East vs West: Ideals of Political Leadership

As a third culture kid who grew up in Eastern and Western countries, I have always been fascinated by the differences and similarities between the East and the West with regards to politics and culture. So when I got the chance, I decided to compare and contrast the ideas of Confucius and Aristotle to determine whether their ideas of the ideal political leadership were similar or different.

The question that is central to the study of political leadership is “what makes a good leader?”. Proponents of cultural relativism have argued that the answer to the question depends on the context as norms vary across societies and cultures. A political leader is a person in a position of power who has the authority take actions that can impact the country and beyond; hence, it is important to understand what constitutes an ideal political leader. The similarities and differences between the ideas of Confucius and Aristotle are worth examining because they are two of the most influential thinkers from different corners of the world that have set the basis for political ideas. My argument is that despite having different logic or theory, Confucius and Aristotle arrived at similar conclusions about the qualities of the political leader and their relationship with the followers.

There are significant similarities between the two different schools of thought. Firstly, both philosophers agreed that there are only a few people that are qualified to be the leader of a polity and that the polity should be governed by the most qualified individual. They both recognized the significant impact individual leaders can have on the political system. They suggested that the ideal political leadership is rare. This implies that power would be concentrated in the hands of the few qualified individuals. Secondly, due to the concentration of power political leaders must be virtuous and they must act in the interest of the people rather than their own personal gain. Moreover, such individual does not simply lead the people but also inspire them to be virtuous. Both Confucius and Aristotle regard an exemplary leader as the ideal political leaders. Thirdly, Confucius and Aristotle value education. Confucius value education and self-reflection as a way improve oneself to become the superior man. Ordinary individuals can learn and practice the exercise of the virtues in their daily life but only those with willingness and persistence in becoming the leader can become the political leader. Aristotle also values education as the path to understanding the type of government that is appropriate for certain types of state. Lastly, they both agree that there needs to be some degree of prudence. For Aristotle, prudence is the most important quality of a political leader as they should have the capacity to determine what the common good is and achieve its goals. Although Confucius did not discuss extensively about prudence or practical wisdom, he did not completely ignore it. As mentioned earlier, Confucius believes that the implementation of the rule of law depends on the morality of the people who enforce it. The interpretation and adaption of laws are influenced by the individual leader. The rule of law needs the judgment of the political leader.

The difference between the ideals of political leadership of Confucius and Aristotle are the priority of values, the premise of the ideas, and the views towards the important institutions. The difference between ideas of Confucius and Aristotle is the difference of priority of virtues. There is no major difference between the virtues suggested by Confucius and Aristotle but the priority they give the different virtues. Confucius prioritize the virtues of humanity, righteousness, wisdom, truthfulness, and propriety. Aristotle priority the virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and prudence. Secondly, the logical path of the ideas is the result of different underlying ideas. Confucius believed that family is the basic unit of society and social relationship thus, the leader’s interaction with family members can be reflected in their political leadership. On the other hand, Aristotle suggested that humans are political animals and that the polity forms naturally from the need of humans to have a better life, the polity is expected to satisfy their needs. Lastly, the philosophers put different emphasis on the importance of political institutions. Aristotle greatly values the rule of law because he believes that humans are fallible and there needs to be a way to control such contingency. Thus, the ideal political leader is not only guided by these virtues but also the law during their time as the leader. Whereas Confucius argued that because humans are practitioners of law, those who lack virtue would corrupt the rule of law and the law become merely a tool for them to make personal gains. Overall, the difference between the ideal virtuous political leadership of Confucius and Aristotle are insignificant compared the similarities of virtues and guiding principles that both philosophers have offered.

Confucius and Aristotle agree that the ideal political leadership is one of which the leader is virtuous, without a virtuous leader, it is impossible for the polity to achieve its goals. Both philosophers did not explicitly explain the characteristics of an ideal leader but suggested the virtues that they should hold. They have suggested different sets of virtues. They both agree that having a good leader is essential for the polity, they value leadership over institutions. Aristotle believes that a prudence leader would effectively govern the polity and determine the laws and constitution that is appropriate for the polity. The quality of prudence distinguishes the statesman from the citizens. On the other hand, Confucius did not extensively discuss the importance of practical wisdom. The characteristic that distinguishes the political leader is his willingness and persistence to cultivate such values. However, Aristotle emphasized on the quality of prudence as being the most important quality. It would be fair to say, despite the different cultural context and implications under which the ideas of Confucius and Aristotle manifested, they both were able to conclude that the ideal leader is a virtuous leader.

Despite the similarities between the ideas of the ideal political leadership of Confucius and Aristotle it is still not possible to be conclusive about the implications. This is because Confucius does not provide a conclusive political theory or leadership theory that is based on a set of assumptions about human nature or state nature. There are clear external similarities between the ideas of the two philosophers, however, it is difficult to find fundamental similarities between the schools of thought. We can partially say that the outcome or the end goal of Confucius and Aristotle with regards to political leadership is largely the same despite the possible fundamental difference. Philosophers of very different cultures and political thought came to a similar conclusion about ideal leadership. It is possible to say that the ideas of the East and the West are not entirely incompatible. Like any other ancient texts, the teachings of Confucius and Aristotle are subjected to different interpretations and different usage. Thus to say that the ideas of the East and the West are incompatible would be an overstatement.


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