What I’ve Been Reading: The Path by Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh

the path

As a 25 year old millennial, I’m at the prime point in my life to experience the dreaded Quarter Life crisis. Although, I’ve not found myself in the midst of one yet, I have found myself increasingly pulled towards self-help books and even have even looked on enviously as my peers post pictures of themselves on ‘profound’ trips to find themselves. 

Personally, the idea running away from everything to find some authentic version of the self – although it might work for others – has never sat completely well with me as an idea. I adore travel, but this approach doesn’t seem for me. Likewise, the advice in many self-help books to pin down who you are and want you want has never stuck for me. So when The Path was recommended to me as a book which offers a different perspective on development and life, I was immediately interested. 

The Path, written by Professor of Chinese History at Harvard Professor Michael Puett and writer Christine Gross-Loh, presents the teaching of several Chinese philosophers from the Axial Period (3rd-8th Century), in an attempt to relate

The Fetishisation of Eastern Philosophies 

When I first picked up The Path and read the blurb I was initially rather hesitant to delve into it’s pages. References to itself as ‘a profound guide to living well’ drawing on ‘the timeless wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers’ on the back cover made me dread that I might be about to indulge in a text that fetishises Eastern philosophy or displays Orientalist tendencies.

However, I was relived to find that this book is not guilty of any of the above. In fact Puett and Gross-Loh, address misrepresentations of philosophies that have become prominent in Western society. They argue that there exists an assumption that ancient China was a tradition-based society that was inherently more in tune with nature and peaceful. As someone, who admittedly hasn’t studied or read much Chinese philosophy  it was refreshing to read a text that took such a pragmatic and tone and approach to the focal material.

Starting small

Big questions can be absolutely paralysing to approach. The thought of sitting a contemplating what you want to do with your life, what the point of existence is and who you truly are, might fill people who are philosophy majors with unease.

Luckily, Puett and Gross-Loh choose to focus on the small actions of everyday life rather than the tackling the big questions, from Confucian rituals of the mundane to Zhuangzi’s preposition that training is the way to spontaneity, whether it be through learning how to cook, play piano or approach your career. I found this a very accessible way to approach an unfamiliar philosophy, as everyday examples made it very easy to relate to my own life and having a go at applying some of the principles didn’t seem too intimidating.

An antidote to “finding yourself”

Unpack your bags, people! For the philosophers Puett and Gross-Loh discuss there is no ‘you’ to find, as everything is always changing.

In fact, creating a unified idea of who ‘you’ are and attempting to build up this one view, is described as been limiting to chance and transformation. For instance, if you’re a painter and that’s how you define yourself, you might be reluctant to try other artistic  disciplines that could lead to growth. The Path covers ideas for growth and transformation in much more detail, providing ideas from various sources on how to cultivate passions and skills, along with the dangers of devising unnecessary assumptions and divisions.

For me, many of the techniques and approaches outlined my these ancient philosophers, seem a lot more grounded than trying to get your life to fit some grand narrative or chasing an allusive truth. Great for someone like myself, who isn’t seeking a radical life overhaul.

The takeaway 

While The Path is a very interesting text and is accessible for those that don’t know much about Chinese philosophy, it certainly isn’t holiday reading, especially when Puett and Gross-Loh discuss concepts such as ‘qi’- something that I hadn’t heard about until picking up this book, and found it tricky to wrap my head around some of the nuances about.

Additionally, I would have very much liked more translated passages from the discussed texts in the booked. As it would have been interesting to see how elements were framed and presented by the philosophers, before Puett and Gross-Loh discuss them.

Overall, The Path is fascinating and contains useful perspectives for living life that I will certainly take-away from it. I am glad that it has a recommended reading section at the back, as it has sparked an interest in philosophy from ancient China and I look forward to indulging further.



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