Ancient Eastern Advice for Modern Western Problems

By Howard J. CurzerJuly 26, 2017

Ancient Eastern Advice for Modern Western Problems

The Path by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

MENCIUS, a follower of Confucius, urged King Xuan of the ancient Chinese state of Qi to be kind to others. The king replied, “Great are your teachings! But we have a weakness: we are fond of courage.” To paraphrase the king, kindness is fine for wimps, but I prefer fighting. Unfazed, Mencius urged the king to “enlarge” his courage, to fight for world peace, not just for selfish gain. Rather than trying to change the king’s view about what is admirable, Mencius showed the king how to use his appetite for displays of courage in ways that benefit everyone. To paraphrase Mencius this time, you can be kind without losing your status as one of the cool kids.

The advice to redirect rather than stifle problematic passions is hardly breaking news to the West. But it is not a typical first thought when making a New Year’s resolution either. Chinese philosophy abounds with sound advice like this, and much of it will strike Western readers as novel and powerful character-improvement strategies, especially when packaged in Chinese parables. Thus, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life is a welcome addition to the self-help shelves. It popularizes a few of the teachings of six ancient Chinese texts: three Confucian and three Daoist. A core concern for all six texts is how to live a better life. So Puett and Gross-Loh are doing nothing outrageous by mining them for self-help advice. The Path stands out among self-help books, however, both by offering strategies that are absent from most other books of this genre and by introducing readers to the roots of two venerable non-Western philosophical traditions.

In the beginning and ending chapters of The Path, the authors underline the need for a self-help book by painting a picture of woe:

[W]hat do we make, then, of the unhappiness, narcissism, and anxiety surging in the developed world? […] [Historians may] define the early twenty-first century as an age of complacency: a time when people were unhappy and unfulfilled […]

Our attempts at repairing our own fractured world inevitably are insufficient or even fail […] [W]e live in a broken world haunted by our pasts — our difficult relationships, our work hardships, our losses, our many inevitable missteps […]

This picture of a “fractured and fragmented world” is arguably overly grim. Narcissism may be surging, but it has little direct effect on overall happiness. Over the last few decades, most measures of anxiety are more or less flat (1993–2012). Happiness itself is notoriously difficult and controversial to define, let alone to measure. For any definition, some studies show unhappiness increasing; others do not. Either way, the changes are small. In one survey, general happiness is down by 0.3 percent (1993–2014). And there are numerous countervailing positive trends. For example, in the United States, life expectancy is up by 3.3 years (1993–2014); violent crime is down by 50 percent according to the FBI, or 77 percent according to the Bureau of Justice (1993–2015); homelessness is down by 32 percent (2007–2014); and teen pregnancies are down by 59 percent (1993–2014).

Never mind. Whatever the state of the nation, many of us could still use a self-help book. And looking to the ancient Chinese philosophers is a great idea: they have plenty of good advice to offer. But there are difficulties.

Ancient philosophers, in the East as in the West, wrote tough texts. Their general ideas are reasonably clear, but when interpreters dig into the details, they discover that different passages point in different directions. Comprehensive, consistent, detailed doctrines are elusive. For example, Confucius famously makes ritual observance central to his philosophy. But he says both that we must follow the rituals of the good old days exactly (Analects 7.1) and that we may tweak them to fit new circumstances (Analects 9.3). Luckily, Puett and Gross-Loh do not aim for breadth or depth. They do not survey the teachings of the Chinese sages or delve into the details. Instead, they give simple explanations of one or two concepts per sage and offer them as self-help strategies.


Why does Confucius insist on the importance of ritual observance? Some interpreters take ritual to be a way to pay proper respect to people (particularly elders and family members) and institutions (especially government agencies). This way of understanding ritual observance makes Confucianism into a broadly conservative doctrine. Hence, China’s Communist Party discouraged Confucianism when it was making and consolidating the revolution, but it is currently rehabilitating Confucius, now that it has become the establishment.

Many Western interpreters struggle to find ways to interpret Confucius without making him into a reactionary. Puett and Gross-Loh accomplish this by taking ritual observance to be a relationship-improvement strategy. They suggest that rituals facilitate imaginative leaps. In ritual actions, we pretend to dwell in a world where relationships are harmonious. When feuding relatives go through the motions of polite interactions at a funeral, for example, they are reminded of the advantages of caring, considerate, cooperative relationships. By performing rituals, people see how things could be better and are inspired to work toward that better world.

Perhaps this interpretation of Confucian ritual observance makes psychological sense, but it is textually problematic. For Confucius, the role of rituals in moral development is that they build better habits of perception, thought, feeling, and behavior by requiring repeated symbolic acts. Habituation works. Oblige people to follow good scripts thoughtfully and repeatedly, and they will, broadly speaking, become better people. Rituals primarily improve individuals rather than relationships. They transform the real world rather than facilitating an escape from it, even a temporary and enlightening one. Moreover, Confucius clearly thinks that flouting a ritual is immoral — not merely a missed opportunity.


Puett and Gross-Loh maintain that Mencius considers both the world and the self to be chaotic and unpredictable. Using universal principles as a guide to coping with the world won’t work. Moreover, thinking of our selves as unalterable discourages attempts at self-improvement. Instead, Mencius recommends a two-step self-help strategy: integrate one’s emotional and rational faculties, and then use the resultant “heart-mind” to navigate complex, changing situations. Reason must sometimes inform and “persuade” emotion. We may need to talk ourselves out of unjustified anger, for example. On the other hand, emotion sometimes calls our attention to factors in a situation where mere reason might miss. Pangs of sympathy may show us another’s need, for example.

Puett and Gross-Loh are clearly right about Mencius’s recommendation to combine reason and passion, and it is clearly a good recommendation. But they are arguably wrong about Mencius’s reasons for his recommendation. Mencius actually thinks the world is quite predictable. Indeed, he advises rulers to put certain policies into place because those policies reliably benefit the population. He believes that human nature reliably provides innate proto-virtuous tendencies. These “sprouts” can be cultivated until they become virtues. Cultivation is tricky and difficult, which is why fully virtuous people are rare. We should not neglect our virtue-sprouts by failing to provide necessary conditions for their flourishing. We should also avoid overtaxing them with challenges they can’t handle. But some cultivation strategies such as combining reason and passion reliably work, which is why Mencius recommends them, after all.


Although he is squarely within the Confucian tradition, Xunzi disagrees with Mencius about human nature, and therefore about how to acquire virtue. He thinks that human nature is not intrinsically good. Thus, acquiring virtue is not a matter of nurturing and protecting proto-virtues while they grow naturally to maturity. We need to take a more active role. Moral development consists of shaping somewhat recalcitrant human nature into virtue; those who become virtuous and happy are more like craftsmen than farmers.

Does this disagreement highlight a weakness, a strength, or just a feature of The Path? Puett and Gross-Loh take up six philosophers, and like philosophers everywhere, they disagree with each other. So The Path does not provide a consistent set of self-help strategies, but rather an assortment of alternatives. Perhaps Paths would have been a more accurate title.


Puett and Gross-Loh find disagreement among the Daoists, just as they did among the Confucians.

Laozi hyperbolically rejects all distinctions and separations, but Puett and Gross-Loh tone this down to a reasonable level. They recommend rejecting arbitrary and unhelpful distinctions in order to reveal the bigger picture in complex situations. For example, rather than viewing an argument with your child in isolation, try to recognize how that particular argument grew out of many previous incidents, relationships among the family members, job stresses on you, and even the disturbed mood created by the background music. Once you become aware of the complex whole, you might also see that a forceful, blustery stance would be ineffective; a series of small comments spread over the next few days would gradually reverse a destructive pattern. You can accomplish much with minimal changes.

Puett and Gross-Loh present this “strength through weakness” approach well, but they illustrate it badly. They cite effective lies by FDR, Reagan, and (surprisingly) honest Abe Lincoln. But these unsavory acts are not the best-selling points for Daoism. Puett and Gross-Loh say: “It took only one Mohandas Gandhi to end the British Empire, in 1947.” But the British did not leave India because of one man doing almost nothing. Puett and Gross-Loh observe that the Russian generals defeated Napoleon by merely retreating before his advance and allowing the harsh Russian winter to destroy his army. But most invaded countries do not have the option of declining to fight. The strategy Puett and Gross-Loh extract from Laozi is clearly useful for dealing with personal issues, but perhaps not political ones.


Laozi’s fellow Daoist Zhuangzi agrees that the world is an interrelated whole. But Laozi and Zhuangzi recommend different strategies for apprehending and appreciating it. Zhuangzi famously wonders whether he is a philosopher dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a philosopher. His point is not to question our ability to distinguish dreams from reality, but rather to startle us into looking at things from diverse points of view. He challenges us to approach each situation with both the stable, solid, timeless universal principles of a philosopher, and also with the flittering, fragile, fleeting beauty orientation of a butterfly. While Laozi urges us to erase distinctions, Zhuangzi urges us to look at the world from many perspectives.

But why bother? Laozi and Zhuangzi agree that grasping the interconnectedness of things enables us to understand things better, and thus accomplish our goals more efficiently. Without knowledge, breaking rocks is back-breaking work, but if we understand the deep structure of the rock, we can split it with a single tap. Similarly, carrying out a New Year’s resolution without a deep understanding of one’s character and life is tough, but with understanding, self-improvement can be nearly effortless. Once we recognize the keystones supporting our vices, we can crack them.

Unfortunately, Puett and Gross-Loh conflate this strategy with a very different one. Sometimes things go just right. We are acting spontaneously, intuitively, and smoothly rather than slowly, thoughtfully, and awkwardly. Such action produces a great feeling and great results, which is why people (especially athletes and artists) sometimes train themselves to act this way. Like a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of things, “being in the flow” yields seemingly effortless action. And sometimes we can flow because we have deeply internalized the interconnectedness of things. But there are other, less intellectual ways of “being in the flow.” Thus, there is a big difference between these strategies.


Puett and Gross-Loh criticize Pop Buddhism for ripping mindfulness out of its context and putting it to a very un-Buddhist use:

Mindfulness is hyped widely as a popular technique for gaining peace and serenity in our fast-paced lives […] But mindfulness was intended to break down the self. Buddhism is the doctrine of no self […] [Buddhism] has become a form of exotic self-help: the doctrine of no self utilized to help people feel better about themselves.

But why think this is a bad thing? Removing a nail-puller from a tool box and using it to hammer in a nail seems paradoxical, but there is nothing wrong with it. Indeed, Puett and Gross-Loh do something similar, though less paradoxical. They extract individual doctrines and strategies out of broader philosophical contexts, and then offer them to us as self-help techniques and teaser introductions to Confucianism and Daoism. Scholars may dispute their interpretations and quibble with a few of their examples, but Puett and Gross-Loh have written a unique and useful book.


Howard J. Curzer is a professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. His publications include a book entitled Aristotle and the Virtues and articles on ancient philosophy and contemporary ethics.

LARB Contributor

Howard J. Curzer is a professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. His publications include Aristotle and the Virtues (Oxford, 2012), Virtue Ethics for the Real World (Routledge, 2023), Difficult Virtues (Routledge, forthcoming), and various articles on ancient philosophy, contemporary virtue ethics, the Confucian tradition, moral development, research ethics, biomedical ethics, the ethics of care, and the Hebrew Bible. He is a recipient of grants from the NSF and the NEH.


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