The Path by Michael Puett

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh argue that ancient Chinese wisdom has relevance for us today. They give us three chapters of Confucian thinkers and three chapters on the Taoist tradition. In each case, the authors explain how these ideas challenge our modern Western assumptions in ways that could have an impact on our everyday decisions.

Beginning with Confucius (551 – 479 BC) the authors focus on the account of social rituals. With our modern emphasis on autonomy and being ‘true to ourselves’, rituals now seem conservative and stifling. But, the authors argue, this is wrong: properly understood, rituals are transformative, allowing us to explore other perspectives and mould our habits for the better. As rational beings, we assert what is best for ourselves, and that that ‘self’ is coherent and stable. The ancient Chinese, however, understood that we are in fact fragmented and malleable, our actions driven more by emotion and custom. We therefore do not become the best we can be by seeking some illusory ‘true self’. We do so by ‘honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation’. This, Confucius believed, we achieve through daily rituals ranging from saying thank you to ancestor worship.

The Taoists saw things differently. They agreed that our identity is not fixed and that we are not perfectly rational. But their response is nearly the opposite one. The great Taoist sage Zhuangzi frequently mocked Confucius. He emphasised spontaneity over ritual, and a return to nature over obedience to social convention. Puett and Gross-Loh claim that we can attain such spontaneity and creativity by giving up rigid categories and accepting the countless ways of seeing this ever-changing world.

No-one should expect here to walk away with a pop tart answer for happiness. The tradition referred to is over 2000 years old, immensely rich and often contradictory. However, as with so much else in history and philosophy, understanding that our own particular cultural pre-suppositions are not the last word is valuable in itself.

Check if this thought provoking book on the good life is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at

204 pages in Simon & Schuster

First published 2016

ISBN  978-1476777849

Michael Puett

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