The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael PuettThe Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett

The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life

byMichael Puett, Christine Gross-Loh

Paperback | February 7, 2017

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For the first time, an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how ancient ideas—like the fallacy of the authentic self—can guide you on the path to a good life today.

Why is a course on ancient Chinese philosophers one of the most popular at Harvard? Because it challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish.

Astonishing teachings emerged two thousand years ago through the work of a succession of Chinese scholars exploring how humans can improve themselves and their society. And what are these counterintuitive ideas? Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities. Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities.

In other words, The Path “opens the mind” (Huffington Post) and upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Its most radical idea is that there is no path to follow in the first place—just a journey we create anew at every moment by seeing and doing things differently. “With its…spirited, convincing vision, revolutionary new insights can be gleaned from this book on how to approach life’s multifarious situations with both heart and head” (Kirkus Reviews).

A note from the publisher: To read relevant passages from the original works of Chinese philosophy, see our ebook Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi: Selected Passages, available wherever books are sold.
Title:The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good LifeFormat:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 8 × 5 × 0.7 inPublished:February 7, 2017Publisher:Simon & SchusterLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1476777845

ISBN - 13:9781476777849

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Read from the Book

The Path 1 The Age of Complacency A certain vision of history has become conventional wisdom. Until the nineteenth century, human beings lived in what we call “traditional societies.” In these societies, they were always told what to do. They were born into a preexisting social structure that determined their lives: born peasants, they remained peasants; born aristocrats, they remained aristocrats. The family into which they were born determined how much money and power they had, and so the trajectories of their lives were set from the day of their birth. The story continues: in nineteenth-century Europe, people finally broke free of these constraints. For the first time, we realized that we are all individuals who can think rationally. We can make decisions for ourselves and take control of our lives. As rational creatures, we can create a world of unprecedented opportunity. With these realizations, the story says, the modern world was born. But if some of us broke away, other cultures were left behind—or so we believe. To many of us, classical China represents the ultimate traditional society in which people were required to follow rigidly defined social roles in order to live within a stratified, ordered world. Thus, it must be a world that has nothing to teach us. Of course, at times this reading of traditional societies in general and China in particular has been given a romanticized spin: We now are alienated from each other, but people in the traditional world saw themselves as living in harmony with the cosmos. We have broken from the natural world and seek to control and dominate it, but people in the traditional world tried to live in accordance with the patterns of nature. This sentimental view of a traditional world, too, has nothing to teach us. It simply turns these so-called traditional societies into something akin to nostalgia pieces. We can go to a museum and see an Egyptian mummy and think, How interesting. An ancient Chinese artifact? How quaint. Intriguing to look at, but we wouldn’t want to go back to that time—to the world they represent. We wouldn’t want to live there or take any lessons from these traditional worlds, because they weren’t modern. We are the ones who finally figured out things, not them. But as you are about to learn, many of our stereotypes about these “traditional” societies are wrong. And there is much we can learn from the past. The danger of our vision of history isn’t just that it has led us to dismiss much of human existence as irrelevant, but also that we think today’s predominant ideas are the only ones that encourage people to determine their own lives; therefore, today’s ideas are the only correct ones. The fact is that there has been a wide range of visions of how humans can lead lives of their own making. Once we recognize that, we can see the “modern” for what it actually is: one narrative out of many, built from a specific time and place. An entire world of thought thus becomes available to us—one that challenges some of our most cherished myths. Myth: We Live in an Age of Freedom Unlike Any Other Most of us think of ourselves as essentially free, in ways that our ancestors were not. After we in the West broke from the traditional world in the nineteenth century, we finally had the ability to decide for ourselves how to organize the world. We spent two centuries grappling with various competing ideologies: socialism, fascism, communism, and democratic capitalism. And once all but one of those ideas was largely discredited, we finally arrived at the “end of history.” With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, neoliberalism seemed to have won out as the one correct way of organizing the world—the one that best enables humans to flourish and prosper. But what do we make, then, of the unhappiness, narcissism, and anxiety surging in the developed world? We are told that hard work will lead to success, yet the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically, and social mobility is on the decline. Our lives are mediated by all kinds of fascinating and impressive devices, we have achieved unprecedented medical advances, yet we face environmental and humanitarian crises on a frightening scale. Several decades later, our great optimism has disappeared. We no longer feel as confident as we did in the way we have structured our world. So how much have we figured out? Will historians look back on this era as one of prosperity, equality, freedom, and happiness? Or will they instead define the early twenty-first century as an age of complacency: a time when people were unhappy and unfulfilled; when they witnessed growing crises but failed to respond, feeling there to be no viable alternatives? The Chinese philosophical texts described in this book offer alternatives to this Age of Complacency. But they are not coherent ideologies that would, for example, replace democracy. Rather, they are counterintuitive notions about the self and its place in the world. And many of them were actually developed in opposition to the idea of living according to any overarching system of thought. From roughly 600 to 200 BC, an explosion of philosophical and religious movements throughout Eurasia gave rise to a wide variety of visions for human flourishing. During this period, which has come to be called the Axial Age, many of the ideas that developed in Greece also emerged in China and vice versa. In fact, in China, as we will see, certain beliefs arose that were very similar to those common in the West today. But in China, such views lost the day, while other ideas emerged in opposition, arguing for a very different path to a good life. None of what we are looking at should be considered “Chinese” views as opposed to “Western” ones, any more than we are dealing with traditional ideas as opposed to modern ones. As we explore these concepts, we will see that not only have people been debating how best to organize the world since long before the modern era but also that there are true alternatives in thinking about how to live well. Myth: We Know How to Determine the Direction Our Lives Will Take When it comes to planning for happiness and prosperity in the West, we are taught to rely on our rational minds, confident that we can arrive at a solution by careful calculation. In the face of life’s uncertainty, we take comfort in the belief that by overcoming emotion and bias and reducing our experience to measurable data, we can master chance and defy fate. Consider our most popular approach to moral and ethical dilemmas: inventing a representative hypothetical situation and working through it rationally. In the famous trolley experiment, we’re told to imagine ourselves in a trolley yard, watching a runaway trolley coming down the tracks. We see it’s going to hit five people up on the tracks ahead. But if we pull a switch we can divert the trolley onto a different track, where one person is lying. Do we allow the trolley to plow into those five people, or do we pull the switch to save them—actively choosing to kill the single person lying there? What’s the right thing to do? This kind of question has occupied philosophers and ethicists for lifetimes. Countless essays—even a book or two—have been written on its implications. The scenario allows us to reduce decision making to a simple set of data and a single choice. Most of us think that’s how decisions get made. They tried these thought experiments in classical China, too. But our Chinese thinkers weren’t as intrigued. This is a fine intellectual game, they determined, but you can play these games all day long, and they will have no impact on how you live your ordinary everyday life. None whatsoever. The way we think we’re living our lives isn’t the way we live them. The way we think we make decisions isn’t how we make them. Even if you did find yourself in that trolley yard someday, about to see someone killed by an oncoming trolley, your response would have nothing to do with rational calculation. Our emotions and instincts take over in these situations, and they guide our less spontaneous decisions as well, even when we think we’re being very deliberate and rational: What should I have for dinner? Where should I live? Whom should I marry? Seeing the limitations of this approach, these Chinese philosophers went in search of alternatives. The answer, for them, lay in honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so that eventually—at moments both crucial and mundane—we would react in the right, ethical way to each particular situation. Through those responses, we elicit positive responses in those around us. These thinkers taught that in this way, every encounter and experience offers a chance to actively create a new and better world. Myth: The Truth of Who We Are Lies Within Us The breakdown of old aristocratic religious institutions left the people of the Axial Age in search of new sources of truth and meaning. Similarly, in our own age, we feel we have broken free of older, confining ways of thinking and are looking for new sources of meaning. Increasingly, we have been told to seek that higher truth within. The goal of a self-actualized person is now to find himself and to live his life “authentically,” according to an inner truth. The danger of this lies in believing that we will all know our “truth” when we see it, and then limiting our lives according to that truth. With all this investment in our self-definition, we risk building our future on a very narrow sense of who we are—what we see as our strengths and weaknesses, our likes and dislikes. Many Chinese thinkers might say that in doing this, we are looking at such a small part of who we are potentially. We’re taking a limited number of our emotional dispositions during a certain time and place and allowing those to define us forever. By thinking of human nature as monolithic, we instantly limit our potential. But many of the Chinese thinkers would argue that you are not and should not think of yourself as a single, unified being. Let’s say that you think of yourself as someone with a temper; someone who gets angry easily. The thinkers we are about to encounter would argue that you should not say, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” and embrace yourself for who you are. As we will see, perhaps you aren’t inherently an angry person. Perhaps you simply slipped into ruts—patterns of behavior—that you allowed to define who you thought you were. The truth is that you have just as much potential to be, say, gentle or forgiving as you do to be angry. These philosophers would urge us to recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time. Of course, this is no simple task. It requires us to change our mind-set about our own agency and about how real change happens. Nor is it a quick process: change comes incrementally, through perseverence. It comes from training ourselves to broaden our perspective so that we can grasp the complicated tangle of factors (the relationships we’re in, the company we keep, the jobs we hold, and other life circumstances) that shape any given situation and slowly transform our interactions with everything around us. This broad perspective enables us to behave in ways that gradually bring about true change. While we have been told that true freedom comes from discovering who we are at our core, that “discovery” is precisely what has trapped so many of us in the Age of Complacency. We are the ones standing in our own way. * * * Does this mean that we need, then, a radical new plan for how to live and how to organize the world? On the contrary, the philosophers we will explore often illustrated their ideas through mundane aspects of daily life, arguing that this is where great change occurs. Following their lead, we have included many quotidian examples in this book to bring their ideas to life. But these thinkers did not mean for these illustrations to be taken as prescriptive advice, and nor do we. Rather, they are meant to show that we already do many of these things; we just don’t do them well. As we rethink these aspects of our lives, we will understand how practical and doable the ideas really are. The title of this book comes from a concept the Chinese philosophers referred to often as the Dao, or the Way. The Way is not a harmonious “ideal” we must struggle to follow. Rather, the Way is the path that we forge continually through our choices, actions, and relationships. We create the Way anew every moment of our lives. There was no one unified vision of the Way with which all these philosophers would have agreed. Not only did they argue against the conventions of their own society, but also each offered a strikingly different vision of how exactly one creates this path. But they agreed that the very process of building it has endless potential to transform us and the world in which we live.

Editorial Reviews

"[The Path is] 1) a disrupting challenge to almost any rigid worldview and 2) a brief overview of Chinese philosophy. . . . The authors repeatedly point out that these philosophies are not just abstract 'big question' type approaches; they are intended for use and exploration thru the daily nitty-gritty of real life. . . . Though in some cases, you’ll have to go deeper into these 'paths' to figure out how, this book is a good place to start."