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What would the great sage say if we teleported him to the 21st century?
Could Confucius Change Your Life?
In an panicked moment, maybe what we need most is a new set of eyes—or a very old one.
Whatever you may find to be the problem—capitalist excess or teens “keeping it real,” digital isolation, widespread anxiety, Trumpian narcissism, bad governance, or all of the above—Confucius has something to say to you.
That may be why Confucius and his followers—who taught and wrote almost 2,500 years ago—are resonating anew in the hearts of Chinese citizens. One of our guests, the great podcaster Kaiser Kuo, sees Confucian thinking as “baked-in” to the so-called Chinese character, as permanent as Plato.
Not to mention at Harvard, where, in the hands of beloved professor Michael Puett, Confucius provides counterintuitive wisdom to a bunch of self-aware, overwhelmed overachievers.
Confucius raises self-cultivation to the pursuit of a lifetime. Every encounter is a learning experience; every mundane action is a ritual to be perfected. All of it is in the service of the good life—reworking your desires, constraints, and impulses to promote ren—“goodness” or “humaneness”—in all you do.
Imagine the “superior person” as like an archer:
He rectifies himself, and seeks for nothing from others, so that he has no dissatisfactions. He does not murmur against Heaven, nor grumble against men…
The Master said, “In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.”
Maybe it’s this part that makes sense to the perfection-prone Harvard student. Imagine if all that striving were less about world takeover and more about nonstop inward renovation of the mind and heart.
Confucian thinking can put one in mind of superhuman social talents: Stefan Zweig‘s lost generation of hyper-refined Viennese (or Ralph Fiennes‘s M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel)—officials, artists, peerless hosts and hostesses with not a thread out of place, kind, warm, and accommodating down to their souls.
Michael Puett argues that Confucius still points a path to that kind of orderly, rewarding mutual life. And he’s making his pitch in an exciting new book called The Path, cowritten with Christine Gross-Loh.
We’ll talk about the comeback of the great sage—long in arriving—and what it could mean for your life.
You can hear a longer version of our conversations with our favorite people living Confucianism today, at least at a deep cultural level—Tu Weiming, Gish Jen, and Kaiser Kuo—below:
professor of East Asian studies at Harvard University and co-author, with Christine Gross-Loh, of The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.
professor of sociology at Kenyon College and author of Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities.
a leading scholar of neo-Confucian religion at Harvard and Beijing Normal University and author of many books about Confucius.
novelist of Typical American and author of most recently of Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.
Chinese-American tech evangelist, former heavy-metal guitarist of Tang Dynasty, and host of the Sinica podcast.