The meaning of life in East and West

Michael Puett

Michael Puett

Harvard Professor Michael Puett’s lecture last night was as challenging as it was entertaining.

The title was ‘Chinese Philosophy and the Meaning of Life’. I had no idea that the strongest values of western culture were about to be turned on their head, but that’s what happened.

I can’t do justice to his case. You’ll have to read his book for that. I’ll settle for describing how it affected me.

He began by talking about how we westerners generally respond to questions about the meaning of life. Be yourself. Find a partner, and a career, that fit who you are. The meaning of your life will come through living out the kind of person you are.

He related this to the algorithms used by organisations like Google to manipulate us. Adverts on our computer screens are designed on the basis of more knowledge about us than we would wish them to have: the things we’re interested in, the time of day we surf the net, the colours and parts of the screen that attract us most. This information is then sold to advertisers. As a result, when we think we are making our own decisions we’re often just acting out patterns of activity which have already become part of how we behave, and which the algorithms ‘know’ better than we do.

This fits a great deal of recent psychological research, showing that our choices are far more influenced by our experiences than we realise.

Michael’s point was that the western emphasis on ‘being yourself’ makes us all the more open to being manipulated, because it encourages us to repeat already-established patterns of behaviour. We just do what comes easily to us.

Confucius saw it the other way round. What we are, being ourselves, is messy. To tackle this, he recommended what we westerners tend to dismiss as outdated: rituals.

We were given an example of the kind of ritual Confucius had in mind. A king abandons his throne and plays the part of a submissive subject doing homage to his son, who is playing the role of king. In real life the son will one day become the king. Both men, by playing the part of someone else, are made to think what life is like from a different perspective.

Confucius’ society had many rituals, inverting different kinds of relationships. The long-term effect of performing them was to make people aware of what life is like for other people.

Michael then developed this point by drawing on other aspects of Confucius’ teaching. Roughly speaking, we need to train ourselves to think about how to enable other people to flourish, so that society as a whole can flourish. Life isn’t just about ourselves. It’s about helping others as well.

I hope this is a fair summary of his main points. What follows is my own reflections.

Individualism undermines society

‘Be yourself’ is an expression of individualism. Put yourself, as an individual, first. Express who you are.

This individualism is very western. If all the members of a society spend their lives ‘being themselves’, what will the result be? The answer depends on how you value human nature. If you think human nature is very co-operative and caring you may expect positive results. On the other hand, if you think human nature is selfish and greedy you are more likely to predict disaster.

Which is more likely? Well, if we are all encouraged to ‘be ourselves’, doesn’t this sound like encouragement to be selfish and greedy?

Morality and meaning

The title, and much of the talk, referred to ‘the meaning of life’. In the end, however, what was recommended, drawing on Confucius, was less meaning, more moral principle. It was about how to live our lives well.

In the western tradition, I suppose the closest parallel is with the love ethic as expressed in the way Jesus quoted the Hebrew scriptures. Develop the habit of caring about other people, and you will do the right thing. Modern ethicists describe it as virtue ethics, character ethics or situation ethics.

The meaning of life digs deeper. Even if we’ve got all our moral principles in place, and know how to live in such a way that we, or society, flourishes, what’s the point of doing it at all? For what purpose do we exist?

I have posted on this before and won’t pursue it further here. Suffice it to say here that, unless we draw on theological resources, so that the meaning of our lives is given to us from outside ourselves, we are left with two choices. One is that we invent our meanings for ourselves. (I don’t think we do, and can’t think why anyone would want to.) The other is that meaning gets reduced to something else, like ethics. In the circumstances I don’t suppose Michael could have done other than he did.


I was brought up in a vicarage where daily prayer was an important part of life. It meant, every day, reflecting on what one had done and was about to do, and how it would have affected other people.

A later generation of Christian teachers simplified the discipline into merely a matter of us telling God what to do; but that was after my time. For me, and many of my generation, an important element of private prayer was to reflect on the bits of our behaviour that need strengthening and the bits that need to be discouraged.

Confucius’ rituals were in a way perhaps stronger, as everyone was obliged to take part in them. Maybe the Roman Catholic discipline of confession to a priest comes closer.

We in the west need to re-establish effective disciplines of self-examination. Not just for concerned individuals: they need to become a normal part of our culture.

East teaches west

Part of the reason why Michael’s lecture was so engaging was that we westerners are so absorbed in ourselves. We don’t expect to learn anything from outside.

That western sense that we have nothing to learn from other people has, I suppose, a variety of sources. Enlightenment elitism, convinced that only western intellectuals understand how the world works. Imperialism, giving so much power to local rulers that they end up treating the natives as stupid. My own experience is more about elitist versions of Christianity, convinced that anyone who doesn’t accept the divinity of Christ is inferior. Whatever the source, we have inherited a tradition with an arrogant sense of superiority.

Confucius approved of rituals because they were a way individuals could appreciate what life is like for others. It isn’t just individuals who need to do this appreciating. Western society needs to do it too.

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1 Response to The meaning of life in East and West

  1. Geoff says:

    Very thought provoking.

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