Between my fortune cookies from the local Chinese Dynasty and the teachings of Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid films, I used to think my knowledge in Chinese philosophy was flourishing like a well watered Bonsai Tree. However not until I got my hands on The Path, a sort of highlights package presented by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh on what Chinese Philosophers can teach us about the good life, did I realise I knew remarkably little. I digested it a couple of weeks ago, and many things have stuck with me such as the laws of spontaneity, the art of quietening ones mind, and why kids love hide and seek. Below is a quick interview with co-author Christine Gross-Loh who has just finished her European tour. Enjoy, and get the book.
Out of all the philosophers mentioned, which one would you like to be stuck in a lift with, have over for dinner, go out and get drunk with?
Mencius would be a great companion in a stuck lift – he knows, better than anyone, how capricious and unpredictable the world is, and how to adjust our mindset to cope. Confucius, with his attentiveness to details and rituals, would make the most enjoyable and uplifting dinner companion. And I’d love to go out for drinks with Zhuangzi. Reading him, even while sober, is a transcendent, even psychedelic experience – who knows what it would be like if we were buzzed!
Do you agree with Mozi or Mencius, is the world capricious or coherent?
I think the world is indeed capricious – so much happens that is outside of our control. We’re so much better off understanding this and preparing how to live as flexibly as possible to work with what happens. It doesn’t mean to avoid laying down plans, but to live with an understanding that things can change, bad things can happen, but that it’s within our power to work through those changes and hopefully emerge in a better place.
Do you think we should engage in the Confucian ‘as-if rule exception’ that we should lie to our kids about Santa Claus?
I do think that there is something about the Santa Claus ritual that is a perfect example of as-if, as Confucius taught. If we are a family in which we encourage the belief in Santa Claus, we all partake in this fiction – and by doing so we become closer to one another through this shared fiction. But there are many different as-if rituals that can encourage the same closeness; we don’t have to do it through Santa Claus (and indeed many families don’t!).
How many hours do you spend reading a day?
I read pretty much as often as I can. At least several hours a day if possible – and a broad range – memoir, nonfiction, literature, and poetry, as well as online articles and news.
Which philosopher in your opinion is misunderstood?
I think that Confucius is the most misunderstood of the Chinese philosophers. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say that he was about learning how to live within specific, rigid social roles or about promoting a harmonious society through strict hierarchy. As we show in our book, nothing is further from the truth in his texts. The cultivation of goodness was a key Confucian concept, but what is striking about Confucian goodness is that it cannot be defined in the abstract – through abstract and defined rules about what one must adhere to to be good. Rather, it was about cultivating your ability to sense situations so that you would become the sort of human being who can act well towards other people in the vast variety of situations we encounter every day in our lives.
What’s your next project?
I’ve a couple of shorter articles I’m finishing up that I’m excited about, and am thinking about another non-fiction book project to dig into, hopefully not too long in the future! Also, for fun, I would like to try my hand at fiction. I’ve never written fiction, never thought myself capable of it, but as the Chinese philosophers teach us: break from everything you think you are, in order to live an expansive life.