This slim book is based on lectures delivered at Harvard by Professor Michael Puett on Chinese Ethical and Political Theory; in fact it is difficult to see what contribution Gross-Loh has made other than to provide a foreword. Puett’s university course challenges modern assumptions by drawing on teachings from 600-200 BC on how humans can improve themselves and their society. There are six main themes — the rituals we perform, training to respond to small incidents, influence from self-restraint, excellence from not what we are but what we do, there is no one path to follow because every event can produce a different perspective and response, and the creation of conditions to open up new possibilities.    

Puett posits three Ages of man, complacency, philosophy, and possibility; six Chinese sages, Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuanzi and Xunzi; and six human traits, relationships, decisions, influence, vitality, spontaneity and humanity. He claims that study of these will not be a matter of ‘finding oneself’, but will provide the tools for a different world-view. We hold assumptions of who we are and how society operates, but this limits our experience and potential. We may think we have emerged from a repressive traditional past to a coherent freer society, but the world remains broken, fragmented and messy. Contacts with China helped to herald the western Enlightenment, but European scholars continue to believe in a post-Calvinist view of a good life; that only the West was rational and self-aware; there was an unchangeable past, unified order, rational laws and ethical doctrines, and the best individual was he that knew himself and determined his own life. Puett believes such ideas should be challenged but it is not necessary to practice detachment; one has inevitably to return to a normal life. On the contrary, one must engage in order to alter the world. We should strive to build better relationships, alter situations, construct things anew and begin with the smallest events of daily life.

We must cast aside the view that the ancient Chinese philosophers are not ‘modern’ and that self-definition is the path to truth. Solutions are not found from a set of data and a single choice; we must hone our instincts and train our emotions. Confucius (551-479 BC) tried to get people to create their world and a wider social order through how they interacted with those around them. Our feelings oscillate depending on whom we encounter and our emotions make us human, but we have to train our responses through ritual because humans are creatures of habit. Ancestral worship and ritual in everyday relationships bring about changes in ourselves, though the changes could only come slowly.

We are emotional humans in complex and contradictory ways, and should be malleable, letting go of the ‘true self’ and set patterns of behaviour, starting with the smallest actions — “our lives begin in the everyday and stay in the everyday”. Mencius stated that the world is unpredictable and capricious; hard work did not result necessarily in success nor bad deeds in punishment. Good decisions are made when heart and mind are united; rational choice and gut instinct do not help, but everyone has the capacity for good and emotions have to be refined so that the good response emerges instinctively. That sense of the right thing to do has to be nurtured to fill a day and eventually a whole life. We have to face every situation resolved to be the best human being possible and affect others for the better, regardless of the outcome.

True power comes from understanding the connections between disparate situations and people; power struggles only deepen divisions. Laozi referred to The Way and founded the Daoist School, which warned against making distinctions even when they appear moral and correct. One has to create a mood, a world where everyone is inter-connected. Regardless of one&’s initial position, it is better to appear weak in order to shift situations for the better; it is better to connect than dominate. Zhuangzi in the fourth century BC was a Daoist who postulated the well-known Kafka-esque paradox that he could not tell if he was Zhuangzi dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi. He wanted us to break from our limited perceptions of the world; we should be spontaneous, feel the excitement of life and not battle against flux and transformation. Apart from the butterfly image, he put forward ying and yang, opposites that actually complement each other. We have to cultivate an ability to transcend our own experience. Xunzi (b.310 BC) accepted that our base cravings and desires were part of being human; human nature was bad and the natural state was full of struggle. Artifice helped us to subdue our spontaneous and unruly emotions. There was no point in romanticism; we had to work only with what we have.

We must strive to become full of energy through self-training. Any changes will be slow, incremental and the result of daily effort. The divine spirit is a life-force, ineffable and unseen. We have to modulate our impulsive desires and beware of ups and downs, harmonising contradictions and cultivate goodness, propriety, knowledge, ritual and sagacity all at the same time. We have to retain our balance; refining the mind refines the body and vice versa. Charismatic persons are not born so; they draw others to themselves with the force of their energy because they pull things together, and energise others in turn.

Puett&’s book is designed to make the reader think, and it fulfils that objective. There are few deficiencies, because he presents complex philosophies lucidly. However, the want of an index is sorely felt, and it is surely contestable to take 600-200 BC, when Socrates, Buddha and Confucius addressed similar questions at approximately the same time, as the unique Axial Age. There are many other claimants to be axial ages or watersheds in human history. The reader is warned that this is no self-help book, since its message is that there is no true, authentic self and there is no point in seeking for truth since we will not recognise it when it comes. Puett suggests that we are only patterns of responses based on received wisdom, and the best we can do is to draw upon the ancient Chinese masters to embark on a slow journey to build relationships in the right manner and re-make society.

The reviewer is India&’s former foreign secretary.