Why is the history of Chinese philosophy now the most popular course at Harvard? Top tips on how to become a better person according to Confucius and co.
People are often surprised to learn that Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and other classical Chinese philosophers weren’t rigid traditionalists who taught that our highest good comes from confining ourselves to social roles. Nor were they placid wise men preaching harmonious coexistence with the natural world. Rather, they were exciting and radical thinkers who exploded the conventions of their society. They sought to make the world a better place by expanding the scope of human possibility. The mid-first millennium BC was a similarly turbulent age to our own, giving rise to debates about how to live, how to be ethical and how to build a good society. Unlike the philosophers we are more familiar with in the west, these Chinese thinkers didn’t ask big questions. Theirs was an eminently pragmatic philosophy, based on deceptively small questions such as: “How are you living your daily life?” These thinkers emphasised that great change only happens when we begin with the mundane and doable. Their teachings reveal that many of our most fundamental assumptions about how we ought to live have actually led us astray. So what are the ideas we hold dear, and what alternatives do Chinese philosophers offer in their place?
Stop finding yourself
Our thinkers would be sceptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract
Here’s one popular assumption: it’s important to look within and discover who you really are, your true self. Our thinkers would be sceptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract. They understood that we are multifaceted, messy selves who develop by looking outward, not inward. Our personalities are formed through everything we do: how we interact with others, our reactions to things, the activities we pursue. You don’t behave the same way when speaking to your mother, say, as when dealing with a junior colleague, your dentist, or a close friend. Each of us is a complicated being bumping up against other complicated beings all day. Each encounter draws out different aspects.Who we are consists of behaviour patterns and emotional ruts we’ve fallen into over time – but that means we also consist of numerous possibilities of what we can become.
We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time Once we find ourselves, the assumption continues, we must embrace and be true to that self. But the first great philosopher in the Chinese tradition, Confucius, who was born in the sixth century BCE, would have thought differently. The problem with authenticity, he’d say, is that it’s not freeing, the way we believe it to be. Who is that authentic self you think you have discovered really? It’s a snapshot of you at this one moment in time. If you stay true to that self and allow it to become your guide, it constrains you. It doesn’t allow for the sort of growth you experience when you recognise that you are ever-changing.
We flourish when we recognise our complexity and learn how to work with it through self-cultivation. You grow, for example, when you understand that you are not a hothead just because you tend to think of yourself as short-tempered, or shy because you see yourself as an introvert. Most labels are patterns of behaviour we’ve fallen into and can be broken. We aren’t just who we think we are, we can work on becoming better people all the time.
When you smile as if you’re not angry, or bite your tongue instead of lashing out you are faking it – acting more mature
The flip side of our reverence for authenticity is our suspicion of ritualistic ways of behaviour, or what one might call “faking it”. Isn’t it better to let the “real you” shine through?
But Confucius teaches that certain rituals – “as if” rituals in particular – are transformative because they break patterned behaviours we’ve fallen into. When you smile as if you’re not angry, or bite your tongue instead of lashing out you are faking it. It’s because those “as if” moments create a tiny break from reality that they are so valuable. We act “as if” we are different and our feelings are more mature. By doing so, we transform into someone who is kind and generous rather than someone exercising the right to express authentically honest but destructive feelings. As we complete these rituals again and again, letting our behaviour lead our feelings rather than the other way around, we become different – and better – over time.
See the world as capricious
Work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions – that nurture an expansive life
Just as we often view the self as stable, we see the world as stable, too. Of course we realise that life can change, but at the same time we tend to proceed under the assumption that the world is generally predictable and that we should figure out how we will fit into it. If we see ourselves as good at maths, we continue along that academic track; if we consider ourselves whimsical, we seek a life partner who will join us on our adventures.
Mencius, a Confucian scholar living during the late 4th century BCE, saw the world as fragmented and capricious. He would advise that we should work with the shifts and detours – chance conversations, experiences, interactions – that nurture an expansive life. Rather than making plans for our lives, a Mencian approach means setting trajectories in motion.
When you are contemplating a big change, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences
What’s wrong with a life plan? When you plan your life, you make decisions for a future self based on the person you are today not the one you will become.
Rather than boxing ourselves in by committing to big decisions, the Mencian way would be to approach them through the small and doable. When you are contemplating a career change, say, or a break up or move, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences on a small scale. Pay attention to your responses to these experiences, because they will guide you in new directions.
See everything in the world as connected instead of divided and distinct so you can stay attuned to others
Another popular assumption is that the powerful win out. We are told to stand strong and be assertive about what we want. But Laozi, in the Tao Te Ching (probably dating to the 4th century BCE), advocates the power of weakness over overt strength. People often think this means we should harmonise with nature. We know students whose first encounters with Laozi entail being led on a walk in the woods by their well-intentioned teachers to absorb the glories of the natural world. Passivity is not what he means, though. He says we should see everything in the world as connected instead of divided and distinct, so that we can use our understanding of all those connections to stay attuned to others.
Attunement allows for a different sort of influence. Rather than wielding direct power over people, you see how to subtly alter situations, so you can lead others but they don’t perceive you to be dominating them.
Don’t play to your strengths
Live your life as a series of ruptures, because that is what changes you over time We’re encouraged to discover our gifts and strengths and to hone them from a young age. If you were sporty, you joined the football team; if you always had your nose in a book, you studied literature. As you grow older, you cultivate these natural proclivities until they become part of your identity. But take this mindset too far, and you stop doing everything else.
Our philosophers would encourage not focusing on who you think you are to break your preconceived notions. If you think you’re clumsy, take up dancing. If you’re no good at languages, immerse yourself in French. The purpose is not to make yourself better at these things, it’s to live your life as a series of ruptures, because that is what changes you over time.
Don’t be mindful
The tenets of mindfulness as they are popularly understood is the opposite of what mindfulness was meant to be
We hear that mindfulness will help us achieve peace and serenity in our fast-paced lives. It is now even touted as a tool for productivity and effectiveness by business schools, corporations and the military.
Mindfulness does not, on the surface, seem all that different from the Confucian notion of paying attention to your emotional responses. But the tenets of mindfulness as they are popularly understood – including looking within and accepting what you find with detached non-judgment – is the opposite of what mindfulness was meant to be. Buddhism is, after all, the doctrine of “no” self. Confucian self-cultivation is different. It’s about engaging with the world and cultivating yourself through that engagement, through each encounter and interaction. It espouses a very active, not passive, way of cultivating oneself to become a better person.
Rethink the traditional and the modern
It’s the small actions through which you conduct yourself that matter most in transforming yourself for the better
The contemporary assumption underlying all the others is that we have broken free of a repressive, traditional world and live our lives as we choose. But if we define a traditional world as one in which humans passively accept the way things are and try to fit into a stable, pre-existing order, then we are the ones who are traditional. The assumptions we hold to be true restrict our greatest possibilities. The “Path”, the title of our book, is a play on the opening line of the Tao Te Ching: “The Way that can be made into a clearly defined way is not the enduring way.” If you think you can lay out a perfect plan for your life, you’ve missed the “Path.” Instead, recognise that we are complex creatures constantly pulled in different directions, and that it’s through working on our interactions, experiences and responses that we grow. It’s the small actions through which you conduct yourself that matter most in transforming yourself, and the world, for the better.
___________ • The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh is published by Viking Penguin.