When professor Michael Puett started teaching a course on classical Chinese philosophy at Harvard, few people expected his class to become one of the most popular courses on campus. Why did so many students flock to this seemingly dry topic? To answer this question, Puett co-authored a book with Christine Gross-Loh called “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.”
As you can probably glean from the title, this isn’t a boring history book about Confucius or Laozi. Instead, these two scholars approach these ancient philosophies from a self-help angle, using them as a tool to solve modern problems.
They go in-depth on a number of ancient Chinese philosophical questions, proving that humans have been thinking about these issues for thousands of years. What does it mean to be happy and fulfilled? Is the world chaotic and unpredictable, or organized and predictable? Do we have control over our fate, or is this something that’s decided for us?
Reading “The Path” is a sneaky way to learn about the history and ideas of these old philosophers without feeling bogged down by concepts. The authors focus on the meat of the philosophies and connect all of them to our experiences in the modern world. They also set out to prove that our own philosophies about life, death and its meaning (or lack thereof) stem from massive cultural trends that have taken place over thousands of years. Our ideas about life don’t emerge in a vacuum — we’re deeply shaped by the culture around us.
The authors explain that the Western world’s view of ancient philosophers and their culture is flawed. We think of these civilizations as being highly ritualistic and tradition-oriented. In our society, we appear to value individualism over cultural traditions. However, as the authors point out, we’re not as independent as we think we are. Likewise, ancient philosophers aren’t the strict traditionalists that we make them out to be.
The most interesting example of this concept in “The Path” is the discussion of Chinese death rituals. Confucius, in particular, spoke about the importance of paying respect to ancestors after death. In China, many families believe that their loved ones become “ghosts” when they die. In order to keep their ancestors calm, families hold vigils for the dead. They clean their tombstones, light incense and offer their ancestors their favorite foods or drinks.
This might seem like an unnecessary tradition to Westerners, but “The Path” explains that the rituals are beneficial for families.
Our relationships with our loved ones are complicated and often messy. A son might have had a competitive, fraught relationship with his father while he was alive. However, ritual vigils can help him form a new relationship with his father after his death. As he pays respect to his dead father, he flips the script on their old relationship. He achieves a sense of calm through ritual, rather than letting his miserable relationship with his father continue to haunt him long after his father’s death.
The authors explain, “For Confucius, the ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it.” Whether it actually calmed the “ghosts” of loved ones didn’t matter.
“The Path” also addresses some common fears about death. Many ancient Chinese philosophers taught The Way (often called the Tao), which emphasizes that the world is constantly evolving and that everything and everyone in the universe is connected on a basic level. We walk on ground largely made from decomposed plants and animals. When we die, we return to the ground to support other lifeforms, and the cycle continues.
For these Taoist philosophers, to fear death is to fear The Way itself. No living thing has control over death. Death is just something that happens, like the changing seasons. Being a living, breathing human being is only a temporary state, which for these philosophers is what makes it worth enjoying while it lasts.
This book likely won’t be anything new to those who have studied Taoism or Confucian teachings. Even so, it’s an excellent collection of ideas that’s well worth a read, especially if you’re in the midst of grief. “The Path” teaches us how to shift our perspective and make the most out of the brief time we have with the people we love.