Historically, Oriental and western philosophies developed in isolation from each other. The geographical and cultural distance between oriental and western civilization determined substantial differences between oriental and western philosophies. On the other hand, works of ancient Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, and some oriental philosophies, such as Taoism, do have some common ideas and concepts, although, regardless of some similarities, differences between oriental and western philosophies are distinctive. In this regard, it is possible to dwell upon the philosophy developed by Socrates and Taoism as two different philosophies, which respected the strife of individuals for the improvement of their life and self-perfection but still had quite different views, beliefs and concepts. In such a way, Taoism worshiped Toa as the first-cause of the universe and developed the philosophy, which worshiped Tao and promoted the self-perfection of individuals to meet Taoist ideals, whereas Socrates stood on the ground that individuals should seek for wisdom as the way of self-perfection, taking care of their souls to reach harmony and spiritual balance.
As the matter of fact, Socrates is one of the most influential philosophers of ancient Greece that defined, to a significant extent, the development of not only ancient philosophy but also the western philosophy at large. Socrates laid the foundation to basic principles of western philosophy, which were modified, changed and adapted by other philosophers. At the same time, his views were, in a way, universal because Socrates focused on the development of ideas, concepts and values which were universal and applicable to different cultures. Hence, Socrates’ philosophy persisted throughout times and places for centuries.
In such a context, it is important to dwell upon basic principles of Socrates’ philosophy and to compare them to fundamental principles of Taoist philosophy. First of all, Socrates stressed the importance of wisdom and knowledge. He insisted that people should learn the surrounding world, themselves and phenomena around them. He developed the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. At the same time, he remained very critical in regard to himself and his knowledge. On analyzing his knowledge he estimated “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing”. In such a way, Socrates stood on the ground that human mind can hardly become absolutely wise. In other words, Socrates had doubts that people could know everything. At this point, his views were close to Taoism, which respected Tao as the wisest deity, whose wisdom is not achievable for ordinary humans.
In such a context, it is worth mentioning the fact that Socrates insisted that wisdom should not be the ultimate goal of human life but what made the life purposeful was the search for wisdom, learning:
I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.
At the same time, Socrates argued that the most important task in life is caring for the soul: “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine”. Therefore, Socrates argued that people should take care of their souls and lead a virtuous life to be good and happy. Socrates places emphasis on the fact that people should work on their self-improvement and self-perfection to take care of their soul and to live a happy life.
At this point, another principle of Socrates is of the utmost importance. Socrates believed that a good person could not be harmed by other people. In this regard, the material well-being of a person was not important for Socrates since: “He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature”. Therefore, Socrates believed that it is through the virtuous life people could be happy and live in harmony with their self and with other people.
Principles of Taoism
In fact, fundamental principles of Taoism are, in a way, similar to that of Socrates, although Taoist principles are built up on the religious ground. To put it more precisely, Taoist believe that Tao is the first-cause of the universe:
“We believe in the formless and eternal Tao, and we recognize all personified deities as being mere human constructs. We reject hatred, intolerance, and unnecessary violence, and embrace harmony, love and learning, as we are taught by Nature. We place our trust and our lives in the Tao, that we may live in peace and balance with the Universe, both in this mortal life and beyond”.
In this regard, Taoist views are quite different from that of Socrates because Taoist viewed Tao as the Supreme Being, deity that rules the world and humans, whereas Socrates insisted on the power of human mind. Therefore, Socrates was more anthropocentric compared to Taoists who viewed Tao as the supreme deity.
At the same time, goals of human life and existence in Taoism were, in a way, similar to that of Socrates. Taoist stood on the ground that a believers’ goal was to harmonize themselves with Tao. This means that Taoist are supposed to seek for harmony and self-perfection to harmonize with Tao as Socrates suggested to seek for knowledge and self-perfection to take care of the soul.
At the same time, Socrates was apparently concerned with the spiritual life of people above all, whereas physical aspects of human existence were secondary to him. He insisted on the necessity to develop knowledge and wisdom of humans. In contrast, Taoism stressed the importance of health and vitality in contrast to Socrates’ soul. In such a way, Taoist believed that the happiness is impossible without health and vitality, whereas Socrates was more concerned with knowledge, wisdom and soul of people, instead of their physical body, health and vitality.
Nevertheless, Taoist developed believes which were close to Socrates’ philosophy. To put it more precisely, Taoist viewed the development of virtue as one’s chief task. What is meant here is the fact that Taoist should lead a virtuous lifestyle to reach the harmony with Toa. In contrast, sinful life lead to misfortunes and problems people could not cope with in their life.
Hence, Taoist developed the belief that people should plan in advance and consider carefully their actions before making them. In this regard, the belief of planning human actions is intertwined with Socrates emphasis on the importance of wisdom in human life. On the other hand, Taoist focus on the importance of actions’ planning were determined by the belief that actions tend to be reciprocated that means that good actions of an individual lead to good actions committed by other people in regard to the individual and, vice versa, bad actions provoke misfortunes and bad actions committed in regard to the individual.
Similarity between Taoism and Socrates
Socrates and Toaism still have some similarities. For instance, both Socrates and Taoism believed that a person with great wisdom can still be uninformed “And to act on that ignorance under the pretense that it is knowledge, both held, is folly that leads not to progress and betterment within the individual and society but to the opposite effect” (Moore & Bruder, 2005, p. 503). Therefore, wisdom is not achievable but worth striving for, while, in case of Socrates, striving for wisdom makes the life of people purposeful.
At the same time, both Socrates and Taoism stressed the importance of the virtuous life. Socrates insisted on the virtuous life as a part of caring for the soul, whereas Taoist viewed virtuous life as a way to reach harmony with Tao. In such a way, both philosophies viewed virtuous life as essential because without virtuous lifestyle people could not be happy in their life. At this point, the virtuous life is one of the fundamental concepts of both philosophies. On the other hand, it is worth mentioning the fact that the ways of the achievement of the virtuous life and happiness differed in Socrates’ and Taoist philosophy. To put it more precisely, Socrates believed in wisdom and knowledge as the main tool with the help of which people could become virtuous, whereas Taoist believed that it was through worshipping of Tao and respecting principles of Taoism people can be virtuous and, therefore, happy.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is important to place emphasis on the fact that Socrates and Taoism developed philosophies, which had both similarities and differences. At first glance, Socrates’ philosophy and Taoism are absolutely different, especially in regard to the role of religious beliefs in the life of people. On the one hand, Socrates viewed knowledge and wisdom as issues worth living of and without which human life is pointless. On the other hand, Taoism viewed worshipping of Tao and living according to principles of Taoism as the only way of life for true Taoists. In such a situation, it is quite noteworthy that Socrates and Taoists developed views, which were, to a certain extent, similar. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the fact that both Socrates and Taoism viewed virtuous life as essential concepts for the happiness of people. At the same time, both Socrates and Taoism agreed that people, in spite of their efforts to learn and strife for knowledge, cannot always be wise and wise people can be uninformed.