What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
Simon & Schuster, $24.99, 224 pages
There was a particularly stressful time in the poet Robert Lax’s life, when some of his Greek neighbors on the island of Kalymnos, thought, because of the Cyprus crisis, that he might be a CIA spy and occasionally threatened him. Lax, friend of abstract painter Ad Reinhardt and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, turned to Chinese philosophy. As his biographer, Michael McGregor writes in Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax:
One of the things that kept him grounded during this time was a book he would read from time to time for the rest of his life, The History of Chinese Philosophy by Wing-tsit Chan. He found Chinese philosophy to be particularly wise and practical, especially in the situation he was facing.
The students of Harvard University are, according to Christine Gross-Loh, a journalist with a PhD in East Asian history from Harvard and co-author of this book, also attracted to this wise practicality. Gross-Loh wrote an article in 2013 for The Atlantic about Michael Puett’s class in Chinese philosophy because it was the third most popular course on campus, after introductory economics and computer programming. Puett, professor of Chinese history, she writes, was able to enthrall a crowd of seven hundred students for “fifty minutes of pure talk” every class meeting.
Perhaps this is because, as the authors write,
We often associate philosophy with abstract, even unusable ideas. But the strength of the thinkers in this book lies in the fact that they often illustrated their teachings through concrete, ordinary aspects of daily life. They believed that it’s at that everyday level that larger change happens, and a fulfilling life begins.
I have to admit that, after the effusive blurbs on the back cover of the book—“The Path will not only change your life—it will change the way you see history and the world,” writes Gish Jen—the book, on first reading, disappointed me, disappointed yet intrigued. The writing, it seemed, was a bit bland, and the ideas didn’t change my life right away.
Expectations of instant change, though, are part of the mindset these Chinese philosophers would dispute. The marketing of the book, then, conflicts with its message. However, the message, despite the blurbs, sedate writing, and the desire for immediate gratification, somehow stuck; a week after I read it the first time, I returned to it with a sharpened pencil, underlined a lot of passages, and the writing did not bother me. The writing was clear but self-effacing, like Hotei pointing at the moon.
And the “moon,” or enlightenment, or “good life,” looks different from the vantage point of Chinese philosophy than from our contemporary view of life as an endeavor to fine ones true self. Puett and Gross-Loh contend that we live in “The Age of Complacency,” which promotes the following myths: 1) That “We Live in an Age of Freedom Unlike Any Other”; 2) That “We Know How to Determine the Direction Our Lives Will Take”; 3) That “The Truth of Who We Are Lies Within Us.”
Collectively, these sum up a sense that the West, through its casting off the shackles of irrational tradition, now knows best, that we can plan things, set goals, and achieve them. The short answer, for the authors, to these myths, is that they limit us to our own age and its ideas. They cause us to think we are using reason when we aren’t, leaving our emotional side underdeveloped and stiff. And finally, they confine us to one vision of the self, “human nature as monolithic.”
Taking us on an intellectual tour of Chinese philosophy—Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, The Inward Training, Zhuangzi, Xunzi—Puett and Gross-Loh focus on one theme for each of these philosophies: Confucius on relationships, Mencius on decisions, Laozi on influence, The Inward Training on vitality, Zhuangzi on spontaneity, and Xunzi on humanity. This, in itself, shows the difference between Western philosophy, which deals with being, truth, good and evil, and Chinese philosophy, which focuses on more down-to-earth qualities.
This is how the authors sum up their tour of Chinese philosophy:
In this fractured and fragmented world, it’s up to us to generate order. We are the ones who construct and give pattern to the world—not getting rid of the unwieldy human emotions, the messy stuff that is us, but by beginning right there. And we do this through daily self-cultivation: working through our rituals to improve the way we relate to those around us; cultivating energies in our bodies so that we can live with more vitality; training our hearts and minds to work through daily decisions in a powerfully different way; and resisting our tendency to cut ourselves off from experience, so that we become constantly receptive to new things.
According to The Path, Chinese philosophy teaches that change begins with everyday particulars. How do you greet your children and spouse when they or you come home? How do you change the angry atmosphere of a domestic quarrel? How do you handle a staff meeting when you’ve had a hard day? How do you handle a break-up or being fired? Do you think of your life as a plan to be realized or a field to be cultivated?
Whether one agrees with this notion of philosophy, it is another way of loving wisdom. The authors of The Path have done us a favor by reminding us of this, of pointing out the weaknesses of what they call the “master narrative” of western superiority to reveal another Way, one of humility and apparent weakness, as humble and weak as water, which carves channels through rock. As Laozi says, “The softest of all things/ Overrides the hardest of all things.”