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The Path is old wine repackaged into a new bottle with an innovatively redesigned label. The subtitle to this book by Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University, and Christine Gross-Loh, journalist and author, is a little bit of an oddity in itself. What Puett and Gross-Loh term as new thinking is in fact philosophy that has extraordinarily ancient roots. The Path is a compilation of directional wisdom propagated by four ancient Chinese Masters. Puett and Gross-Loh double up as mediums for the famed quartet of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi, and try to inculcate into the reader a few salient and precocious tenets for which the philosophers are universally acclaimed. And in the process, they also argue that the way to resolving niggles in the contemporaneous world would be analyse them using the same set of principles and practices which these four masters would have used when confronted with a similar problem. Thus, in a nutshell, when challenged by any impediment, just ask, what would Messrs. Confucius/Mencius/Laozi/Zhuangzi & Co would have done?
The quintessence of Confucian teaching derives from an emphasis on ‘social rituals.’ Religiously adhering to conventional rituals can lend a modicum of meaning to life and relationships. Even a ‘forced’ familial gathering where avarice and hatred can be felt simmering on the surface is a lesson in leading life. The induced peace and uneasy calm that prevails throughout the session/event can be a behavioural lesson in itself.
If Confucius reiterates adherence, Mencius advocates abandon. “Trained Spontaneity” is this philosopher’s Mantra. Laozi’s pet philosophy is soft power whereas that of Zhuangzi is the prevalence of artifice over nature. For a reader, these nuggets of cherry-picked wisdom do not strike as something either novel or ‘unearthed.’ As the authors themselves confess; “None of these ideas is new to us.” The prose is amateurish to the extent that it assumes a degree of naivete on the part of the reader.
Certain passages and suggestions are downright bewildering. For example, there is an exhortation to let Laozi into the conference room where the philosopher or his benevolent spirit rather, would assist his bearer in “seeing everything as undifferentiated.” Fodder for thought before attending an upcoming session on strategic mergers, anyone? Forget that you cannot differentiate between a contingent liability and an actual provision for litigation, so long as the ghost of Laozi perched on your left shoulder, keeps crooning into your left ear, you have pretty much got all your bases covered!
Puett and Goh conclude with these words: “If the world is fragmented, then it gives us every opportunity to construct things anew. It begins with the smallest things in our daily lives, from which we change everything. It begins there, then everything is up to us.”
I personally found The Path, incidentally a take on “The Way,” an essential teaching taught by Laozi that urges humanity to go with the flow, to be more than just a wee bit condescending. The tepid narrative does not leave any enduring or indelible impact on the reader. The book however might function as a feeder for people eager to learn more about the teachings and works of the major philosophers finding a mention in the book.