04/18/2016 02:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What an American Professor Has Taught Me About Chinese Philosophers


Image courtesy Simon & Schuster

I wonder if I am more Asian, specifically Chinese, than I realize. I was reading the new book about applying Chinese philosophy to your own life, and it was more touching than I had expected. As a Chinese American whose parents emigrated from Taiwan more than fifty years ago, I grew up in Detroit. My hometown is "the Motor City." I would describe myself as highly assimilated, much more familiar with the Western Canon than any Confucian texts. I can recite Shakespeare.

Yet when I prepared to interview Professor Michael Puett for the Commonwealth Club, I was fascinated by his co-authored The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. (The podcast is available here.) Based on his course that consistently ranks among the top three in popularity at Harvard University, his book opens the mind.

I was aware of the hype. He has emerged as an intellectual celebrity, profiled by the mainstream media as the most popular teacher on campus despite the prevailing skepticism about the humanities in general. Administrators reportedly assigned him the largest auditorium available, to accommodate the overflow. He makes a promise that few would dare: his class and now the book will change your life.

Americans have had a recurring fascination with "the Orient." This is not the first book to present a popular version of Asian culture. Global trends ensures that the interest likely will become more serious and more lasting. Henry Luce's American Century has transitioned into a Chinese-American Century.

Puett is trying to revise the conventional image that Chinese philosophers are bound to tradition. No doubt it will be remarked upon that he is the author, not having been raised within any Asian heritage -- though he has a co-author who is of Asian background. Puett's enrollment is diverse. Asians and Asian Americans are interested, but many others who have no kinship with Asia also sign up.

The title of the work refers to the concept of the "Dao," translated as the "Way." The term may be misinterpreted. It emphatically does not denote a set, perfect path; it signifies a winding, provisional, even hidden path.

The themes that Puett emphasizes are the importance of ritual, the dynamism of our lives, and the influence of context. The trivial is profound. The original sources he cites, who argued with one another as Greeks Parmenides (there is only one) and Heraclitus (all is in flux) did, were all about ambiguities and how life is to be lived. Their aphorisms would remind the educated Westerner, the first word of which I hope is accurate of me and the second word of which I must admit is true, of Marcus Aurelius and Machiavelli, among others who penned treatises on how to lead life.

Confucius wrote about the details. He would not sit until he straightened his mat. That was literal and metaphorical. (The Greeks did not forget to regulate at a similar level of minutiae. Pythagoras, of the triangle fame, prohibited the consumption of beans, specifically the fava. It apparently was a prophylactic to avoid an anemia common in the era.)

Less famous intellectuals are given their due. Xunzi, for example, exalted artifice. He pointed out how civilization depends on it. Again, the West would not disagree. Hobbes praised the state for removing us from a state of nature in which life was bound to be "nasty, brutish, and short."

The Chinese anticipated modern theories. They claimed that through deliberate exercises you could alter your behaviors. Now we look at "choice architecture" to "nudge" ourselves toward better behavior. They suggested that we had to be sensitive to relationships. Now we look at how the roles we play define us.

These thoughts echo in my life, even if the origins were unknown to me. In almost all of my work, I talk about the value of process versus the determination to achieve a specific outcome. I also have often joked that every few years I have the ephiphany that everything I have thought turns out to be wrong, requiring that I reinvent myself.

As I continued to mull over Puett, I pondered if the characteristics he described account for stereotypes about Chinese and Chinese immigrants. The generalizations about Chinese peoples include that they are indirect, passive-aggressive, weak, and inscrutable. But maybe instead of being unprincipled, they are committed to a different set of ideals.

"To thine own self be true,"
from Shakespeare, is among the most popular directives about how to conduct one's self. (It it said, as much else is, by Polonius in Hamlet; he was so quotable that he came to be cliched.) As Puett points out, almost all of his Chinese writers would insist on the opposite. They believe that there is no such thing as any "true self."

An individual persuaded by Puett would regard the fetish for one's own authentic self as narcissism. The goal is not to identify an identity that you then declare as if explained everything about your conduct. A goal might not even be useful. It could impede improvement.

I am given hope. I realized some time ago that I have a problem. People, enough of them anyway, regard me as insincere. The problem with this particular problem, however, is that it is self-defeating to declare that one will practice sincerity. Or perhaps, Puett seems to suggest, it is not. There are gestures that become rituals, which if they are mutually understood, can create a new form of genuine relationships. I have always been uncertain that I have any "true self."

A critic would mock the abundant oxymorons that Puett repeats. He recommends "trained spontaneity." That also is reflected in the latest science on expertise and decision-making. A chess master makes moves based on a memory palace of options; a novice analyzes anew. The master defeats the novice, but a neuroscientist scanning the champion's brain would report that she thought about her strategy less -- not more. I was reminded of my closest experience to death while riding a motorcycle: at high speed on the highway, a car merged into my lane suddenly; I was saved only because without any conscious thinking I moved out of the way. If I had had to think, I would not have steered clear of a collision.

During our conversation, Puett noted that until recently he would have lamented how contemporary Chinese have turned away from ancient teachings. They, too, have come back to these works to learn. They are recovering what was forgotten or not transmitted from generation to generation. There is universal potential to be found in Chinese sources.

Puett and his co-author have performed a service for all of us. They have succeeded in their project. Their accessible, conversational style introduces anyone with interest to what Chinese sages suggested about giving meaning to our days. Even more impressive, they inspire interest.

After I put down Puett's volume, I looked through my personal library. Shelved alphabetically between Aristotle and Dewey, I found Confucius, a paperback version of the Analects that I picked up from the remainders bin some time ago. I've put it on my nightstand to peruse bit by bit, as is the best means to contemplate its epigrammatic content.