This book is organizationally and conceptually similar to a book by Edward Slingerland that I reviewed recently entitled “Trying Not to Try.” I’ll first discuss how the books are alike before differentiating them as I believe they are both worth reading. First, both books essentially look at how the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophers—both Confucian and Taoist—can be put into practice to improve one’s life in the modern world. Second, the heart of each work consists of chapters devoted to the thinking of one particular philosopher and how the ideas of said philosopher compare and contrast to those of the others.
That said, both books create their own space in a way that justifies each’s existence. While Slingerland focuses heavily on the notion of wu-wei (effortless action) and de (the charisma of effortless action,) Puett and Gross-Loh consider a broader swath of human activity. That may make it sound like this book is more rambling and unfocused, but there is a central theme that cuts across the chapters. That theme rejects the simple and straightforward ideas given credence by modern Western society (as well as by the Chinese Mohists–i.e. followers of Mozi.) It suggests that the self is not a fixed entity but rather a collection of patterns. One needs to accept that these are just ruts that can be negated and to behave accordingly if one hopes to achieve an enjoyable life in a world that can be capricious and chaotic.
The first couple chapters of the book look at the problems of the modern world and how ideas from traditional societies—such as the China of past centuries—differed. With that context set, each but the last chapter examines an aspect of the human condition from the perspective of a particular Chinese philosopher.
Chapter three offers Confucius’s ideas about rituals and how they can be used to cultivate virtuous behavior. Chapter four presents the ideas of Mencius with regards how to live life in a world that is capricious and arbitrary.
The fifth chapters shifts from Confucianism to Taoism as it explores Laozi’s ideas about how one can influence others not by brute force but by moving in accordance with “the Way,” and how eliminating illusory distinctions is the key to developing this soft power.
The sixth chapter focuses not on the ideas of a particular author but a particular work, “The Inward Training.” This manual describes how one can increase one’s vitality (readers maybe familiar with the idea of “chi” or “qi,” as in “tai chi” or “qi gong”) by a mystical approach that cultivates the divine within one.
Chapter seven is about Zhuangzi’s ideas about accepting that our world is constantly in flux and to battle this fact is as futile as it is exhausting. The ideas discussed echo the aforementioned concept of “wu-wei” as well as modern concepts of positive psychology such as Czikszentmihalyi’s Flow and ecstasis.
The penultimate chapter returns to a Confucian philosopher, one by the name of Xunzi, who believed that humans create the patterns we live under and it’s up to us to get past said patterns and not to accept them as a given. The last chapter circles back around to propose how the ideas presented throughout the book might allow us to remake the modern world in a happier form.
The book has no graphics, but does have a small section of resources and readings.
I found this book to be enjoyable and informative. The authors use modern stories and cases to make these ideas understandable and relevant to the reader as well as to supplement stories of ancient history. The book provides food for thought and—as I said—it creates its own niche. I’d recommend it for readers interested in how ancient Chinese wisdom can relate to present-day living.
This book’s paradoxical title is perfect for its paradoxical subject matter, which is famously expressed in such quotes as, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone” [ver. 48 of the Tao Te Ching.] Slingerland lays down the ancient Chinese wisdom of wu-wei and de, but provides something novel by putting it in the context of the positive psychology and neuroscience of today. Wu-wei literally means “no doing,” but can be more meaningfully defined as “effortless action.” De (pronounced “duh”) is a charisma seen in people who have mastered the effortlessness and spontaneity of wu-wei.
While the book is built around the varied approaches of four Chinese philosophers—two Confucians (i.e. Confucius and Mencius) and two Taoists (i.e. Laozi and Zhuangzi)—the author relates this philosophy to the present-day thinking found in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s conception of Flow, and the neuroscience of the subconscious.
The book consists of eight chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters outline the concepts of wu-wei and de using both Chinese and Western stories and examples to help clarify these arcane ideas and put them in the context of the social and spiritual spheres. Chapter 1 offers an extensive discussion of the operation of the brain as it relates to the discussion of effortlessness and spontaneity.
Chapters three through six make up the core of the book, and present the approach and thinking of Confucius, Laozi, Mencius, and Zhuangzi, respectively. This “boy-girl-boy-girl” Confucian-Taoist organization offers the reader sound insight into the varied approaches and allows one to see the evolution of thinking. Confucius gets the first cut, but his approach to effortlessness and spontaneity involves a great deal of effort and planning. It might seem that Laozi’s approach–which does away with effort and planning–might be more apropos, but it’s hard to imagine anything of benefit actually being spawned by such a loosy-goosy approach. The more nuanced approaches of Mencius and Zhuangzi offer additional insight, but do not eliminate the paradox. It’s this paradox that’s the subject of chapter seven.
The final chapter examines what the reader can take away–given that the paradox of wu-wei seems inescapable. The author proposes that, paradox or not, there is value in pursuit of effortlessness and spontaneity, and progress can be made by understanding and accepting said paradox.
The book has no graphics, but is annotated and has a bibliography–as well as an appendix table that summarizes the various approaches to wu-wei.
I enjoyed this book and found it fascinating. It’s highly readable, having humor and a wide range of examples from ancient myths to pop culture. The book offers a great value-added by considering the relevance of modern science and psychology to this ancient concept. I’d highly recommend this for individuals interested in Chinese / Eastern philosophy, as well as anyone hoping to bring a little more effortlessness and spontaneity into his or her life.
Temple of Literature? (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám?) It sounds like a grandiose name for a library, but it’s really what the Vietnamese call a Confucian temple. This one is in Hanoi.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher famous for his ideas such as the hierarchical nature of relationships and how governance is practiced morally. His philosophy provided a popular counterpoint to the more free-wheeling Taoist belief system. Both Confucianism and Taoism came to be practiced by some as religion (though other advocates of each would say that it’s philosophy and not theology.)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There’s no one more firmly associated with Eastern wisdom—particularly in the form of aphorisms that fit nicely onto a fortune cookie—than Confucius. This is a book of such aphorisms.
I must admit, I’m not a wholehearted devotee of the Chinese philosopher, and am more likely to side with the Taoist sages who mocked Confucian ideas at every turn. In short, I’m not a big fan of the Confucian idea of societal hierarchies based on some elements of society accepting being infantilized in exchange for the protection and goodwill of others. It’s not just that I’m a youngest child that causes me to ask, what if the younger brother is smarter?
Once one gets beyond what is probably Confucius’s best known teaching—the five relationships—one sees a great deal of solid wisdom that even a Taoist would be hard pressed to refute.
Many of Confucius’s sayings aren’t novel or unique. Like Socrates, Confucius advocates knowing what one doesn’t know—which implies accepting that there are things one doesn’t know and not acting like one knows it all. (A common enough vice in modern times as in ancient.) Like the Indian sages, Confucius emphasized that one shouldn’t chase fame or act out of a desire for the fruits of one’s actions. Like the Stoics, Confucius said, “A gentleman knows neither sorrow nor fear.”
One of the most quoted sayings in this work is, “A gentleman should be slow to speak and quick to do.” This contains two bits of wisdom rolled into one: a.) Think before you say something stupid. b.) and, Get off your ass and do it, already. Of course, Confucius also produced an early (if not the earliest) formulation of what is usually called “The Golden Rule.) Confucius say, “What I do not wish done to me, I likewise wish not to do to others.”
I think everyone should read this short book of even shorter sayings.
1.) Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle –Plato
2.) If you choose, you are free; if you choose, you need blame no man. –Epictetus
3.) …the greatest carver does the least cutting. –Lao Tzu
4.) If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. –Martin Luther King Jr
5.) A gentleman wishes to be slow to speak and quick to do. –Confucius