The Path

I recently read The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything, by Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. I’d seen a fair bit of chatter about it, all of it positive, and I’d seen it in the shops and hemmed and hawed and finally got around to reading it.

The application of classical Chinese thought to modern, Western (more specifically American, but certainly not exclusively so, as can sometimes happen) makes the word “new” in the subtitle fair enough.

I liked how in Chapter 1: The Age of Complacency the authors set about breaking certain modern myths, views of the world and our own complacent assumptions of modernness versus tradition. On page 7:

The fact is 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.

Or of who we are and what “self” is and how “self” can be found. Page 11:

The goal of a self-acutalized 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.

And they deal with other myths, but those are two that leap out at me.

I also appreciated how Chapter 2: The Age of Philosophy draws out the commonalities in the ancient civilisations of wider Eurasia during the Axial Age, the common challenges faced by those civilisations, and how various ancient thinkers in those various cilisations responded to those challenges, thence how the religious and philosophical traditions of those civilisations developed in their different ways. I find too many discussions of different cultures and traditions place an awful lot of emphasis on difference, and it was nice to see, for once, authors looking deeper in to the common, which is a good way of both seeing how the difference arose while still keeping a sound base in the common.

I went into Chapter 3: On Relationships: Confucius and As-If Rituals with a perhaps slightly unhealthy level of scepticism, but I really appreciated the depiction of ritual-as-playacting-with-real-world-benefits. Ritual-as-role-play-that-helps-rebalance-relationships. And considering my only grudging appreciation of Confucianism, my tendency to view Confucucius as the kneejerk-reactionary-conservative, Family First of Warring States China, I really appreciated what for me was a fresh look at Confucianism as actually a more liberal, even progressive system. Confucianism still has its problems, and my respect for it is still only grudging, but it is always good to look at things from a fresh angle, and I like to hope that my understanding of Confucianism is now a touch more nuanced thanks to this book.

The rest of the book I found to be a bit too much of a beginner’s introduction to classical Chinese thought for my own tastes, but although my own understanding of the subject is very limited, I very much doubt I’m in the target market. As a basic introduction to classical Chinese philosophy for a Western, Anglophone audience, being so grounded in modern Western life yet while casting all the way back to the common challenges faced by ancient peoples across Eurasia, thereby basing itself soundly in the commonality of human experience, it works. It works well.

My only real quibble with this book is the lack of “chapter and verse” references for the quotations from the Chinese classics – it would be nice to be able to check the originals quickly and easily myself (and “chapter and verse” references would be even more necessary for somebody in the “not yet familiar with Chinese philosophy” target market), look through the wider context of each quotation, or compare the various translations.

But would I recommend this book to somebody with (near-) zero prior knowledge of Chinese philosophy wanting to find out how Confucius and Laozi and so on were and what they were all about? Absolutely yes.

sedition and dissension

An exchange of comments over at Public Address got me thinking (or thunking, at least) specifically the exchange that culminates here:

He was charged with sedition rather than threatening personal violence.

Helen Clark was Prime Minster, not a private citizen.

So, in protest at the Foreshore and Seabed legislation, somebody through an axe through Helen Clark’s office window, and was then charged with sedition.

I typed up my own comment, then something went wonky and it vanished into the ether, but that’s ok, because it was only tangentially relevant to the discussion at hand, but it’s annoying because I typed all that stuff out only for it to vanish, and it’s stuff that I find at least tangentially relevant to a lot of things happening in the world right now, both historically and currently (and if that doesn’t make much temporal sense, don’t worry, it shouldn’t). So here goes again:

  1. Violence is rarely necessary and even less often justified. This is especially true in a place like New Zealand. Having said that, throwing an axe through somebody’s window is vastly more violent than chopping down a flagpole or a prominently-planted tree or shooting or burning a flag. In other words, I don’t have much of a problem with symbolic violence that is part of a ritual discourse – or, if it’s ok for the All Blacks to perform a haka before a rugby game on the implicit understanding that they will do no more violence to their opposition than is allowed within the rules and customs of rugby, then it is ok for people to destroy political symbols on the implicit understanding that they will do no actual violence to their political opponents. So go ahead and chop down that flagpole or tree, just make sure you’re following the proper health and safety protocols so that it doesn’t fall on anybody. But putting an axe through somebody’s window? No, that is a step too far, that is threatening actual violence.
  2. Let’s be clear: Under Helen Clark, the New Zealand state did do actual violence towards marginal groups in New Zealand society. The state has done violence under all governments, and continues to do so. Much of that violence is a necessary part of ensuring the fairest deal for the largest number of people possible under the laws and customs of the day – Police arresting criminals is inherently violent, but good because allowing criminals to go free results in greater violence and a less fair society – but sometimes the violence is unnecessary and unjustified. Ideally, the state, its leaders, and its agents would be held accountable for that unnecessary, unjustified violence. The prime minister labelling people “haters and wreckers” because they express their belief that legislation her government is passing confiscates their land and restricts their right to seek redress through the courst was unnecessary and unjustified violence because she was speaking from a position of power to the powerless and she could’ve easily chosen to first listen to then negotiate with those people before passing legislation that all parties agreed was a fair compromise.
  3. I strongly dislike that there is, or at least has been, a crime called sedition. That strikes me as being the kind of law that is easily abused towards political ends, the kind of law that governments use to put their political opponents safely in jail, the kind of law whose threat is used to silence dissent and enforce adherence to the party line.
  4. Further down that sedition tangent, here’s a bit from our national anthem that I have always disliked:

    From dissension, envy, hate

    And corruption guard our State,

    Envy, hate and corruption are definitely bad, I will not quibble with that. But let’s play “one of these things is not like the other”…. Dissension? What’s wrong with that? If anything, we need more dissension, more of the free and vigorous contest of ideas. If anything, we need a lot less of middle class Pakeha telling marginalised groups to shut up and get in behind. And guard our State, because that is what’s most important, isn’t it? Not the nation, not the people, they should all just meekly get back into their place. It’s all about the State. Nope, that’s completely backwards. The State should be serving the people, the State should be protecting the people, so far as is practically possible, from itself.

  5. As for Helen Clark’s candidacy for UN Secretary General, well… I was in China for most of her reign as prime minister. My view-from-eleven-thousand-kilometres memory of her prime ministership is that although, yes, many good things were done on her watch, plenty of bad things were done, too. And I recall reading of a mysterious H2 and a  lot of control freakery. And I remember thinking during their third term in office that Clark and Cullen and the other old guard should probably start shuffling towards the exits and bringing fresh talent up through the ranks if they want a fourth term in government, or even just to ensure their party is well set-up for the future, but that didn’t seem to happen. As the John Key years have progressed I have become less and less comfortable with how many on the left seem to be almost deifying Clark. I don’t think she was a bad prime minister, I just don’t remember her being so great as to justify all the adulation. And now the hype surrounding her candidacy for Secretary General seems to be taking on similar tones to the build up to a rugby world cup, with a similarly sinister expectation that we all support what has been deemed the National Cause, and those whose responses are insufficiently enthusiastic are a bit suspect and not quite Kiwi enough.
  6. Having ranted point 5, I must say it was good to see #kiwitreason break out on Twitter.

That’s enough incoherent ranting for now.

仁,ren, or its modern lack

We’re a friendly bunch, a warm, welcoming nation, we like to tell ourselves. We take care of each other. So we say.

“New Zealanders are very friendly, but very difficult to make friends with”, immigrants from Europe told me around about the time I was graduating from university. I didn’t quite know what to make of what they were saying – it seemed to make sense, seemed to have a certain ring of truth to it, but… …a decade and a half and a bit later I return to New Zealand, and now I get it.

And yet I’m not convinced New Zealanders are all that friendly, really. Anymore. Not unfriendly, not haughty or arrogant or disdainful.



But not all New Zealanders, of course. Even so, I have been surprised by how cold, distant and uncaring this society has become.

Become? Or…

I don’t recall seeing beggars on the street when I was a child. I remember a time, as the Rogernomic revolution was just starting to bite, when my parents where able to go to the home of each individual family requesting a food parcel and see what they had and what, precisely, they needed. In my early twenties, before heading off to China, I did come across one or two on the streets of Wellington whose behaviour could’ve been classed as begging. Late last year I walked the length of Lambton Quay on a weekday lunchtime and counted half a dozen beggars. Observing the behaviour of everybody else on the street, it is clear that this has become normal, perhaps even accepted. And now we have the housing crisis at a point where the media has noticed the sheer number of homeless people, families living in cars, and a marae opening its doors to the homeless, but being overwhelmed and calling for help.

And where is the government in all this? Surely it’s the government’s role to ensure all people have all they need to function in society? Shouldn’t that include ensuring all people have healthy, warm, dry accomodation? Nothing fancy of course, but at least a basic roof over their heads and four weather-tight walls to fend off the winter chill?

And it is heartening to see so many, civil society groups and individuals, step up to help those in such desperate need, but doesn’t a society get the government it deserves? Could it be that for all that so many civil society groups and individuals are doing to help the situation, this society as a whole is now so desperately lacking in something, and this lack has allowed this situation to develop? In a democracy, is it enough or acceptable to just blame the government? After all, we, the people, put those politicians in parliament.

仁, rén.

A simple, little concept, really. Usually translated as ‘benevolence‘ or ‘humanity‘, which you will see if you scroll down that linked page just a short way. And yes, I am skating just a little bit too close to the etymological fallacy in linking to Etymonline for those two words, but in these two cases I think the etymology does demonstrate reasonable well what I’m getting at here.

But 仁, rén is a concept lifted from Classical Chinese philosophy, specifically what we know as Confucianism, though in this case Confucius may have been somewhat truthful in claiming not to be an innovator, merely a transmitter of ancient truths.

So, a little help from Zhang Dainian*. In Chapter 39. Benevolence and Justice, Ren-Yi,仁義, page 286, he writes:

[……]but Confucius was not the first to use the term. Several examples from Zuo’s Commentary may be cited to show that benevolence was already seen as a moral principle. The grand minister of Jin, Jiu Ji, said,

I have heard: to go out of the door as a guest and to undertake affairs as if one were performing a sacrifice is the norm of benevolence. (Zuo’s Commentary 5, Xi 33, p. 223)


The Commentary also includes a judgement by Confucius of King Ling of Chu:

Zhong Ni [Confucius] said, “It is contained in an ancient book that to subdue self and return to propriety is benevolence. True is the saying and excellent.” (Zuo’s Commentary 10, Zhao 12, p. 638)

Zhang then quotes (p. 287) the Analects 6, Yong Ye to show Confucius’ definition of benevolence. Zhang has the relevant passage as #28, though on ctext it’s #30:

Zi Gong said, “Suppose the case of a man extensively conferring benefits on the people, and able to assist all, what would you say of him? Might he be called perfectly virtuous?” The Master said, “Why speak only of virtue in connection with him? Must he not have the qualities of a sage? Even Yao and Shun were still solicitous about this. Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others. To be able to judge of others by what is nigh in ourselves – this may be called the art of virtue.”

My emphasis added. Then to show what being established means, Zhang quotes (p. 288) the Analects 20: Yao Yue:


The Master said, “Without recognizing the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man. Without an acquaintance with the rules of Propriety, it is impossible for the character to be established. Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.”

Again, my emphasis added.

On pages 290 and 291 Zhang has a few more quotations from the Analects on the subject of Benevolence as a summary. Here’s my selection, with my own emphasis added:

Analects 12, Yan Yuan, #2:


Zhong Gong asked about perfect virtue. The Master said, “It is, when you go abroad, to behave to every one as if you were receiving a great guest; to employ the people as if you were assisting at a great sacrifice; not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself; to have no murmuring against you in the country, and none in the family.” Zhong Gong said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson.”

Note: The “perfect virtue” in the above quoatation is 仁, benevolence.

Analects 15, Duke Ling of Wei #24 [Note: Zhang has this as #23 and translates 恕 as’empathy’; ctext has this as #24 and translates 恕 as ‘reciprocity’. I’m running with the ctext version for convenience’s sake]:


Zi Gong asked, saying, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

It is worth noting that this law of reciprocity, the Golden Rule, is about as close to a universal value as you’re going to find.

So, to sum up, according to Confucius:

  1. To establish yourself, you must establish others. To enlarge yourself, you must enlarge others.
  2. Knowledge of the rules of propriety is necessary for character to be established.
  3. Benevolence means, among other things, following the Golden Rule.
  4. The Golden Rule, or reciprocity, or treating others the same way you expect to be treated, is the rule you should order your life by.

But what does this have to do with modern New Zealand?

Here we are in a society in which families are living in cars and children are dying from easily preventable diseases because the only homes their parents can afford are cold, damp and mouldy. There are beggars on the streets in a land of plenty. And yes, there are people and organisations who step up to help, but…

…crowd-funded ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, much?

And in any case, wouldn’t prevention be better? And if it’s too late for prevention, how’s about repairing the fence at the top of the cliff so as to minimise the number of people who fall over it?

Now, we can blame the government all we like – and if we’re going to be fair, we have to admit that governments of all stripes for the last 32 years have been pushing the policies that have enabled this situation to develop. But this is a democratic state. Governments are elected. When we cast our votes, are we voting for parties we honestly believe will benefit all the people of our country? Or are we voting only for the party we believe will be best for our own immediate self-interest? Are we voting with benevolence and reciprocity in mind?

It would seem to me that for all the benevolence that has been shown in societal responses to the current housing crisis, short-term self-interest remains the dominant driving force in this society, as it has been since the 1980s. And if that is the case, how can we expect to have a healthily-functioning society? How can we expect anything other than growing poverty and deprivation?

We need some more 仁, we need to bring benevolence back.


*Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, trans. Edmund Ryden, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2002.


With some older blogs that this would’ve been more appropriate to disappearing into the ether, unconnectable, I think I’ll just post this here.

It never ceases to amaze me how incredibly modified our landscape is. It’s not just the obvious stuff, like deforestation, non-native species, the laying of roads and powerlines and building of houses and other infrastructure…



You get out of the car and walk the land and observe and you see there is so much more going on.

This corner of Wellington is naturally a web of narrow, steep, forested gullies that drain into the Porirua Stream. The forests are long gone, but even the gullies and streams are disappearing, slowly. A stream rises and, before you know it, it’s disappeared under a road.


It passes under the road and a tennis club then gets a stretch more fresh air and sunlight.


Then it vanishes under a shopping centre and another road, to reappear behind an earthen dam.



A dam which is there, of course, to help protect the good folks downstream from flooding.


(Because of course we should be modifying our environment to suit our desires rather than modifying our behaviour to suit our environment)

I guess it was having grown up in New Zealand then moved to China for a decade and a half then moved back. I’d certainly grown used to the heavily-modified nature of China’s environment. I think that while always having been aware that New Zealand’s environment fell far short of the “100% pure” hype, I’d managed to take it for granted, somehow running on the assumption that despite the deforestation, non-native species (many of which have run amok), stop banks along the Hutt River, and the odd bit of filled-in or reclaimed land around the harbour, that the landscape itself was in a fairly natural state.


Now I see that is most definitely not the case.


waiting for the miracle

1: I remember an old joke that did the rounds in the late ’80s:

There was a big flood and a dude was stuck on the roof of his house. A guy came along in a row boat and called out to the dude to jump in. “No, I’m ok, my God will save me!” the dude called back. The water crept higher. A while later another guy came along in a motor boat and called out, “Hey, dude, the water’s getting higher, jump in my boat and I’ll take you to safety!” “No, thanks, I’m ok, my God will save me!” the dude called back. The water crept higher still and the dude was having to tread water when a helicopter flew by, spotted him, and dropped a rope. But the dude refused again, “I’m ok, my God will save me!” The dude drowned, and when he got to Heaven, he went up to God and said, “I waited and waited. Why didn’t you save me?”

“What are you talking about?” God replied, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

2: About the same time I remember a lot of people saying that science is the process of discovering God’s creation.

3: Three quotations from God’s Philosophers, by James Hannam*, which I have been reading recently:

Some extremists advocated ignoring Greek philosophy altogether and insisted that everything that you needed to know was in the Bible. St Augustine of Hippo disagreed. He wrote:

Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were, from owners who have no right to them. (Augustine of Hippo (trans. Roger Green), De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) p. 125 [II:144])

page 88


Echoing St Augustine and St Anselm, the Church believed that reason illuminated faith and you could not have one without the other.



Back in the fourth century, St Augustine of Hippo had wrestled with the matter of what to do when the Bible and science said different things in his commentary on the book of Genesis. Genesis clearly conflicted with the best available Greek science of the time. Augustine was worried that Christians who read their Bible too literally risked making their religion look ridiculous. In his commentary he wrote:

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens and other elements of this world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and relative positions … Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, talking nonsense on these topics, and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. (Ernan McMullin, ‘Galileo’s Theological Venture’, in The Church and Galileo, ed. Ernan McMullin (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 98)

Augustine’s solution was to set out the circumstances when the Bible should be read in a figurative rather than a literal sense.

pages 314 – 315

4: The above three points are linked. Somehow. Allow me to try and explain. Somehow

Recently I have seen people promoting the “young Earth”, “6-day creationist” view of the origin of the universe. This is in direct opposition to the Theory of Evolution. Unfortunately, they have had nothing new to add to my understanding of the world. Unfortunately, they have only rehashed the same tired, old arguments. Unfortunately, the arguments presented have been fundamentally dishonest. Even more unfortunately, the tactics they have used have been highly manipulative, even bullying.

One common tactic has been to start with a question like “Do you believe in Genesis?” or “Do you believe in the Bible?” and to then go and set up a false dichotomy in which your options are to either agree with their particular interpretation of scripture or burn in Hell. Forget two thousand years of Church history and Christian scholarship, philosophy and science, forget the full diversity of Christian experience, your options are either this one particular interpretation of scripture or eternal damnation.

One of them quoted from Hosea, I believe Hosea 4:6a:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;

Well, I remember the quotation being “dying” rather than “destroyed”, but the Bible wasn’t written in Modern English, so different translations use different words… and looking at it now, the quotation does seem to be taken just a teensy bit out of context, and would seem to be arguing more the opposite of what they wanted to say…

“Mmmhmm”, I thought, “I wonder can you tell me why? Can you give me an honest answer why they might be dying or destroyed for lack of knowledge?”

It seems to me that that old joke about the dude on the roof of his house waiting for God to rescue him from the flood is just as true today as it was back then. So many Christians, especially, it seems to me, those of an evangelical persuasion, seem to be sitting around expecting God to swoop in any minute now all miraculous like the miracles they read of in the Bible, when the miracle they need is sitting right in front of them, resolutely ignored.

They’ll tell you that we are made in God’s image. They’ll tell you that God is omnipotent. But then they’ll tell you that God’s actions only fit into a very specific, tightly defined box. God does only this, but not that.

The two boats and the helicopter from that old joke are the knowledge that modern science brings us. It is by no means perfect knowledge – and that is the beauty of science, that it is imperfect and constantly being updated as we learn more. And it is the best tool we have for figuring out how this world works, and it is sitting right there in front of us ready for us to use. But so many Christians, especially those of an evangelical persuasion, reject it – or at least, those parts of it that make them feel uncomfortable – because it doesn’t fit the very tightly defined box of possibilities they allow for God. And so I wonder: Do they worship an omnipotent God in whose image we were created? Or do they worship a weak, limited god created in the image of their own fears and insecurities?

If we are made in God’s image, then surely we’re nothing more than God’s shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave? Pale, fuzzily-defined images that only hint at the Ideal that cast them?

If God is omnipotent, then surely he is not limited by our petty fears and insecurities, lack of imagination, or weak faith?

Surely St Augustine had a very good point – large parts of the Bible aren’t to be taken as literally true because they represent God explaining things to people of a particular time and place in terms that they could understand? After all, if God had sat down with Moses on the top of Mt Sinai and tried to explain to Moses the Theory of Evolution, or General Relativity, or Quantum Mechanics, or even something as (seemingly) simple and quotidian as gravity, how would Moses have reacted? Likely run down the mountain laughing his little head off at the obvious insanity of such ideas…. Moses could not possibly have had the educational or cultural background to even begin to comprehend such ideas (and fair’s fair, most modern people don’t either, despite the wealth of resources we have at our disposal). Surely large parts of the Bible, as St Augustine argued, are eternal truths presented in figurative or metaphorical forms – truths presented in terms the audience can comprehend. Kind of like the parables that Jesus told.

So if, as so many people were saying 20 or 30 years ago, science is the process of discovering God’s creation; and if God is omnipotent, and therefore capable of doing anything he wants; and if science shows us that the universe is actually billions of years old, multiple gazillions of light years across, and that Evolution is the particular process by which God created the species we currently know about and the myriad species that have gone extinct before we knew them, then what’s the big deal?

Shouldn’t we put the knowledge sitting right in front of us to the best use we can? Or should we continue to sit here rejecting that knowledge and demanding that God swoop in all deus ex machina-style because that is the role we have assigned to him?

What do we have to fear?

To have come back to New Zealand after all these years away and see that so little has changed is so very


But to come back to New Zealand and watch as people try to manipulate and bully others into submitting to only one very particular dogma, to see them deny the full diversity of Christian experience, to see them openly reject knowledge and work so hard to keep others bound in ignorance, that is


My people are dying for a lack of knowledge… because they are manipulated and bullied into submission to ignorance.

*God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science; James Hannam; Icon Books; London; 2009.