The Path: A book review by Bob Morris

The PathThe Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh
Simon & Schuster (2016)

Here are several “profoundly counterintuitive perspectives on how to become a better person and how to create a better world”

Here’s the background: This book is a collaboration between a classroom teacher and a freelance journalist. They share their thoughts about material that is assigned in a course at Harvard, “Classic Chinese Ethical and Political Theory,” taught by Michael Puett. Christine Gross-Loh once took the course and later earned a Ph.D. in East Asian history from Harvard. The aforementioned course material focuses on the works of five Chinese philosophers: Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi.

In the Foreword, Gross-Loh that it isn’t just the philosophical texts that shape the students who take the course. “Michael himself is an inspiration. He is known for his kindness, humility, and dedication to helping his students flourish: traits that come directly out of his decades of immersion in Chinese thought.” Moreover, because the five philosophers’ ideas are just as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago, “Michael and I realized that these ideas can speak to all of us, and that’s how this book came into being.”

So, think of Puett and Gross-Loh as personal tutors who accompany you during a mindful exploration of ancient wisdom that really can change your life, just as it has changed the lives of so many of the Harvard students.

* * *

Here are three Q&As that, I hope, will help you to decide whether or not this book offers the right path for you too follow.

To what does the title of this book refer?

It comes from “a concept of the Chinese philosophers referred top 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.”

Why is Confucius significant?

He sought to create “a world where his students could thrive, with the hopes that some of them might be abler to create a larger social order where the broader population could flourish too.

“Every philosopher we encounter in this book is similar to Confucius. Each emerged from this crucible of transition. Each opposed the society in which he lived and was actively contemplating new and exciting ways to live. Each believed strongly that every person has equal potential for growth.” (Page 21)

What can be learned about career planning from Mencius?

“You can’t plan out how everything in your life will play out. But you can think in terms of creating the conditions which things will likely move uncertain directions: the conditions that allow for the possibility of rich growth. By doing all this, you are not being a farmer. You are also the results of the farmer’s work. You become the fruit of your labor.” (81-82)

Who would be a representative example of the Laotian leader?

“In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln made the argument that all men are created equal. The president’s move was to claim implicitly that the Declaration of Independence was America’s founding document, and that we as a nation were dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“When he made this argument, in 1863, it was explosive. The press was incredulous: America was dedicated to no such proposition, nor was the Declaration of Independence the founding document of America. However, Lincoln’s vision not only won the day, it also came to be accepted as received wisdom for America as a whole.” (110)

Contrary to what many people apparently believe, success and happiness are NOT mutually-exclusive. The five Chinese philosophers remind us that success is happiness and that happiness is success. They are interdependent. If we try to separate them, we will have neither. It all seems so simple: success is happiness and that happiness is success. Easy to say but immensely difficult to embrace, absorb, and digest. Harvard students who the course’s first class in and those who begin to read this book need to complete a challenging journey of personal discovery and growth to reach what Oliver Wendell Holmes once characterized as “the other side of complexity,” a state of mental, emotional, and spiritual health of which they were previously unaware. How to get there? Follow the Dao or Way.

Here are Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh’s concluding thoughts: “If the world is fragmented, then it gives us every opportunity to construct things anew. It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything. If we begin there, then everything is up to us.”

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