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

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**International Bestseller**

For the first time an award-winning Harvard professor shares his wildly popular course on classical Chinese philosophy, showing you how these ancient ideas 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?

It’s because the course challenges all our modern assumptions about what it takes to flourish. This is why Professor Michael Puett says to his students, “The encounter with these ideas will change your life.” As one of them told his collaborator, author Christine Gross-Loh, “You can open yourself up to possibilities you never imagined were even possible.”

These 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? Good relationships come not from being sincere and authentic, but from the rituals we perform within them. Influence comes not from wielding power but from holding back. Excellence comes from what we choose to do, not our natural abilities. A good life emerges not from planning it out, but through training ourselves to respond well to small moments. Transformation comes not from looking within for a true self, but from creating conditions that produce new possibilities.

In other words, The Path upends everything we are told about how to lead a good life. Above all, unlike most books on the subject, 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.

Sometimes voices from the past can offer possibilities for thinking afresh about the future.

A note from the publisher:
To read relevant passages from the original works of Chinese philosophy, see our free ebook Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi: Selected Passages, available on Kindle, Nook, and the iBook Store and at Books.SimonandSchuster.com.

224 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2016

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Michael Puett

21 books96 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 443 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
April 24, 2020
Good News From the East

The Path, like the Harvard lectures on which it is based, is exceptionally popular for a book of its kind - on the face of it an esoteric philosophy which doesn’t offer self-help so much as the re-definition of what constitutes self. I suspect, however, that the reason for its appeal is not its ‘doctrines,’ of which it has none, but its offer of a sort of religion which has been lost in the West for almost two millennia. The Path outlines a religion of ethical and ritual habit rather than a religion of faith and belief. The loss of this sort of religion has been so total that many are likely to perceive its suggestions - for this is what they are - as no religion at all.

Religions of faith - notably Christianity and Islam - are relative exceptions in the theological world (see https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). The distinguishing characteristic of these religions - separating them from the Judaism from which they derive, and from the religions they like to term pagan, including not just the state religion of the Roman and Greek empires but the other world religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, etc. - is the idea of doctrinal belief. All other religions except Christianity and Islam articulate what they conceive as correct behaviour rather than correct belief; which actions are necessary for a fulfilling, satisfying and meaningful life, not which thoughts or words of attestation are necessary for salvation.

The introduction to The Path sums up its message succinctly: “you can wield that power of habit, or ‘ritual,’ to achieve things that you never thought were possible, given who you thought you are.” Such an idea is heretical in Christianity; it smacks of Pelagianism, the idea that human beings have some responsibility for, and ability to affect, their own spiritual state without the need for externally supplied ‘grace’ and the system of intellectual beliefs which is purported to be its source. Augustine of Hippo bitterly fought against such a view in the 4th century and embedded it in one form or another in every Christian sect - Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal. The logical consequence of his doctrine is the rather dismal idea of pre-destination and the overwhelming imperative to obey ecclesiastical authority.

For members of the religions of faith, faith justifies. It justifies not merely the sinful human being who is judged by God, but it also justifies any behaviour thought necessary by ecclesiastical authority to protect what it deems the tenets of faith. This principle is so inculturated among adherents of faith-based religions that they can barely conceive of a religion without either doctrine or the authority to enforce it. The fact that the perennial Chinese wisdom summarised in The Path is neither dogmatic nor authoritarian, but suggestive and experimental, comes as a pleasing surprise. I think it also helps in its popularity that while this wisdom is social in terms of both its ethical norms and their interpretation, it is not tribal in the mode of requiring attestation to or in a group.

The concept of what might be called ‘ethical habit’ is not new in the West. It was an area of well-developed thought in ancient Greek and Roman civilisation. Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoic philosophers, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius were all advocates of so-called virtue ethics. Christianity and its Pauline insistence on faith as the only necessary virtue, however, more or less crushed any real discussion of this ‘pagan’ practice. Thomas Aquinas had some positive things to say about virtue ethics in the 13th century, but nothing that would compromise the pre-eminence of faith as the only necessary condition for the good life.

Interestingly, it is mainly Catholic moral philosophers of the 20th century who have revived interest in virtue ethics. Elizabeth Anscombe established her reputation on the defense of virtue ethics in 1958. Since then a number of moral philosophers have followed suit - Alasdair MacIntyre, Philippa Foot, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others. Collectively they have taken what has become know as the ‘areatic’ turn (from the Greek for virtue) in moral philosophy, that is, a turn precisely in the direction suggested by Chinese thought and Michael Puett.

Nonetheless, this areatic turn has had nothing like the impact that Puett’s course, or his book, has had on the spiritual imagination, especially among the young. Puett is not peddling some new version of peace and love hippiedom among his Harvard students. This is serious stuff; and it is being taken seriously. And I suspect the reason for its relative acceptance compared with modern virtue ethics is precisely because it is free from the dogmatic requirements for faith that are implicit in the Western versions.

Virtue ethics, when taken seriously, is a contradiction to Christianity (and I suspect in Islam for the same reason). If faith saves then virtue either follows or it is irrelevant. If faith is not necessary for the practice of virtue (and it demonstrably isn’t) then faith itself seems fatally compromised. What Chinese wisdom and Puett provide is a virtue ethics, a way of living one’s life, without the baggage of faith and its spiritual as well as intellectual non-sequiturs. This kind of responsible freedom hasn’t been available for public debate for some considerable time. This alone makes Puett’s thoughts important. They also happen to be very interesting.

Postscript: For more on doctrinal religions and their consequences, see: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Profile Image for Rebecca.
308 reviews123 followers
May 11, 2016
The Path deals with two subjects I’m very interested in, Chinese history / philosophy and questioning how we should live, but sadly it left me distinctly uninspired.The arguments and advice do not work coherently throughout the book - I think it would have worked better to consider fewer philosophers but in more depth as the analysis of different schools of thought seemed pretty glancing. At times Chinese history was viewed through very rose tinted glasses, for example they promote Chinese legalism as some golden age of morality - Buddhism on the other hand is dismissed as merely increasing our western self centeredness, an ‘exotic self-help’. The actual advice as to how we should apply these various philosophies is not actually that clear. And the writing felt far more “journalist-y” than I like in books (possibly the role of the co-author was preventing the professor from sounding academic?).

There were certainly points that I found interesting and thought provoking, but sadly the book as a whole was not. Possibly it would have worked better as the lectures on which it was originally based?

Thank you to net galley for the chance to read and honestly review this book.
Profile Image for Laura.
387 reviews6 followers
December 6, 2016
This unusual gem is difficult to classify! It's easier to say what it's not: definitely not a dry philosophical tome or a comprehensive guide to ancient Chinese thinkers. Also not a run-of-the-mill, feel-good, self-help manual. Instead it answers a need that, as a parent and educator, I see all around me. Now that many of us are fortunate enough to have our basic needs met, we have the time and energy to think about the meaning of our lives - to worry about authenticity and purpose, and to try to seek fulfillment through work and hobbies. We also are raising children who feel pressured at ever earlier ages to know themselves, to find and pursue their passions... The Path doesn't insult readers with easy answers. Instead it presents startling propositions, ones that turn a lot of conventional Western wisdom (not to mention Western perceptions of Eastern wisdom) on its head. Rather than a huge life makeover, it suggests small, realistic tweaks you can make starting right away that in turn have a ripple effect far greater than one might expect. A rare treasure of a book, accessible, readable and useful to a broad audience.
Profile Image for Amy Sturgis.
Author 40 books378 followers
March 22, 2017
It's clear why the Harvard course upon which this book is based ranks among the best-loved classes at the university. This is a powerful and inspiring introduction to intellectual history text, and I was particularly impressed by the causal connections drawn between Chinese thought and the Enlightenment in the West. Including newbie-friendly discussions of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, the anonymous text The Inward Training, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi that provide plenty of springboards for further/deeper research, this book should be considered a "must read" recommendation for anyone interested in broad cultural literacy, intellectual history, philosophy and the "good life," and/or religion. Those already well versed in these traditions will want more, but as an introduction, this is very effective.
Profile Image for Justin Neville.
254 reviews11 followers
May 30, 2016
2.5 stars

An ultimately disappointing book. It promises to change the reader's way of looking at life and thus transform how we live through highlighting the thinking of the ancient Chinese philosophers.

However, although the authors do accessibly summarise the approach of each of these key philosophers and try to place this within the context of our own 21st century lives, once you've read about each of them, that's the end of the book. Given that each of them had different approaches to offer, I was expecting the book to end with some sort of more practical way in which we can start thinking about which approach would be best for us and how to apply it to our lives. None of that is there.

So, although it was interesting reading about each of them, nothing really has stuck in my brain, and I have no framework with which to even start changing the way I think about, let alone live, my life.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,040 reviews1,047 followers
August 9, 2018
I knew almost nothing about Chinese philosophy, so an introduction like this was very welcome. Puett and Gross-Loh lead you through the thinking of the old Confucian masters. They do this in a very didactic way and contrast this thinking nicely with the way we look at things in the West. It was especially refreshing to have a completely different view than that of classical Buddhism; for as far as I have understood, Confucianism is much more focused on the real world, and also much more pragmatic, working through seemingly minor adjustments of gaze and behavior, whilst Buddhism is much more revolutionary, I even dare say 'more counternatural' ( in a way that Christianity also is, in the Nietzschean sense).

The only thing that bothered me about this booklet is the historical survey at the end in which the authors share a history view that was very popular among certain historians (Joseph Needham for example) a few decades ago. This view claims that everything that was ever invented or initiated in the West can be attributed to China (even the Enlightenment, according to them). It’s a classic case of hyper-correction, seems to me. On the other hand, a lot of what the confucianist masters are telling corresponds with rather recent westerns theories like systems thinking, and chaos- and complexity-theory. That makes this booklet extra recommended reading.
Profile Image for Julian Worker.
Author 37 books341 followers
August 31, 2020
The Path is a reference book I know I will return to over the years. I will read some of the reading suggestions from The Path (e.g. The Analects) and then return to The Path to make sure I have understood them correctly. The writing style is completely non-academic as the author wants the reader to understand the concepts rather than dazzling the reader with his academic knowledge. Academic writers who can do this are rare (e.g Frank Close) and should be treasured.
Profile Image for ♡ Kim ♡.
136 reviews249 followers
Shelved as 'own-will-read-soon'
September 21, 2016
My kid opened my mail - sent me a picture of this book - and told me he read two pages and it is very good so far. :)
Profile Image for Seema Singh.
48 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2019
Really enjoyed this. Simple concepts but powerful messages.
Profile Image for Bas.
12 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2016
I was looking for an introductory book on Chinese philosophy this book seemed to be the right one.
Unfortunately, this book failed to provide sufficient historical information on the works and lives of the Chinese philosophers, moreover, the book could also not provide any satisfactory philosophical ideas, especially not about "the good life". Instead, the book turned into a typical american "how to be successful" kind of book with some references to Chinese philosophers.
514 reviews1 follower
March 24, 2016
This book is not what I expected- It's a really well written philosophy book that offers great day to day advice. I hate self help books cause they always seem either so obvious or don't really acknowledge how complicated life is, but The Path avoids both of those problems and is just really enlightening. So glad I read it.
Profile Image for Marta.
20 reviews8 followers
May 17, 2017
Really recommend this one. I’m usually not a big fan of typical self-help books that wish to ‘change the way you think’ as a lot of them are patronising and ‘work’ only until you put the book down. However, I do enjoy quality pop philosophy and The Path is exactly that. Even though I should say I'm not an expert - I switched my Eastern Philosophy class to Hegel (why oh why did I ever do that) and can’t say I’ve encountered the original texts in an academic setting.

Take note that the book is quite short and reads more like a long read article giving a quick introduction to the main texts of Chinese philosophy (one chapter - one school of thought). Some parts felt like they needed further elaboration to convince me while overall the book presents a coherent case for indeed, umm, changing the way we think. My take-away is that if you wish to follow these ideas by definition they require you to engage with them consciously and routinely, cultivating in yourself a sense for goodness. For me this as a very reasonable and healthy approach to change and living a better life.
Profile Image for Philippe.
616 reviews495 followers
April 11, 2017
This is a short, stimulating book that offers an interesting perspective on the challenge of effectuating individual and societal change. Here in the West, we have been stuck in a linear, 'managerial' way of thinking. We routinely rely on the assumption that when we push button A, this will have predictable effect B. This is true for us individuals who are diligently working on our project of self-realisation, assuming that there is a stable, authentic core to our personality that is waiting to be liberated. Once we get there, we'll be fine. It equally applies to the many decision-makers in business, politics and the military who are tackling unsolvable 'wicked problems' with all-encompassing masterplans. However, cultivating our dream of personal freedom seems to lead to ever increasing levels of dissatisfaction, boredom, and depression. And grand plans and orchestrated campaigns have shown the tendency to unravel from the get go.

What if we started from the idea that the world is too unpredictable and fragmented to control? And that there is no monolithic self, but that life unfolds as a messy concatenation of encounters and relationships. Harvard prof Michael Puett argues that these ideas led Chinese philosophers, a few thousand years ago, to develop a mundane but powerful theory of change. In a series of short, accessible vignettes of Chinese thinkers - Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, amongst others - Puett gives shape and depth to this worldview.

Confucius thought that if we can't hope to solve the big messy problems, then the only thing we can do is to redirect our attention to the minutiae of our daily life. Rituals are highly structured role plays that help us to create pockets of order in an unruly environment. And participating fully in the creation of these 'as-if worlds' incrementally reconfigures our relationships with our fellow human beings and the animate and inanimate world. Here again, Puett shows that our mindless adherence to myriads of social norms is more stifling than conscious participation in organised ritual. We are the ones who are at risk of becoming automatons, not people from 'traditional' communities taking part in scripted suspensions of the status quo.

Interestingly, Puett connects this to the moral imperative of goodness. However, Confucian goodness is not something that can be defined in the abstract. It's an emergent property (so to speak) of the ability to respond sensitively to others. Rituals help us to consciously hone our interpersonal skills, and those skills will help us to read a situation in its emotional and structural complexity. This establishes a powerful feedback mechanism. And so Puett concludes his chapter: "Confucius thought we can cultivate goodness only through rituals. Yet it is only once we conduct our lives with goodness that we gain a sense of how to employ rituals and how to alter them. This may sound circular, and it is. This very circularity is part of the profundity of his thought. There is no ethical or moral framework that transcends context and the complexity of human life. All we have is the messy world within which to work and better ourselves. These ordinary as-if rituals are the means by which we imagine new realities and over time construct new worlds. Our lives begin in the everyday and stay in the everyday. Only in the everyday can we begin to create truly great worlds."

The second chapter, with the philosopher Mencius as a central figure, deepens the discussion on how to develop our ability to be responsive to our environment. Mencius started from a vision of a world in perpetual disorder. Hence, he said, there are no universally applicable rules to guide our behaviour. Again, moral conduct is a matter of developing our 'Heart-Mind' that integrates our cognitive and emotional faculties. Training our Heart-Mind means sharpening our capacity for flexible judgment, for seeing the bigger picture and bringing to life and nurturing potential.

The chapter on Laozi brings in the notion of connectedness. Loazi's ontological starting point was that reality ultimately sprung from an original, undifferentiated state. This is what his meant with 'Tao' or 'The Way'. It also reflects the Greek notion of 'chaos' as a state of undifferentiated potential. The distinctions and categorizations that we rely on to shape and navigate our lifeworld are conducting us away from this original state. It is important to remind ourselves that these dichotomies are ultimately false and nothing more than epistemological crutches to help us through the day. This awareness can help us to be sensitive to patterns that transcend these received categorisations. It is also an embodiment of a 'weak' stance that refuses to categorise in order to dominate. But this weakness is simultaneously a source of strength and a powerful basis to effectuate change from the position of 'servant leadership'.

Here Puett transitions to the question of how we can cultivate Qi, or aliveness. The Inward Training, an anonymous collection of self-divination verses from the fourth century BC, has this question as its central theme. Aliveness emerges from the interplay between bodily awareness, intellectual acuity and artistic sensibility. All of these working in sync allow us to respond to the world in richer ways. Puett: "This is a different notion of agency and vitality. Divinities are active by resonating with the world, not by imposing their will on it. They don't affect the world by doing the things that we tend to think of as active and powerful, but by seeing things with full clarity, behaving flawlessly without falling into patterned responses, and, through small shifts, resonating with everything around them."

The two final chapters round out this non-interventionist concept of change. The chapter on Zhuangzi is a variation on earlier reflections on epistemological flexibility and centres on our ability to adopt different worldviews in a world in perpetual transformation ("Am I a human being dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I am a human being?"). Xunzi's plea for a wise practice of 'artifice' and 'putting pattern on our world' weaves a lot of the book's themes together.

Puett's final chapter casts a glance ahead to an 'age of possibility' that could emerge from our contemporary 'age of complacency'. He ends with striking a Nietzschean chord:

"These thinkers all had different views about what makes a good life. But they are connected by their opposition to the ideas that there is an unchangeable past that binds us, a unified order in the cosmos to which we should adhere, a set of rational laws we should follow, and ethical doctrines handed down that we should heed. The challenge our philosophers present is this: Think about what your life would be like if you assumed none of those things to be true."

This book resonated with a lot of the literature on change and transition that I have been reading over the last years. I am particularly thinking of Tim Ingold's morphogenetic concept of 'Making', Peter Sloterdijk's 'anthropotechniques', Hartmut Rosa's notion of 'Resonance', Robert Chia's 'Strategy Without Design', Peter Checkland's 'Learning for Action', Annemarie Mol's 'Logic of Care' and Peter Block's appreciative approach to Community development. Puett's 'Path' also chimes a lot with my personal experience in both the family and professional sphere. My photographer-mentor Lorenzo Castore has shared a lot of lessons that seamlessly match the wisdom of these Chinese philosophers (without him probably being aware of it). All of these sources bring home the same message, namely that transformative change hides in small things: the click of a shutter button, an understanding glance between a doctor and a patient, the delicate interplay of force and counterforce in shaping artefacts. Yes, we can build cathedrals without a masterplan.

One star deducted for the indifferent quality (paper, cover, print) of the paperback version of this book.
Profile Image for Maher Razouk.
646 reviews179 followers
July 26, 2021
الأفكار التقليدية VS الأفكار الحديثة
يعتقد معظمنا أننا أحرار في الأساس ، بطرق لم يكن بها أسلافنا. بعد أن انفصلنا في الغرب عن العالم التقليدي في القرن التاسع عشر ، أصبح لدينا أخيرًا القدرة على أن نقرر بأنفسنا كيفية تنظيم العالم. لقد أمضينا قرنين من الزمان نتصارع مع مختلف الأيديولوجيات المتنافسة: الاشتراكية والفاشية والشيوعية والرأسمالية الديمقراطية. وبمجرد أن تم فقدان مصداقية جميع هذه الأفكار إلى حد كبير باستثناء واحدة ، وصلنا أخيرًا إلى "نهاية التاريخ". مع سقوط جدار برلين في عام 1989 ، بدا أن النيوليبرالية قد انتصرت باعتبارها الطريقة الصحيحة الوحيدة لتنظيم العالم - الطريقة التي تمكن البشر على أفضل وجه من الازدهار .
لكن ما الذي نفعله ، إذن ، مع التعاسة والنرجسية والقلق المتزايد في العالم المتقدم؟ قيل لنا أن العمل الجاد سيؤدي إلى النجاح ، ومع ذلك فقد اتسعت الفجوة بين الأغنياء والفقراء بشكل كبير ، والحراك الاجتماعي آخذ في الانخفاض. تتوسط حياتنا جميع أنواع الأجهزة الرائعة والمثيرة للإعجاب ، وقد حققنا تطورات طبية غير مسبوقة ، لكننا نواجه أزمات بيئية وإنسانية على نطاق مخيف. بعد عدة عقود ، اختفى تفاؤلنا الكبير. لم نعد نشعر بالثقة في الطريقة التي بنينا بها عالمنا.
إذن ما مقدار ما توصلنا إليه؟ هل سينظر المؤرخون إلى الوراء إلى هذا العصر باعتباره عصرًا من الازدهار والمساواة والحرية والسعادة؟ أم أنهم سيعرّفون ، بدلاً من ذلك ، أوائل القرن الحادي والعشرين على أنه عصر الرضا عن النفس: وقت كان الناس فيه غير سعداء ولم يتم الوفاء بوعودعم ؛ عندما شهدوا أزمات متنامية وفشلوا في الاستجابة ، وشعروا بعدم وجود بدائل قابلة ��لتطبيق؟
تقدم النصوص الفلسفية الصينية بدائل لعصر الرضا هذا. لكنها ليست أيديولوجيات متماسكة من شأنها ، على سبيل المثال ، أن تحل محل الديمقراطية. بدلا من ذلك ، فهي أفكار غير بديهية عن الذات ومكانها في العالم. وقد تم تطوير الكثير منهم في الواقع على عكس فكرة العيش وفقًا لأي نظام فكري شامل.
من حوالي 600 إلى 200 قبل الميلاد ، أدى انفجار الحركات الفلسفية والدينية في جميع أنحاء أوراسيا إلى ظهور مجموعة متنوعة من الرؤى لازدهار الإنسان. خلال هذه الفترة ، التي أصبحت تسمى العصر المحوري ، ظهرت أيضًا العديد من الأفكار التي تطورت في اليونان وفي الصين والعكس صحيح. في الواقع ، في الصين ، كما سنرى ، نشأت معتقدات معينة كانت مشابهة جدًا لتلك الشائعة في الغرب اليوم. لكن في الصين ، فقدت مثل هذه الآراء ، بينما ظهرت أفكار أخرى في المعارضة ، تطالب بمسار مختلف تمامًا لحياة جيدة.
لا ينبغي اعتبار أيًا مما نتطلع إليه آراء "صينية" مقابل "الغربية" ، أكثر مما نتعامل فيه مع الأفكار التقليدية على عكس الأفكار الحديثة. بينما نستكشف هذه المفاهيم ، سنرى أنه ليس فقط الناس يناقشون أفضل السبل لتنظيم العالم منذ فترة طويلة قبل العصر الحديث ولكن أيضًا أن هناك بدائل حقيقية في التفكير في كيفية العيش بشكل جيد.
Michael Puett
The Path
Translated By #Maher_Razouk
Profile Image for Thomas.
484 reviews85 followers
July 30, 2017
A decent informal introduction to classical Chinese philosophy, but rather thin. I would recommend reading most of the thinkers presented here before looking at a treatment like this, simply because the originals are fairly accessible, especially Confucius and Mencius. Laozi and Zhuangzi are less so, but that is due to their mysticism rather than any inherent difficulty in reading them. It's not like reading Kant or Hegel. It's easy to see why Puett's class is so popular though -- he simplifies and refines Chinese philosophy into an easily digestible form. The question is whether you are a reader who needs this level of pre-mastication. I think most of us do not.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,285 reviews119 followers
December 2, 2016
Having come across mention of Michael Puett's course at Harvard so many times over the last year or so , I was so excited to find this book. Unfortunately, it was so totally disappointing. I am sure the university course must deal with the subject in a reasonable amount of depth, but this was diluted to the understanding of the least common denominator, and left me feeling emptiness of having just finished a poor self help manual. Gone was the critical edge that might have made it enjoyable.
Profile Image for Bernie Gourley.
Author 1 book80 followers
January 2, 2018
This book is organizationally and conceptually similar to a book by Edward Slingerland that I reviewed recently entitled “Trying Not to Try.” I’ll first discuss how the books are alike before differentiating them as I believe they are both worth reading. First, both books essentially look at how the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers—both Confucian and Taoist—can be put into practice to improve one’s life in the modern world. Second, the heart of each work consists of chapters devoted to the thinking of one particular philosopher and how the ideas of said philosopher compare and contrast to those of the others.

That said, both books create their own space in a way that justifies each’s existence. While Slingerland focuses heavily on the notion of wu-wei (effortless action) and de (the charisma of effortless action,) Puett and Gross-Loh consider a broader swath of human activity. That may make it sound like this book is more rambling and unfocused, but there is a central theme that cuts across the chapters. That theme rejects the simple and straightforward ideas given credence by modern Western society (as well as by the Chinese Mohists--i.e. followers of Mozi.) It suggests that the self is not a fixed entity but rather a collection of patterns. One needs to accept that these are just ruts that can be negated and to behave accordingly if one hopes to achieve an enjoyable life in a world that can be capricious and chaotic.

The first couple chapters of the book look at the problems of the modern world and how ideas from traditional societies—such as the China of past centuries—differed. With that context set, each but the last chapter examines an aspect of the human condition from the perspective of a particular Chinese philosopher.

Chapter three offers Confucius’s ideas about rituals and how they can be used to cultivate virtuous behavior. Chapter four presents the ideas of Mencius with regards how to live life in a world that is capricious and arbitrary.

The fifth chapters shifts from Confucianism to Taoism as it explores Laozi’s ideas about how one can influence others not by brute force but by moving in accordance with “the Way,” and how eliminating illusory distinctions is the key to developing this soft power.

The sixth chapter focuses not on the ideas of a particular author but a particular work, “The Inward Training.” This manual describes how one can increase one’s vitality (readers maybe familiar with the idea of “chi” or “qi,” as in “tai chi” or “qi gong”) by a mystical approach that cultivates the divine within one.

Chapter seven is about Zhuangzi’s ideas about accepting that our world is constantly in flux and to battle this fact is as futile as it is exhausting. The ideas discussed echo the aforementioned concept of “wu-wei” as well as modern concepts of positive psychology such as Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and ecstasis.

The penultimate chapter returns to a Confucian philosopher, one by the name of Xunzi, who believed that humans create the patterns we live under and it’s up to us to get past said patterns and not to accept them as a given. The last chapter circles back around to propose how the ideas presented throughout the book might allow us to remake the modern world in a happier form.

The book has no graphics, but does have a small section of resources and readings.

I found this book to be enjoyable and informative. The authors use modern stories and cases to make these ideas understandable and relevant to the reader as well as to supplement stories of ancient history. The book provides food for thought and—as I said—it creates its own niche. I’d recommend it for readers interested in how ancient Chinese wisdom can relate to present-day living.
Profile Image for Gary.
110 reviews12 followers
January 31, 2022
2nd time reading this book! I first read this book 4 years ago and was not immediately aware of the insight that could be potentially mined from it. Though in retrospect I can see some of the ideas that may have developed ever so slightly because of it (my belief that nothing is constant so grasping to something is pointless).

I enjoyed reading about some of the earlier philosophical ideas in Chinese thought and was immediately impressed by how I can slightly see some of it in many of my Chinese friends habits today (though I’m not sure if they are aware of it nor if I’m am just creating associations where none exist…).

I have always been slightly awestruck by some of the Chinese customs that I have learned about after moving to Vancouver, which was the total opposite of my small hometown. In my hometown, Hope BC, everything was always kind of taken at face value, classic small town belief systems that revolved around trusting your neighbours and resenting outsiders. When I moved to the big city I learned the hard way that most people here were out for themselves and stuck in their own little worlds… (in other words, I was the outsider).

Anyways, to sum up, my first roommate in the city was Chinese, his favourite expression was “It’s okaaay” in a thick Cantonese accent. He taught me to be more calculating and to “roll with the punches” because life is chaos and to gain anything above mediocrity would require some tact. Through this connection I met more Chinese people (born and raised in Republic of China as opposed to born here) and their steadfast and adaptive attitudes seemed to be the trend (of course there are always countless exceptions when it comes to national identity).

I became obsessed with Chinese literature (assuming the English translations were accurate) around that time, though I was never smart enough to truly absorb it into my being. Later in my life, quite recently actually, I began taking a more serious attitude to understanding philosophy, mostly western philosophy, and, although I still am not that smart, after reading this book and being able to grasp the ideas a little better I can now see parallels to some philosophical beliefs that were adapted in China and many of my Chinese friends everyday actions that impressed me upon moving to the city (again, may have created the associations myself, who knows, going on the bases that we are all products of culture…). Happy that I gave it another read!
Profile Image for Andrea.
517 reviews
July 6, 2017
This book gave me a new perspective with which to view life's challenges. I gained lots of valuable insights from the Chinese way of viewing the world which is so different from the Western tradition. This book is mildly anti-Christian but I did not find it offensive. At one point the author used some politically-charged examples from the West to illustrate how a famous person was influential by being weak. These were interesting but a little bit challenging to listen to without resistance simply because of their political nature. One of my favorite parts of the book was the use of "as if" to recreate the right relationship. I will have to read this book again and I recommend it highly.
8 reviews
May 15, 2016
An amazing book. I've already started rereading it.
Profile Image for Wesley.
245 reviews14 followers
June 1, 2016
3 1/2. Started out interesting, but stumbled and left me wanting more in terms of specifics.
Profile Image for Sleepless Dreamer.
847 reviews211 followers
May 20, 2017

I love philosophy. In fact, I'm now celebrating a year since I decided to start studying philosophy. In my studies, I steered clear of Asian philosophy because it felt intimidating and I naively thought it had nothing to contribute next to Western philosophers.

I think it's a huge pity these philosophers aren't studied next to the Western ones. These ideas are mind-changing. They're a breath of fresh air, an answer to the flaws of Kant.

Philosophical clarity aside, I can see exactly how these can be useful to helping us in our daily lives. If you've ever read Plato and said "BUT HOW IS PHILOSOPHY USEFUL", read this book.

I feel like this book has managed to answer questions I didn't know I was asking. I didn't realize how much of my ideas are inspired by Confucius. I've been thinking about postmodernism as an explanation to the lack of truth and variety of ideas but perhaps this is simply our messy world.

Our emotions aren't the enemy, they're not something that's blocking our ability to philosophize. Of course, this adds something new to philosophy. In the Western world, philosophers are often mathematicians and physicists. My impression is that these guys are teachers and guides. Is philosophy out to prove something logically or to teach how to live?

Anyway, I will study more. I'm so happy this book exists, so happy it's written so well. Definitely recommend for everyone!

what I'm taking with me:
• What rituals do I do and how can I change them?
• The value of observing, looking for the patterns we've created and wondering how to change them.
• I can be the Path, I can be part of the solution, we are all able to make this world better.
• Good is many things, based on what we feel.
Profile Image for Tim.
7 reviews
July 2, 2019
An admixture of Chinese philosophy and self-help advice, with more weight on the latter. Written for a general audience, this book deploys Chinese thinking as a foil to expose pitfalls in Western thinking habits. Reading Mencius, for example, Puett tells readers to rethink the idea that "I can be anything I want to be," and instead adopt a new one: "I don't know yet what I can become."

For the disenchanted, rootless and pessimistic asking themselves the question "what's the point of it all?", this wise-but-down-to-earth professor would like a word with you. His approach is pragmatic, well-intentioned and even compassionate. But I was disappointed to find his thinking a bit cursory, even crudely reductive. Maybe this is the way that pop philosophy simply is - but hey, I did enjoy "The Tao of Pooh".

Readers interested the substance of Chinese thought (and how it compares to the Western tradition) may be better served by Barry Allen's "Vanishing Into Things: Knowledge in Chinese Tradition." There, concepts including li, dao, yin yang, and qi are treated much more thoroughly and within their historical context.

Alternatively, just go ahead and pick up Zhuangzi, The Doctrine of the Mean or The Art of War. Primary texts don't simply survive for over two thousand years without profundity. Literary and philosophical readers will find exploring and grappling with the subtleties of these texts far more rewarding than having them spoonfed in this end-of-semester-digest.
Profile Image for Laureen Hudson.
69 reviews15 followers
May 15, 2016
There is a particular talent involved in being able to connect multiple centuries-old philosophies from a culture completely different from ours, and make them timely, relevant, and applicable. This is the kind of book that you read a few pages at a time, so as to take each nugget of wisdom out, and truly mull it over, to make life connections of your own.

I highly recommend the audiobook; listening to Puett and Gross-Loh read their own words lends emphasis to some things that reading the book does not.

I’ve read about a number of these philosophies in other books, in more detail, and I see a number of other reviewers saying that they don’t appreciate the light touch offered in this book. I feel like Puett and Gross-Loh are trusting us enough to go explore these philosophers on our own, and have in fact provided an ebook of relevant passages, as if to bridge us from this book to the original works, and a tidy “Resources and Further Reading” section at the back encourages this view. “Start here, but keep going…”.

For myself, this is an excellent book for a purpose I doubt the authors intended. I spend a lot of time trying to educate people about how Traditional Chinese Medicine is an utterly different paradigm from Western medicine, yet still entirely applicable and indeed complimentary. This volume is an excellent way to illustrate, briefly and directly, how it is that wisdom from an alternate paradigm can be both illuminating and rewarding.
Profile Image for Maja Šoštarić.
80 reviews1 follower
April 21, 2016
This little book is such a gem. I discovered it by accident, at Harvard Book Store, where the author gave a talk. I knew him from before (praised as one of the most popular Harvard professors), having heard one of his lectures and thinking about it for months afterwards, and so I was very much looking forward to reading the book. It's nothing short of spectacular.
Michael Puett is such a wonderful human being (before being a wonderful lecturer and philosopher), and in my view, he is simply using Mencius and Confucius and Lao-Tze to convey some of his own goodness and some of his own wisdom. As a result, this little book is better than any of that cheap self-help/ self-development / self-actualization airport-type 'literature' that people have been stuffing themselves with for years.

At least in my case - this really helps.
Profile Image for Anne-Marie.
315 reviews32 followers
May 2, 2016
"But remember that who you think you are - and especially what you think is "you" when you are making decisions - is usually just a set of patterns you've fallen into. Just as you can become a pessimistic person simply because you think of yourself as pessimistic, you can make decisions that shape who you become, just because you think they reflect who you are. But when you do this, you bought yourself and before you even begun."

"Dying in shackles means failing to respond properly to what befalls us. It means letting our reaction be controlled by the things that happened to us. Whether we let tragedies destroy us or we except what happened, both of these responses are the equivalent of standing under a falling wall and then saying it was your fate to be killed by that wall."

"We shouldn't aspire to be like a resonant spirit. We should be working on the messy, human stuff that is us."
Profile Image for Robert Day.
Author 5 books28 followers
March 9, 2020
These things have been said:

- there is an unchangeable past
- this unchangeable past binds us
- there is a unified order to the cosmos
- we should adhere to this unified order
- we should follow a set of rational laws
- we should heed ethical doctrines.

Here's the thing: if you assumed none of these things to be true then you would change your nature and (probably) your whole life. Bear that in mind the next time you decide to do something (or not).

Let me know how you get on.

Here's how I'm getting on: by reading the next book on the stack. Nice philosophy, but it has no stickability.
Profile Image for Nic.
639 reviews15 followers
June 12, 2016
I found this read via a LinkedIn article. Disappointing purchase, book was all over the place and lacked substance. Yadda, yadda, yadda to page 100, then a couple of unoriginal notions which stirred my interest...then nothing.
Profile Image for Anton.
261 reviews84 followers
August 22, 2022
My highlights:

Confucius. Mencius. Laozi. Zhuangzi. Xunzi. (Location 102)

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. (Location 170)

In classical Greece, this was the era of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the Pythagoreans and the Orphics. In India, it brought the emergence of Jainism and, most important, the arrival of the Buddha. And in China, this was the age of Confucius, Mencius, and the other philosophical and religious movements we will be encountering in this book. All were roughly contemporary. (Location 262)

Mencius found this all the more puzzling given his belief that every human being is born with a natural capacity for goodness. He wrote: The goodness of human nature is like water tending to flow downward. Just as there is no water that does not flow downward, there are no humans who do not have goodness. But this goodness exists only in potentia. Human nature is potentially good, but it can be lost, it can be warped, it can be changed by what it encounters. As Mencius said: You can dam and direct the water, and you can force it to remain on the top of a mountain without flowing down. But is this what water’s nature really is? It is what you have done to it that makes it so. Humans can also be made to be not good in the same way. (Location 793)

in Chinese, the word for mind and heart is actually one and the same: xin. The heart-mind is the seat of our emotions as well as the center of our rationality. (Location 825)

In Mencius’s world, ming prevails. Ming has been translated variously as Heaven’s commands, fate, or destiny. But for Mencius, it was a term for the contingency of life: the events, good and bad, that happen outside our control. Ming explains that windfalls (such as a job opening) and tragedies (such as a death) happen no matter what we have planned or intended. (Location 960)

Mencius said of ming: “It should never be anyone’s fate to die in shackles.” Dying in shackles means failing to respond properly to what befalls us. It means letting our reaction be controlled by the things that happen to us. Whether we let tragedies destroy us or we accept what happened, both of these responses are the equivalent of standing under a falling wall and then saying it was your fate to be killed by that wall. (Location 972)

True influence isn’t to be found in overt strength or will. It comes from creating a world that feels so natural that no one questions it. This is how a Laozian sage wields enormous influence. (Location 1246)

The argument of the Laozi is that you can always defeat strength through weakness. If you’re in a position of strength, play weakness, and if you’re in a position of weakness, play weakness. Play weakness regardless of your starting position, and that is how you will shift situations in better directions. (Location 1332)

The legend of Laozi as not just a sage but also a god who generated the Way is not as fantastical as it might seem. The Way does not exist in some natural, unchanging order that we must find and harmonize with. Rather, as Laozi shows us, we form the Way by actively weaving together everything around us. Each of us has the potential to become a Laozi—to become a sage—and generate new worlds. (Location 1335)

In ancient Greece, figures as diverse as Empedocles (a pre-Socratic poet and philosopher) and Plato cultivated these divine aspects within themselves. Plato spoke of “divine ecstasy,” and even Aristotle referred to how cultivation could lead to “divine understanding” that transcended the human. Similar movements arose in India: The Upanishads, a collection of religious texts, called for people to access the divine directly through cultivation exercises such as breathing and meditation. (Location 1362)

According to the Wuxing, each of us has five potential virtues that need to be cultivated: goodness, propriety, knowledge, ritual, and sagacity. (Location 1479)

In classical China, a person who wished to become educated had to first memorize a collection of poetry called the Book of Songs. (Location 1492)

How does this help to refine qi? Music, poetry, art, and literature are composed of discrete elements such as words, notes, sounds, rhythms, and colors. The more we immerse ourselves in them, the more we understand how discrete things resonate with one another, just as qi resonates with qi. They represent how qi relates constantly to all of the other forms of qi around it—for better or for worse. (Location 1522)

There is a different way of being alive and of impacting the world: through your sheer clarity of vision and your connection with everything; with your charisma rather than through your domination. Charismatic people are not born with transformative abilities; they are born with the potential to be so. When that potential is cultivated, the charismatic person becomes capable of drawing others to her through the force of her energy. When we are with someone who is energized in a positive, exciting way—someone who fills a room with her presence and who has a zest for life—we are drawn to her. Her energy is contagious. That charisma comes from spirit. She is charismatic because she is so alive and resonant with those around her. Her refined qi elicits the best of others and draws out their own spirits. (Location 1545)

Zhuangzi dreamed once that he was a butterfly. A joyous butterfly, doing as he chose. He did not even know there was a Zhuangzi. Suddenly, he awoke, and then he seemed to be Zhuangzi. Yet he could not tell if he was Zhuangzi dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi. Still, there must be a distinction between Zhuangzi and a butterfly. This is called “the transformation of things.” (Location 1571)

human beings. We alone do not spontaneously follow the Way. In fact, we actually spend our entire lives battling against flux and transformation: we declare our opinions to be right (and others indisputably wrong); we work ourselves up over the accomplishments of a rival; we remain stuck in a dead-end job because we’re fearful of change. In the process, we disrupt and block the interplay of yin and yang. That is due to our own natural endowment: our minds. (Location 1611)

Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, the nineteenth-century French poet, made famous the concept of a flâneur: a person who would stroll the city streets observing and taking in, with great openness, all that he saw. If you take a walk with a toddler, or a dog, or your grandmother, you’ll notice that they experience the walk differently than you do. The child will stop and gaze raptly at every rock and bug; the dog is tuned into an entire vibrating world of scent; your grandmother might be an avid gardener who names every flower or tree that you see. A walk with someone who has a different perspective on the world can allow you to step outside your normal patterns and to see the world not just differently but also with incredible openness. Through his or her eyes, a casual walk becomes imbued with greater depth and freshness. You read your surroundings differently; new dimensions become visible to you. We focus (Location 1711)

As Xunzi wrote: Human nature is bad. Its goodness comes from artifice. It is in the nature of humans to be born with a fondness for profit . . . They are born with hates and dislikes . . . That is why people will inevitably fall into conflict and struggle if they simply follow along with their nature and their dispositions. For Xunzi, the notion that “natural is better” was dangerous. And he wasn’t referring just to human nature. He was also referring to our assumption about the world at large. (Location 1811)

Confucius said, “At age fifteen I set my intention upon studying; at thirty I established myself in society; at forty I freed myself of delusions; at fifty I understood the mandates of Heaven; at sixty I could hear with clarity; and at age seventy what my heart desired and what was right came into alignment.” (Location 1999)
Profile Image for Doug Orleans.
52 reviews4 followers
December 21, 2020
Another book club book. My only knowledge of "Eastern philosophy" was of Buddhism as filtered through secular interpretations, so I knew essentially nothing about the Chinese philosophers surveyed here: Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi. This works fine as a basic introduction to their ideas, but the ideas are often presented in the form of banal self-help advice about modern-day workplace interactions, which is a little weird, and makes me wonder what all is being glossed over (and whether this transposition is even an accurate representation of their ideas). I am also wary of the authors' claims that these philosophers' insights are absent from Western philosophy and science-- for example, several strains of advice presented here sound to me an awful lot like cognitive behavioral therapy, which came from Western psychology rooted in Greek Stoicism. Perhaps it's true that it took the West centuries to reinvent these wheels, but it undercuts the notion that these philosophers can teach us new things (as claimed by the subtitle).

The last two chapters were the most interesting to me, and raised my rating from 2 stars to 3. Chapter 8 is about Xunzi's philosophy of how humans impose patterns and order onto the natural world in order to improve it and make it work better for us, and that if human technology isn't always better than nature, the answer isn't to reject technology and prefer a state of nature, it's to figure out how the technology is wrong and how to make it better. Music to my technocrat ears! Chapter 9 advances the claim that the Enlightenment has its roots in Jesuits traveling to China, discovering their meritocratic bureaucracy, and bringing it back as a better alternative to the aristocracy of the Western world at that time. I am a little skeptical of putting that much weight on this connection but it's an interesting line to draw.
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