel opens Section D with a study of humanitas in the Western world. Høgel notes how the Latin term humanitas captures several disparate notions, such as pan-humanity, an ethical standard for interaction, and education. Høgel examines how Cicero unites all these concepts of humanitas, utilising De Oratore as a case study. How this humanitas then impacted the modern world, via concepts such as human rights, humanitarian aid, or the humanities, Høgel contends, leaves us with a ‘messy concept’ in dire need of further discussion for us to truly understand what is meant by humanness.

Stéphane Mercier follows with an examination of ren (virtue) and Confucian ideals of humanity. Mercier argues that ren is a word that ‘allows for different aspects of one and the same virtue’. Mercier then examines Yi Byeok, a figure in early Korean Christianity, and how he depicted Jesus through the Confucian ideal of ren in his work, The Essence of Sacred Doctrine. Jesus, to Yi Byeok, becomes the perfect embodiment of the Confucian ideal of humanity. A person of Confucian background was thus able to connect to Jesus by viewing him as ‘the sage and the wise man’ of Confucian teachings. Mercier’s engaging chapter covers a topic otherwise untouched in this volume – how the ‘West’ was received through Confucianism.

The following chapter, by Kihoon Kim, compares pietas in Cicero and xiao (filial piety) in Confucius. Kim begins by examining pietas in Cicero’s Pro Sexto Roscio. He concludes that Roman pietas ‘is born out of condition of dependency imposed on sons by nature. It is also a virtue which Romans have a duty to maintain towards their parents’. Kim then analyses how the term pietas is translated into Chinese, Korean and Japanese, showing that all these Far Eastern cultures, due to their Confucian heritage, translate pietas in a similar fashion. Further similarities between pietas and xiao are noted, such as their ‘naturalistic justification’, ‘intergenerational duty’ and their functioning ‘as central ideas which sanctified a social system based on a patriarchal ideology’. While the two terms are not perfectly analogous, Kim convincingly shows that the pair shared sufficient similarities to allow future studies, ‘by providing new perspectives from one to another’, to deepen our understanding of both Roman and Chinese concepts of familial or filial piety. Similar to Bai’s earlier chapter, Kim’s adoption of a strong comparative framework reveals fascinating avenues of research to complement monocultural studies by supplying a new lens through which one can examine the evidence. It is a firm basis on which, hopefully, more extensive research will be done.

Stefania Stafutti concludes this section with an examination of contemporary China’s promotion of ‘Confucian values’, in particular jian (frugality), and how the adoption of Confucian teachings into a ‘vaguely defined “traditional culture”’ allowed the Chinese government to give a moral dimension to its policies. Though offering an interesting look into how Confucius is used as a ‘fundamental actor’ to serve modern political needs, this chapter also suffers from a lack of a clear connection to the overall theme of the book.

Yasunari Takada concludes the volume with some final considerations. Takada, rather like Mutschler, adopts a cautious stance, as ‘any comparison of Cicero and Confucius needs to place them in their proper cultural contexts, which can only highlight their dissimilitude’. Takada compares the biographical background of the pair, stressing their dissimilarity, before finally concluding that ‘there may yet be new and alternative vistas open to philosophy at large by further examination of the insights and experiences of the two great ancient empires East and West, with Confucius and Cicero as their respective representatives. Meanwhile we do well to approach such “similitude in disguise” with caution’. While Takada is certainly correct, the wary conclusion comes oddly placed at the end of this volume, as it seems to direct the reader to question the usefulness of the work rather than appreciate its worth as a pioneering study in this area.

The volume is certainly ambitious and covers a diverse range of scholarly approaches, spanning philosophy, reception studies, and translation studies. However, as a volume intending to focus on comparative studies, this work could have benefited from a stricter adherence to its overall goal and methodology. Very few of the chapters adopt a comparative approach. In fact, numerous chapters — though fascinating in their own right — appear to be only tangentially related to the book’s goal. Furthermore, its diversity of approached calls for a conclusion to unify its disparate strands of research. Unfortunately, Takada instead adopts a concluding tone that is rather conservative, even pessimistic. While Sino-Roman comparative studies are indeed novel, and dangers exist which are well noted by Mutschler and Takada, several chapters in this volume, particularly those of Tongdong Bai, Jaewon Ahn, and Kihoon Kim, convincingly demonstrate the advantages of a comparative framework. In all, this volume successfully directs itself to several new and promising areas of research and shows the value of comparative studies in providing alternative views not immediately evident in monocultural studies. One certainly looks forward to future research produced by the Roma Sinica series.

Authors and Chapter Titles

Fritz-Heiner Mutschler: “Comparing Confucius and Cicero: Problems and Possibilities”
Tongdong Bai: “The Private and the Public in the Republic and in the Analects
Graham Parks: “Confucian and Daoist, Stoic and Epicurean. Some Parallels in Ways of Living”
Jungsam Yun: “Mind, Heaven, and Ritual in the Xunzi
Michele Ferrero: “The Latin translations of Confucius Dialogues (Lun Yu). A comparison of key concepts”
Jaewon Ahn: “Is Confucius a Sinicus Cicero?”
Christian Høgel: “Humanitas: Universalism, equivocation, and basic criterion”
Stéphane Mercier: “Becoming human(e): Confucius’ Way to 仁 and the imitation of Christ in Yi Byeok’s Essence of Sacred Doctrine (聖敎要旨: Seonggyo yoji)”
Kihoon Kim: “Pietas in pro Sexto Roscio of Cicero and Confucian 孝 (xiao)”
Stefania Stafutti: ““Be modest and avoid wastefulness”: table manners and beyond from Confucius to Xi Jinping”
Yasunari Takada: “Cicero and Confucius: Similitude in Disguise”


[1] There has been a burst of interest in this field in the last decade or so, pioneered by Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag (2008), and Walter Scheidel (2009, 2015). For some of the most recent comparative works, see Rome, China, and the barbarians: ethnographic traditions and the transformation of empires by Randolph B. Ford (2020) and Rulers and ruled in ancient Greece, Rome, and China, edited by Hans Beck and Griet Vankeerberghen (2021).