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How to Beat Napoleon: When Retreat is Not Defeat (Chinese Philosophy & The Good Life)

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia. Facing the most powerful army in the World at the time, the Russians retreated. As they retreated, the Russian soldiers followed a scorched-earth policy, burning villages and crops to the ground. In so doing, the Russians forced the French into a dilemma. The French could either transport supplies for their soldiers over long distances, which was not easily done, or French soldiers could leave their camps late at night in search of food making them easy targets for capture by the Russian army. Despite dwindling troops, the French continued to advance into Russia and the Russians continued to retreat. The Russians even went so far as to evacuate the entire city of Moscow and set it aflame. When Napoleon marched into the empty city in the winter of 1812, his already reduced troops quickly starved or died of hypothermia. After six months, Napoleon's force of 450,000 (by modest estimates) had been reduced to less than a 100,000. Thus, the greatest army in the world was defeated through retreat.

This is just one of the many lessons that can be found in one of my favorite reads of this year, The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About The Good Life by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh. Puett is a Professor of Chinese History at Harvard University. The book is a collection of popular lectures he has given about Chinese philosophy. As philosophy buffs will be well aware, the good life has long been a preoccupation for philosophers.  As far back as Ancient Greece, Socrates and Plato, the founders of Western philosophy, talked extensively about the good life. The famous quote, "the unexamined life is not worth living," is credited to Socrates in Plato's The Apology, which is an account of Socrates' trial. Found guilty of "corrupting the youth" and "impiety," Socrates is sentenced to death. Despite his death sentence, Socrates refuses to flee the city. Socrates argues that as citizens we are all required to obey a higher authority, be that the authority of the state or a higher moral authority. In Socrates' case, being found guilty by the laws and legal processes of the state he choose to live in and being unable to in good conscience give up the pursuit of philosophy, Socrates concedes that there is no other authority to prevail upon and accepts his death sentence. In justifying his decision to his friends, Socrates, who has spent his life trying to define what is true justice, true beauty, true friendship, etc, explains that it is only through self-reflection and contemplation that we can come to answer these questions. A good life, according to Socrates, is one that requires critical thinking and a constant examination of ourselves to guard against the follies of blindly following our instincts or popular convictions. Hence, "the unexamined life is not worth living." It is Socrates' notion of a good life that I believe Puett and Gross-Loh are referring to in their title. Throughout The Path, Puett and Gross-Loh continuously explore the roles self-reflection and examination play in Chinese philosophy and the way we can uses these philosophies to better ourselves.

Puett and Gross-Loh begin their discussion of Chinese philosophy with Confucius, the most famous of the Chinese philosophers. In focusing on the importance of self-examination, Puett and Gross-Loh challenge us to question the notion of an "authentic self" that we tend to have in the West. The illustration that Puett and Gross-Loh provide is that you may think of yourself as a person who is easily annoyed, but it is more likely you have become an irritable person by failing to properly reflect upon and appropriately channel your emotions. Citing Confucius' The Nature That Emerges from the Decree, Puett and Gross-Loh explain that Confucius encouraged the use of daily routines or rituals to develop the best version of ourselves. By developing the best version of ourselves or what Confucius called 'propriety,' we can learn to minimize the irritation we feel towards others. For example, perhaps there is a co-worker who irritates you on a daily basis. Rather than rolling your eyes or acknowledging them brusquely, reflect upon what annoys you about this co-worker and think about how you can change your response to illicit both a better reaction from your co-worker and yourself. In doing so, you may find that your interactions become more positive. While you may never grow to like this person, you may find that you are less annoyed with them. Instead of viewing these interactions as fake, Puett and Gross-Loh encourage us to view them as being the appropriate response of an emotionally mature adult. Similar to the way that we do not expect our co-workers to have adult temper tantrums and throw their coffee mugs around the office when they are upset, or the way we teach our children to say 'please' and 'thank you,' we must constantly train ourselves to develop a better sense of propriety or emotional maturity. Thus, our "authentic" selves are not always our best selves, but with self-reflection, mindfulness and practice, we can bring about our best selves.

Puett and Gross-Loh expand upon this idea of not associating what is natural with what is best by introducing Xunzi. Xunzi tells the story of our beginning. He notes that humans used to die of hypothermia or starvation for a lack of warmth or food. It is only as humans learned to build fires, make clothes and develop agriculture that they could begin to thrive. Human success therefore depended not on living in harmony or as one with nature, but in learning to tame and domesticate nature. Accepting the world as it is is destructive, Xunzi argues. Rather than trying to find our place in the world, we should instead ask ourselves if we have a created a world that is well suited to meet our needs and challenge ourselves to create a better world if we find that it is lacking. Thus, both Confucius and Xunzi empower the individual to use self-reflection and examination to create a good life and a better world.

Fear not, The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Can Teach Us About the Good Life is less of a self-help book and more of a gentle introduction to Chinese philosophy, including the philosophers, Mencius, Laozi and Zhuangzi, who I have not touched upon here. What makes The Path so enjoyable is that it is an surprisingly accessible introduction to Chinese philosophy by an expert in the field. This is exciting for two reasons. First, Chinese, and non-Western philosophers in general, tend to be overlooked in American philosophy departments. Thus, The Path gives a much needed introduction to Eastern philosophy. Second, as anyone who has struggled with Heidegger or Wittgenstein can tell you, it is often a mystery as to why their works are translated into English in the first place, so little of them are comprehensible. Readers will not encounter the same problem with The Path. This may be due to the fact that the book itself is not a primary source. While Puett and Gross-Loh do occasionally quote the Chinese philosophers they are referencing, for the most part, the work is Puett's interpretation and analysis of these philosophers told in a congenial style. This cuts out much of the slow-going reading and re-reading that is often required of philosophy. Finally, The Path challenges both our Western ways of thinking, as well as the misconceived stereotypes we have of Eastern thought. If these reasons do not intrigue you, you can always read The Path to discover how Puett and Gross-Loh connect Russia's strategy in the Napoleonic worlds to Chinese philosophy.


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