Great Minds Think Alike: Adam Smith & Confucius on Morality

theory of moral sentiments confucius analects

Hairuo Tan for AdamSmithWorks

Studying TMS and The Analects comparatively shows that Smith’s rendering of prudence and self-command is among the virtues of a junzi. Although Confucius would not consider a Smithian prudent man as a junzi, he would appreciate many of the properties that a Smithian prudent man possesses.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Confucius (551-479 BC), separated by the landmass of Eurasia and more than 2000 years, have surprisingly similar ideas about morality. If those two great philosophers were brought to have a conversation, they might be amazed to find the extent of commonalties in one another’s thoughts in Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter, TMS) and The Analects of Confucius (hereafter, The Analects). 

The Analects can be read as Confucius’s criteria for being a junzi. The man junzi, originally a man of power in governing a state, was redefined by Confucius as an ideal man within whom reside all virtues and moral perfection. Studying TMS and The Analects comparatively shows that Smith’s rendering of prudence and self-command is among the virtues of a junzi. Although Confucius would not consider a Smithian prudent man as a junzi, he would appreciate many of the properties that a Smithian prudent man possesses.

 A prudent man is an industrious learner; so is a junzi. Each is sincere to his capability and refuses to be a pretender or exaggerator. Each is more interested in building up his own knowledge than making everyone else aware of and admire his knowledge. 

“The prudent man always studies seriously and earnestly to understand whatever he professes to understand, and not merely to persuade other people that he understands” (TMS, p. 213.7)[1]

The first sentence in The Analects says that 

“To study and at due times practice what one has studied, is this not a pleasure?” (The Analects, 1.1)[2]

Confucius teaches his disciples on avoiding the love of praise and remind them that they should not be worried about how their ability was recognized by others, but should be concerned with whether they paid enough respect to others’ ability (The Analects, 1.16).

A prudent man keeps himself away from factions or cliques, and so does a junzi. If a prudent man is connected with little clubs or cabals, the connection must be forced by self-defense. Otherwise, a prudent man does not think of gaining favor from those small societies (TMS, 213-214.7). In The Analects, more than once Confucius said that a junzi should stay away from partisanship. 

“The junzi is inclusive and not a partisan” (The Analects, 14.2). 

“The junzi acts in harmony with others but does not seek to be like them” (The Analects, 13.23). 

“The junzi bears himself with dignity but does not contend; he joins with others, but does not become a partisan” (The Analects, 15.22).

As for sincerity, neither a prudent man nor a junzi goes to the extreme. They both see occasions where they have to be reserved. Although they do not intentionally tell a lie, they are aware that sometimes they have to keep parts of their thoughts to themselves, either for the purpose of safety or for fear of being too presumptuous. A prudent man is 

“not always frank and open… As he is cautious in his actions, so he is reserved in his speech; and never rashly or unnecessarily obtrudes his opinion concerning either things or persons. ” (TMS, 214.8) 

For Confucius, reservation in speech is more than a measure of expediency, but rather a virtue that a junzi must have. A junzi should not allow carelessness in his speech. Regarding things about which he is not confident, a junzi should remain silent. A junzi should be slow to speak but quick to act. Before giving his words, a junzi should evaluate whether his ability allows him to fulfill what he aims to say. And after his words are given, he needs to act accordingly.

Similarities are also found in Smith’s and Confucius’s thoughts on self-command. In Confucius’s discussion of commanding the desire for material goods, a parallel could be drawn between Smith’s paragraph on the poor man’s son. After devoting his life to the pursuit of the rich by serving those whom he hates and appealing to those whom he despises, the poor man’s son finds himself in a situation “in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it” (TMS, 181. 8). Smith considers that true happiness consists in tranquility: 

“Without tranquilly there can be no enjoyment; and where there is perfect tranquility there is scarce any thing which is not capable of amusing” (TMS, 149.30).
Confucius contended that one’s joy is not from his wealth or rank, but from something inside: 

“To eat coarse greens, drink water, and crook one’s elbow for a pillow – joy also lies therein” (The Analects, 7.16). 

Confucius once praised his disciple, Yan Hui, saying that 

“How worthy is Hui! A simple bowl of food and a dipperful of drink, living on a shabby lane – others could not bear the cares, yet Hui is unchanging in his joy. How worthy is Hui!” (The Analects, 6.11). 

The joyful Yan Hui living on minimal means to some extent corresponds to Smith’s philosopher-beggar, 

“who suns himself by the side of the highway [yet] possesses that security which kings are fighting for” (TMS, 185.10).

To study earnestly, to speak humbly, to act responsibly, and to control desires are lessons that Smith and Confucius hoped more of the people in the society could keep in mind. And one should never be content with managing one or a few of the virtues. Smith warned of the risk of bringing a virtue to its extreme: a person of perfect self-command can be hardened against all sense of justice or humanity (TMS, 153.37). Confucius held the similar idea, saying: 

“The Central Mean in conduct is where virtue reaches its pinnacle” (The Analects, 6.29).

[1] Citations of The Theory of Moral Sentiments are given by page number followed by paragraph number, based on the 7th edition published by Liberty Funds in 1982. 
[2] Citations of The Analects are given by the Book number followed by the paragraph number. Direct quotes of English translation of The Analects are cited from