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.