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‘socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus’


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Paradigmatic ways of understanding Karl Jaspers’ ‘Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus’



Herman Pietersen

The Examined Life On-Line Philosophy Journal, Vol. 02 Issue 07





Karl Jaspers' "Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus" (1962) provides an illuminating picture of the lives, ideas and impact of some of the most important individual ever to have lived. The present paper analyzes the different approaches to ultimate values by these men from a meta-paradigmatic perspective, showing that each of them are also outstanding representatives of fundamentally different 'ways of understanding' in human history.


With the aid of basic frameworks of knowledge, developed elsewhere, Jaspers' account of their lives is used to demonstrate how these four historical figures, in distinctive yet complementary fashion, showed the way to ultimate truth and salvation.

1. Introduction


In Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus (1962), Karl Jaspers provides a concise but illuminating account of the thought and lives of some of the greatest individuals who ever walked on this earth. The book gives a quite fascinating glimpse into how these unique individuals, with their mission of guiding the human spirit to the level of ultimate values, shaped and still shape the minds and cultures of large parts of humanity.


A book with such a title prompts a few questions: "Why these men? Why only four?" Jaspers never fully explains his choice, beyond stating that: "… these paradigmatic individuals have exerted a historical influence of incomparable scope and depth" (1962: 3). A more mundane, and partial explanation is that the book originally forms part of one of Jaspers voluminous works on philosophy and philosophers, and that his interest in the four men had a more proper philosophical goal, namely, to examine the nature and impact of their thought and actions from a comparative perspective, as a venture into philosophical anthropology.


However that may be, for the present author the four great historical figures chosen by Jaspers are remarkable in another, important, sense. That is, namely, that these individuals can also be shown to be major exemplars of distinct (meta-paradigmatic) types of understanding in human history.


It is the purpose of this essay, therefore, to approach Jaspers' account of these men from a meta-philosophical perspective and to show that, quite apart from their historical importance for human praxis and 'how we should live', they can also be regarded as exemplars of fundamental 'ways of understanding'.


The task will be carried out by the application of an appropriately modified meta-paradigmatic knowledge framework that was previously developed and found to be useful in identifying basic and implicit assumptions in, amongst others, the disciplines of philosophy (Pietersen, 2000).


It should be emphasized that the present endeavor does not specifically address the separate philosophical field of 'meta-ethics', but focuses on major forms of thought observable in all human intellectual activity.



2. Meta-paradigmatic ways of understanding.


Elsewhere (Pietersen, 2000) it is shown how, by taking a fresh look at the 'prototypical' theory of knowledge of Plato, philosophical thought itself can, for instance, meaningfully be described as consisting of orthogonal combinations of: rationalist; realist; relativist and idealist knowledge positions.


In Figure 1 basic approaches to understanding for each of the ethical exemplars: Buddha; Socrates; Jesus and Confucius are shown, as guide to further discussion below.


Despite important differences these men share certain commonalities. They were all, great, 'larger-than-life' individuals whose personae as pre-eminent historical figures linked to some of the world's major religions and bodies of thought, especially those of Jesus and Buddha, attained mythical proportions even in their own lifetimes.


Yet they all were men (Jesus as Christ not being considered here), who also experienced extraordinary degrees of solitude and loneliness; they all felt a great calling that drove them to became what they were. All were deeply inspired (some even messianic) and influential individuals who lived and moved among people (Buddha rather reluctantly at first), pointing to the 'Way' of ultimate truth and everlasting peace and salvation: whether primarily by meditation (Buddha: right belief), reason (Socrates: right thinking), faith (Jesus: right feeling/spiritual attitude), or ethical living (Confucius: right conduct).


Of the four, Socrates and Buddha, approach the "correct" way of living primarily from a rationalist perspective, especially Socrates. For Buddha, however, conscious thought and reason only takes one a certain distance on the road to mystical inner 'enlightenment'.


The approaches of Jesus and Confucius, on the other hand, are more clearly embedded in a subjectivist and values paradigm that primarily appeals to an unconditional personal faith in God (Jesus); and to the best social codes for harmoniously living with others, as extracted from ancient Chinese customs and traditions (Confucius).


Jesus and Buddha (despite being opposing knowledge types in the present framework) share a more pronounced degree of 'mysticism' than the others, and have their focus firmly on the 'other-worldly', attempting to show mankind what they have to do to in order to 'get there'.


Socrates and Confucius (despite their different approaches: the one focusing on reason, the other on social custom) are concerned with how mankind can improve its lot in this world. Being great ethical seekers/inspirers, and not system philosophers or 'scientists' per se, all four men made extensive use of informal and practical ways of communication: by using parables, stories, myth and metaphor, to convey their often paradoxical truths to people around them.


2.1 Buddha (Type I: Rationality - Transcendence)


The following profile of the Type I historical figure characterises the Buddha, as an example of rational-idealism ('mystical ethics'):




· The meditative mind · Impersonal, search for 'Being'


· Other-worldly knowledge


· Salvation through non-resistance


· Liberation from material existence


· 'Ethical union'


· 'Right belief'


· Obedience to karma, destiny


· Transformation to the highest level of being; to reach Nirvana


Buddha left home, family and country early on in his life to follow the path of 'transcendental discovery', the path of the lonely thinker pondering the sufferings and miseries of being human in this world. In an attempt to 'escape' its harsh realities he decided: "to seek salvation in asceticism" (p22).


Buddha's thought reflects the rationalist-transcendent (idealist) turn towards a search for answers in a 'world' or sphere beyond the sensory of our space-time world. His doctrine: "…starts from the belief… that all existence is suffering, and that the essential is redemption from suffering...(By) way of the decision to live righteously in word and deed, the Path leads to immersion in various degrees of meditation and through meditation to the knowledge of what was already present in the initial faith: the truth of suffering. It is only at the end that one attains clear knowledge of the Path one has traveled, Enlightenment" (p23)


According to Jaspers, Buddha made rather extensive use of ideas and concepts originating in the Hindu philosophy of previous times; and was very influential for his establishment of 'monastic communities', another indication of the inclination towards the privacy of transcendental thought, removed from the trammels and distractions of everyday life.


Buddha's preference for independent thought is also reflected in his parting words to his followers, namely: "Rely on yourselves. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in truth" (p25).


In contradistinction to Jesus, Buddha is not concerned with and does not inquire into the possible origins of human misery and suffering, such as a: " primordial fall from eternal perfection into ignorance. [For him]…knowledge has provided the certainty of redemption and that is enough"(p30).


In stark contrast to the emphasis on and deep awareness of individual souls characteristic of the Type III approach of Jesus, Buddha totally denies the self. "For Buddha there is no self. Existence is made up of factors that form links in the chain of causality; it includes the unconscious formative powers (sanskara)… These factors disintegrate in death. Their unity and center is not the self but karma, which in rebirth creates another transient combination" (p30). Here is an idealistic metaphysics that is not interested in people's personal lives; a type of rationalist religious cosmology maybe, but certainly not a social code for guidance in community affairs (Confucius), nor a message of personal salvation (Jesus).


It is therefore also not surprising to find that in Buddha's teachings: "… it is not prayer, [contra Jesus] not grace, and not sacrifice that brings redemption, but only knowledge. This knowledge lies within the power of the individual [a view which is in agreement with that of Socrates]" (p37).


In summary: Buddha's thought was essentially 'against the world' (of suffering); a 'getting away' from the temporal order of things. His is the love of a transcendent state of being, via deep meditation; unsullied by a 'messy' immanence. What had to be relinquished were all earthly desires and cravings.


2.2 Socrates (Type II: Rationality - Immanence)


The following profile of the Type II historical figure characterises Socrates, as an example of rational-realism (rational ethical):




· The rational, inquiring mind


· Impersonal, search for truth


· This-worldly knowledge


· Salvation through 'knowing thyself'


· Liberation from ignorance


· 'Ethical Definition'


· 'Right thinking'


· Obedience, or commitment to the journey of self-discovery


· Systematic questioning in search of the ethically pure good, justice and morality (arête)


Although Socrates is undoubtedly a great and exemplary historical figure, especially for philosophers, he differs from the other three in that his particular life endeavor was very clearly a rigorous and rational quest for truth in the Greek tradition, in which he stood central. As Jaspers puts it: "Like the Prophets, he was certain of his calling; unlike them he had nothing to proclaim…His mission was only to search in the company of men…To question unrelentingly…To demand no faith in anything or in himself, but to demand thought, questioning, testing, and so refer man to his own self"(p6).


Unlike Confucius, he had little taste for politics as vocation ("this voice…said no whenever he thought of going into political life", p10), preferring the company of those interested to join him in the discovery of rational truth. Contrary to the aims of a more purely transcendental approach to knowledge, Socrates in true immanence (realist) fashion engaged individual minds in an attempt to elucidate the truth for them in dialogue. "The significance of Socrates' approach is that one must know one's ignorance and embark on the journey of thought"(p7).


In contrast to subjectivist knowledge orientations this professed ignorance of Socrates is what distinguishes him from the Sophists, who always had an answer ready (for a fee, of course): " Though his merciless questioning may make him seem one of them, he never departs from his historical foundations but piously recognizes the laws of the polis and thoughtfully examines their meaning"(p10).


In summary: Socrates is 'for the world' and committed to understanding the world of human community (the polis) by the use of rational thought. His is the love of wisdom, of giving oneself to the never-ending search for the truth of Reason, in order to attain a just society (he was not much interested in natural science). What, above all, had to be relinquished was dogmatic beliefs based on mere custom and opinion (doxa).


2.3 Jesus (Type III : Subjective - Immanence)


The following profile of the Type III 'historical individual' shows Jesus as example of subjectivist-immanence ('devotional ethics'):




· The experiential (the 'heart')


· Poetic-passionate


· Concerned with individuals (personal)


· Salvation through faith in Almighty God


· Liberation from sin and guilt


· 'Ethical being'


· 'Right attitude/predisposition'


· Obedience to the will of God


· Confronting people with their sins, and promising redemption and salvation into the Kingdom of God.


Jesus' mission on earth can be described as one of 'devotional ethics'; a complete surrender of all things human to the will of God, the personal Creator and Redeemer of all Christian believers; not the God of abstract philosophical reason or ancient custom, but of: "…salvation through faith" (p64).


The poetical prose of the type III understanding is typical of Jesus' way of communicating the true teachings of God. It is a way of expressing truths that goes directly to the 'hearts' and souls of individual men and women. "Hence the happy tidings: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven', and 'fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom…The mood is one of mingled dread and jubilation."(p.65).


The similarity of this rather strange mix of 'mood, fear, anxiety and good news', with that to be found much later in the subjectivist approaches of the great Protestant Reformers (specifically, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher) is quite remarkable. The more so because of the fact that they all fall, together with Jesus, within the same, subjectivist paradigm of understanding in which Reason and metaphysical thought have no real place.


In contrast to the type IV approach of a Confucius: " His [Jesus'] purpose is not to improve the world, not to reform men and their institutions, but to show all those who hear and see him that the kingdom of God is at hand"(p65). On the other hand, the approach of Jesus is also clearly to be distinguished from the typical, 'scientific' (rationalist) profile of the type I thinker (of which Socrates, although no system builder as such, laid the foundation with his systematic method of inquiry). As Jaspers' indicate: " In telling men what to do, Jesus is not promulgating a self-sufficient system of ethics for the fulfillment of mankind in the structure and order of worldly existence. On the contrary, ethical precepts are justified only by the will of God…"(p66).


Jesus goes to the core by insisting on 'a mode of being', not 'outward action'. He constantly focuses his listeners' attention on the great choice that they have to make: " What is this one important thing? Each man is faced with the terrible alternative: to be accepted in the kingdom of heaven or rejected….'No man can serve two masters…Ye cannot serve God and mammon'. There is no in-between, no compromise…the essential is the obedience of man's whole heart and being"(p67).


In contrast to the concern with rational thought in types I and II: " Jesus speaks in concrete terms, expresses intelligible ideas, utters definite commandments…But all his direct statements are vehicles of a meaning which ultimately evades rational interpretation. Jesus shows little concern for logical consistency. He says, for example: 'He that is not with me is against me'. But: 'For he that is not against us is on our part' (p71).


His 'immanence' is also attested to by the following words: " This independence amid immersion in the world is the source of Jesus' wonderful serenity. On the one hand worldly things could no longer tempt him into finite absolutes…On the other hand, his own being was open to the world, his eye was alive to all realities, and particularly to the souls of men, the depth of their hearts…"(p78).


In summary, Jesus' mission was to prepare humanity for the Kingdom of God; for mankind to repent their sins, and to live according to the great commandments of the Word; not according to the best in human reasoning and 'planning' which was flawed in its root in any case. Trust only in God; 'have Faith'. What is important is 'giving' oneself to God; the love of God, and the relinquishment of sin and disobedience to God's Word.


2.4 Confucius : Type IV (Subjective - Transcendence)


The following profile of the Type IV historical figure is characteristic of subjectivist-transcendence ('Political ethics'):




· The conceptual (the 'Rules')


· Ideological-educational


· Concerned with society (communal)


· Salvation through serving the community faithfully


· Liberation from selfish conduct


· 'Ethical living'


· 'Right relationship'


· Obedience to custom and authority


· Educating people for right conduct in relation to others in society and to Rulers


Of the four 'paradigmatic individuals' considered here, Confucius undoubtedly belongs to the class (type IV) of social reformers. We are, for instance, made aware of Confucius' lifelong ambition for political mentorship as well as the fact that he actually held high political office for a while. " At the age of fifty one he returned to political life, became minister of justice and finally prime minister of Lu…from his fifty sixth to his sixty eighth year [he wandered about] in the hope that somewhere he would be enabled to put his political doctrine into practice. In all the years he never lost confidence in his calling as political mentor …of the Empire"(p42).


Whereas Buddha found the 'way' in transcendent mystical knowledge (type I); Socrates in rational thought (type II), and Jesus in pure faith in the sublime Creator (type III), Confucius found the 'way' in: "…knowledge of antiquity… His fundamental questions were: What is the old? How can we make it our own? The Jewish Prophets proclaimed God's revelation, Confucius the voice of antiquity…" (p42).


Above all, Confucius wanted to bring sanity to the warring and factional Chinese society of his time, by educating people on how to live right. For Confucius, as a confessed lover of tradition, this meant making the best in ancient Chinese " texts, documents, songs, oracles, codes of manners and customs"(p44) available again; as a 'living tradition' contained in a body of maxims and rules that could serve as guide for men and women in all the varied spheres of life in society.


He was much concerned with order and harmony in Chinese society, hence his view (dictum) that: "…a nation can only be guided by custom, not knowledge"(p45). Where a Socrates focused on the development of the mind (reason) and Jesus on saving souls; for Confucius it was the conviction that: "…only through the virtues of the community does the individual become a man…"(p45). In contrast to a Buddha, Confucius was not interested in metaphysical transcendence at all, but in: "…self-mastery, not asceticism" (p46).


Typical of the type IV orientation toward action, for Confucius: " The mere idea is as nothing. The root of human salvation lies in 'knowledge that influences reality'…(p51). An essential principle for Confucius is obedience to authority and 'knowing one's place'. The principle is beautifully worded, as follows: "The essence of the prince is the wind, the essence of the crowd is the grass. If the wind blows over it, the grass must incline" (p52).


Jaspers very succinctly captures the essence of Confucius' type IV approach in the following words: " He had [like Socrates] no fundamental religious experience, no revelation [as in the case of Jesus]; he achieved no inner rebirth, he was not a mystic. But neither was he a rationalist; in his thinking, rather, he was guided by the idea of an encompassing community, through which man becomes man."(p57).


In summary: Confucius, unlike Buddha and Jesus, was 'for the world'; an idealist reformer (type IV) for whom the love of social harmony was the main driving force in his life. A giving of oneself to well-mannered servitude: to superiors, subordinates parents, peers and family; and educating people in all these relations, were important to him. What had to be relinquished by people was self-centered, immoral conduct that went against the wishes of rulers and of social 'best practice'. The collective is primary, and more important than the individual.

3. Concluding remarks


Based on Jaspers' comparative philosophical analysis of the lives of Buddha, Socrates, Jesus and Confucius, an attempt was made to show how these historical figures are also different in more fundamental ways, as meta-paradigmatic exemplars. Although Jaspers quite significantly, it is believed, refers to the four men as 'paradigmatic individuals' he never went so far as to develop a distinctive meta-framework for purposes of comparison (a fact that is surmised to be indicative of his own [subjectivist] approach to human understanding, being the originator of the 'philosophy of existence').


It is hoped that the present paper provides an added perspective on the four great men. Jaspers' unique exposition nevertheless shows the similarities and differences of the four historical individuals in a manner eminently suitable for meta-paradigmatic analysis.


His concluding remarks reflect his keen awareness of basic 'paradigmatic' differences in the four men: " The transformation exacted by Socrates is a transformation in thinking [type II]; Buddha calls for meditation [type I] and the way of life that goes with it, Confucius for a process of education [type IV] that is more than mere learning, Jesus for a devotion to God's will [type III]"(p90).



1. Jaspers, Karl.(1962) Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus. New York: Harcourt Brace.


2. Pietersen, HJ. (2000) "Meta-paradigms in philosophical thought", The Examined Life, Vol. I, (4) [http://examinedlifejournal.com]

Edited by QueBeceR
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  • 13 years later...

The above book or article ~ by a atheist ~ grouping men ~ with Christ ~ to be talked about as if academic ~ is worse than insulting~ he could have instead put (his) the authors female ancestry together with cattle ~ and discuss their value ```

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