Westerners are taught there is only one concept of modern thought that matters: ours. But it turns out that philosophers have been grappling with the same basic questions about humanity for millennia. It can be helpful and comforting to see our own point of view as just one dot on the timeline and how Chinese philosophy still resonates today. From The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life.
When it comes to planning for happiness and prosperity in the West, we are taught to rely on our rational minds, confident that we can arrive at a solution by careful calculation. In the face of life’s uncertainty, we take comfort in the belief that by overcoming emotion and bias and reducing our experience to measurable data, we can master chance and defy fate. Consider our most popular approach to moral and ethical dilemmas: inventing a representative hypothetical situation and working through it rationally. In the famous trolley experiment, we’re told to imagine ourselves in a trolley yard, watching a runaway trolley coming down the tracks. We see it’s going to hit five people up on the tracks ahead. But if we pull a switch we can divert the trolley onto a different track, where one person is lying. Do we allow the trolley to plow into those five people, or do we pull the switch to save them—actively choosing to kill the single person lying there?
What’s the right thing to do?
This kind of question has occupied philosophers and ethicists for lifetimes. Countless essays—even a book or two—have been written on its implications. The scenario allows us to reduce decision making to a simple set of data and a single choice. Most of us think that’s how decisions get made.
They tried these thought experiments in Chinese philosophy, too. But our Chinese thinkers weren’t as intrigued. This is a fine intellectual game, they determined, but you can play these games all day long, and they will have no impact on how you live your ordinary everyday life. None whatsoever.
The way we think we’re living our lives isn’t the way we live them. The way we think we make decisions isn’t how we make them. Even if you did find yourself in that trolley yard someday, about to see someone killed by an oncoming trolley, your response would have nothing to do with rational calculation. Our emotions and instincts take over in these situations, and they guide our less spontaneous decisions as well, even when we think we’re being very deliberate and rational: What should I have for dinner? Where should I live? Whom should I marry?
Seeing the limitations of this approach, these Chinese philosophers went in search of alternatives. The answer, for them, lay in honing our instincts, training our emotions, and engaging in a constant process of self-cultivation so that eventually—at moments both crucial and mundane—we would react in the right, ethical way to each particular situation. Through those responses, we elicit positive responses in those around us. These thinkers taught that in this way, every encounter and experience offers a chance to actively create a new and better world.
An additional element of classic Chinese philosophy was memorizing a book of poems. Discover how Chinese arts define our humanity.