The phrase "eastern philosophy" was swirling around the West about the same time Ravi Shankar was sitting around with his sitar
. Add the popularization of yoga and meditative Buddhism and it was easy for an American in the 1960s to equate eastern wisdom with Indian culture.
Meanwhile, China was into its Cultural Revolution. Other than to a few home-bred Maoists
-- largely inspired by opposition to our war in Vietnam -- dirt-poor, chaotic China seemed to have little to teach the rich and democratic United States.
Things have changed. China was the global economic engine of the past generation, and while its government still stifles freedoms, you can understand people who might like its seeming orderliness today compared to the frequent reports of sectarian and sexual violence coming out of India and its neighboring states.
Now a new little book goes way back in history to explain to Westerners the wisdoms that made China the most successful ongoing civilization for 2,000 years -- and may be helping it surge again now that Mao Tse-tung is long dead.
As Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh demonstrate in The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
, at the same time the first Greek philosophers were doing their deep thinking, so too were several brilliant Chinese, including Confucius. While Greek thinking led to theological and scientific advances, the Chinese thinkers focused more on how people can live together peacefully and prosperously. Much of their advice soon became embedded in Chinese society.
The Greco-Roman world worked well enough for a few centuries and then fell apart, but China kept chugging along so steadily that even when invaders occasionally conquered it, the Chinese way of ordering society quickly absorbed them. And for most of that time, Chinese culture kept coming up with technologies superior to those in the West or India.
India saw the rise and fall of many empires and city states with little to show in what could be called material progress. And while they don't make the explicit comparison, I think Puett and Gross-Loh would put part of the blame on the inward-focused meditative aspect of Indian culture, somewhat comparable to the quest for personal salvation that was central to Medieval Western culture. Instead of looking inward or skyward for life's answers, the authors emphasize, the Chinese philosophers looked for the best ways for people to use the material world and relate to each other.
China in the 21st century is no utopia, but given the turbulence in the Islamic world, China's vision of economic prosperity combined with social controls is the dominant philosophical argument against the West's emphasis on personal freedom. Reading The Path
is one way to understand the long-term power of that challenge.
Evan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.