Ancient Eastern Advice for Modern Western Problems

Mencius actually thinks the world is quite predictable. 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. Using universal principles as a guide to coping with the world won’t work. 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. The king replied, “Great are your teachings! And looking to the ancient Chinese philosophers is a great idea: they have plenty of good advice to offer. Luckily, Puett and Gross-Loh do not aim for breadth or depth. Zhuangzi famously wonders whether he is a philosopher dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being a philosopher. But why bother? On the other hand, emotion sometimes calls our attention to factors in a situation where mere reason might miss. They recommend rejecting arbitrary and unhelpful distinctions in order to reveal the bigger picture in complex situations. 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. Curzer is a professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. Such action produces a great feeling and great results, which is why people (especially athletes and artists) sometimes train themselves to act this way. Reason must sometimes inform and “persuade” emotion. Whatever the state of the nation, many of us could still use a self-help book. Puett and Gross-Loh are clearly right about Mencius’s recommendation to combine reason and passion, and it is clearly a good recommendation. 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). Moreover, thinking of our selves as unalterable discourages attempts at self-improvement. Unfazed, Mencius urged the king to “enlarge” his courage, to fight for world peace, not just for selfish gain. It popularizes a few of the teachings of six ancient Chinese texts: three Confucian and three Daoist. And sometimes we can flow because we have deeply internalized the interconnectedness of things. 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. In one survey, general happiness is down by 0.3 percent (1993–2014). They suggest that rituals facilitate imaginative leaps. We are acting spontaneously, intuitively, and smoothly rather than slowly, thoughtfully, and awkwardly. The advice to redirect rather than stifle problematic passions is hardly breaking news to the West. 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. 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. These “sprouts” can be cultivated until they become virtues. We should also avoid overtaxing them with challenges they can’t handle. The strategy Puett and Gross-Loh extract from Laozi is clearly useful for dealing with personal issues, but perhaps not political ones. Sometimes things go just right. Habituation works. Indeed, he advises rulers to put certain policies into place because those policies reliably benefit the population. But there are other, less intellectual ways of “being in the flow.” Thus, there is a big difference between these strategies. 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 it is not a typical first thought when making a New Year’s resolution either. We should not neglect our virtue-sprouts by failing to provide necessary conditions for their flourishing. Never mind. Perhaps Paths would have been a more accurate title. They transform the real world rather than facilitating an escape from it, even a temporary and enlightening one. 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. This way of understanding ritual observance makes Confucianism into a broadly conservative doctrine. 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. His publications include a book entitled Aristotle and the Virtues and articles on ancient philosophy and contemporary ethics. So Puett and Gross-Loh are doing nothing outrageous by mining them for self-help advice. They do not survey the teachings of the Chinese sages or delve into the details. ¤
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. 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. So The Path does not provide a consistent set of self-help strategies, but rather an assortment of alternatives. Comprehensive, consistent, detailed doctrines are elusive. JULY 26, 2017
MENCIUS, a follower of Confucius, urged King Xuan of the ancient Chinese state of Qi to be kind to others. 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. Indeed, Puett and Gross-Loh do something similar, though less paradoxical. But most invaded countries do not have the option of declining to fight. You can accomplish much with minimal changes. But there are difficulties. 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). ¤
Howard J. 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. He thinks that human nature is not intrinsically good. Perhaps this interpretation of Confucian ritual observance makes psychological sense, but it is textually problematic. Happiness itself is notoriously difficult and controversial to define, let alone to measure. Over the last few decades, most measures of anxiety are more or less flat (1993–2012). But some cultivation strategies such as combining reason and passion reliably work, which is why Mencius recommends them, after all. 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. 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. While Laozi urges us to erase distinctions, Zhuangzi urges us to look at the world from many perspectives. They cite effective lies by FDR, Reagan, and (surprisingly) honest Abe Lincoln. Either way, the changes are small. ¤
Laozi’s fellow Daoist Zhuangzi agrees that the world is an interrelated whole. Cultivation is tricky and difficult, which is why fully virtuous people are rare. 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. But why think this is a bad thing? To paraphrase Mencius this time, you can be kind without losing your status as one of the cool kids. We need to take a more active role. Puett and Gross-Loh present this “strength through weakness” approach well, but they illustrate it badly. Thus, acquiring virtue is not a matter of nurturing and protecting proto-virtues while they grow naturally to maturity. Narcissism may be surging, but it has little direct effect on overall happiness. Thus, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life is a welcome addition to the self-help shelves. ¤
Puett and Gross-Loh find disagreement among the Daoists, just as they did among the Confucians. Once we recognize the keystones supporting our vices, we can crack them. 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. By performing rituals, people see how things could be better and are inspired to work toward that better 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. A core concern for all six texts is how to live a better life. For any definition, some studies show unhappiness increasing; others do not. Puett and Gross-Loh take up six philosophers, and like philosophers everywhere, they disagree with each other. In ritual actions, we pretend to dwell in a world where relationships are harmonious. 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. Pangs of sympathy may show us another’s need, for example. But Laozi and Zhuangzi recommend different strategies for apprehending and appreciating it. 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. Puett and Gross-Loh accomplish this by taking ritual observance to be a relationship-improvement strategy. Moreover, Confucius clearly thinks that flouting a ritual is immoral — not merely a missed opportunity. We may need to talk ourselves out of unjustified anger, for example. ¤
Puett and Gross-Loh maintain that Mencius considers both the world and the self to be chaotic and unpredictable. And there are numerous countervailing positive trends. Instead, they give simple explanations of one or two concepts per sage and offer them as self-help strategies. Moral development consists of shaping somewhat recalcitrant human nature into virtue; those who become virtuous and happy are more like craftsmen than farmers. 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. But these unsavory acts are not the best-selling points for Daoism. But they are arguably wrong about Mencius’s reasons for his recommendation. Oblige people to follow good scripts thoughtfully and repeatedly, and they will, broadly speaking, become better people. 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? Laozi hyperbolically rejects all distinctions and separations, but Puett and Gross-Loh tone this down to a reasonable level. But we have a weakness: we are fond of courage.” To paraphrase the king, kindness is fine for wimps, but I prefer fighting. Unfortunately, Puett and Gross-Loh conflate this strategy with a very different one. For example, Confucius famously makes ritual observance central to his philosophy. ¤
Although he is squarely within the Confucian tradition, Xunzi disagrees with Mencius about human nature, and therefore about how to acquire virtue. Rituals primarily improve individuals rather than relationships. 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. Many Western interpreters struggle to find ways to interpret Confucius without making him into a reactionary. ¤
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). Does this disagreement highlight a weakness, a strength, or just a feature of The Path? Like a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of things, “being in the flow” yields seemingly effortless action. He believes that human nature reliably provides innate proto-virtuous tendencies. Laozi and Zhuangzi agree that grasping the interconnectedness of things enables us to understand things better, and thus accomplish our goals more efficiently.