Why You Need to Read The Path

Posted on 7th March 2017 by Sally Campbell
A Harvard Professor of Chinese History, Michael Puett found he was repeatedly being asked the same question: how can the ideas, taught in his classes, be put to use in modern life? Intrigued, he teamed up with Christine Gross-Loh to write The Path, a fresh and accessible look at Chinese philosophy that makes the bold claim that the teachings of Confucius, Zhuangzi and Mencius can change your life for the better. Exploring ancient Chinese thought within the framework of modern culture, the book has one simple, essential lesson to impart: the smallest actions have the most profound ramifications. Here, Christine Gross-Loh explains how we could all use a little steer in the right direction.

Photo: Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province, China (c) Efired

People are often quite surprised to learn that one of the most subscribed undergraduate courses at Harvard University for the last several years has been a course taught by Professor Michael Puett on classical Chinese philosophy. But in fact, it’s not all that surprising. Although the Chinese philosophers featured in the course (and now in our book, The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything) lived over 2000 years ago in a civilization completely unlike our own, their teachings are not just timeless – they feel especially relevant in today’s fractured world.

These Chinese philosophers – Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others – were concerned above all with human flourishing. They had keen insights into what it takes for people to get along, to help each other to thrive, and what sorts of societies best facilitate the good of the whole. But rather than think big, as we so often do when we think of implementing change, these thinkers cautioned that grand, large-scale actions -- living true to your “authentic self,” taking a strong and bold stance, mapping out a firm plan for the future -- are actually counter productive and hold us back from attaining changes that lead to flourishing lives. 

Instead, they taught that paying attention to our behaviours on a daily basis is a key way to create large-scale changes of the sort we hope so. When we behave “as if” we feel differently than we do, rather than according to our authentic feelings at the moment, it gives us an opportunity to cultivate a better side of ourselves, changing who we become over time. Or, when we espouse the power of (seeming) weakness, we become more influential and powerful, by cultivating the ability to understand what lies behind other people’s responses and behaviours and to sense what responses and behaviours of our own would bring about the outcome we hope for.

The ideas of the thinkers featured in The Path are also timely and provocative in another way: not only do they challenge us to question our assumptions about ideas that have become common in the West, they encourage us to take seriously ideas that have long been dismissed. They encourage us to become more cosmopolitan by considering – and truly understanding – what lies behind ideas that might seem antithetical to the modern, liberated lives we envision ourselves to be living.  This sort of cosmopolitan perspective is increasingly necessary in a world in which the ideas that divide us seem more entrenched than ever.  

Harvard undergraduates flocked to Puett’s course in large part because it offered a completely different take, different from any of the ideas these young people had grown up immersed in. The Path offers a new way to think about everything for the rest of us as well. 




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