The Chronicle Review

Ancient Chinese Wisdom on Modern Western Dilemmas

"Wisdom" in Chinese
June 05, 2016

Do-gooders of all sorts ask, "What would Jesus do?" Supreme Court justices scratch their heads in the face of modern legal puzzles and wonder, "What would the Framers think?" Orthodox Jews muse over what a great medieval rabbi, a Rashi or Rambam, might have made of Snapchatting on the Sabbath.

Who, though, asks, "What would the great Chinese philosophers say?"

Until now, not a lot of folks in the West.


The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
By Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

(Simon & Schuster)

Scholars of Chinese philosophy, of course, zap one another over what Confucius, Mencius, and other ancient Chinese stalwarts ­really meant in regard to the provocative topics and vignettes they actually addressed: a toddler falling into a well, a butcher slicing meat, sons respecting fathers. And one assumes that ordinary Chinese throughout history, pondering whether to give a seat on the mule cart or the subway to an elderly person, have paid some mind to what their sages might advise.

But aside from idiosyncratic examples — the "What Would Confucius Do?" advice column that runs in the English-language That’s Beijing magazine, or feisty conversations among academic China hands about what Confucius would think of President Xi’s selective bearhugs of Confucian principles — asking contemporary guidance from the Chinese greats has not been a growth industry.

That makes The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, a welcome and unusual book. Its genesis rests in the enormous teaching success of Puett, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard. His freshman survey course on Chinese philosophy now ranks as the most popular humanities class on the campus, requiring the august venue of Sanders Theatre to accommodate its 700-plus regulars.

In 2013, The Atlantic published an article on the course by Gross-Loh. Trade publishers presumably sniffed the possibility that Puett, like that other philosophical strider of the Sanders stage, Michael Sandel, might present real breakout potential. (The Path is coming out in 26 countries.)

Puett comes paired with Gross-Loh herself, a freelance writer and Ph.D. from Harvard in East Asian history. Puett’s own previous books, among them To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Harvard University Press, 2002), and The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China (Stanford University Press, 2002) — both full of the scholarly brilliance and sophisticated sentences that got Puett where he is — possibly convinced all concerned that some yin-yang authorship was in order.

In their acknowledgments, the authors call the book "a true collaboration: the discussions of the philosophers were developed in Michael’s class, while Christine added in modern-day examples and wrote about the ideas of these thinkers for a contemporary audience."

The result? A remarkable combination of self-help guide and iconoclastic take on ancient Chinese wisdom. While the book urges one to set aside the Western inclination to analyze matters into crisp distinctions, it’s hard not to react to it in a binary way: first as a source book on living a wise life, and second as an interpretation of Chinese philosophy, even while the two agendas appear to influence each other.

Puett and Gross-Loh focus, for instance, on five ancient philosophers: Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi. Noticeably absent is Han Feizi, sometimes dubbed the "Chinese Machiavelli," a proponent of brutal punishment of any official who misbehaved even slightly. (He would not have been troubled by mass incarceration and might have beheaded President Obama for freeing minor drug offenders.) Was Han Feizi too downbeat for a book that sees ancient Chinese philosophy as almost wholly a fount of appealing approaches to life? The question inevitably occurs of whether the "Look here for the good life!" part of the project too much influences the assessment of the broader subject.

The book is a remarkable combination of self-help guide and iconoclastic take on ancient Chinese wisdom.
That said, the authors superbly succeed at highlighting ancient Chinese philosophy’s tools for achieving its vision of a flourishing life. They particularly startle with the radical argument that "ritual," widely recognized as crucial to Confucianism, and usually seen as a mark of its "rigid social hierarchy, strict gender roles, and … conservative emphasis on correct behavior," amounts to a form of liberating "as if" experimentation. One example is ancestor worship, which involves thinking of one’s forebears as present. Ritual can, the authors contend, break people out of narrow notions of the self and set them on a "transformative" personal "way," or "path," to a good life.

So, too, the authors explain, Chinese philosophers discard the "authentic," "single, unified" self that anchors so much of Western individualism. That eases the task of "cultivation," or creation of one’s character, that ancient Chinese philosophers largely embrace. The philosophers also mostly resist abstract, Kantian-style universal laws in ethics, ever sensitive to context and situation. And they mainly accept the importance of emotion and instinct in decision making, a matter on which Western thinkers, prodded by neuroscience, are finally catching up.

Yet, Puett and Gross-Loh make plain, ancient Chinese philosophers disagreed sharply on some issues, as Xunzi and Mencius did on the latter’s belief that human nature is basically good. Gross-Loh’s assigned task, well performed, connects ancient viewpoints to a score of real-world problems we face today, from choosing a college major to dealing with a difficult boss.

On the first day of "Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory" each year, according to Gross-Loh in her separately written foreword, Puett makes a bold promise to students: "If you take the ideas in these texts seriously, they will change your life."

Readers of The Path should not interpret that "if" in too exclusionary a sense. The authors themselves remark at one stage, in regard to a swatch of useful Chinese wisdom, that "all this is common sense." Their important point is that it’s more common among ancient Chinese thinkers than among 21st-century Westerners.

At the same time, the authors rightly stress that Westerners practice their own transformative rituals, from saying "I love you" to playing hide-and-seek with their kids. And it’s striking how much of the excellent Chinese wisdom Puett and Gross-Loh impart — recognition of the world as "fractured and fragmented," of concepts as often blurry, of knowledge and wisdom as best extracted from quotidian actions — enjoys equal backing from such rebels against the analytic Western tradition as the later Wittgenstein and American pragmatists like Peirce, James, and Dewey.

The authors want credit given where credit is due but also emphasize that, in the end, "none of what we are looking at should be considered ‘Chinese’ views as opposed to ‘Western’ ones." Good ideas should flourish everywhere.

Confucius famously declared in the Analects, "I transmit, but do not innovate." Puett and Gross-Loh deftly do both.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College and author of America the Philosophical (Knopf, 2012).