Two reasons for reading the Analects and the Daodejing

Statue of Confucius, Nishan
Statue of Confucius, Nishan

How are the teachings of Confucius and Laozi relevant to the modern world? This is the question I have been asking myself as I have been reviewing my translations of The Analects and the Daodejing.

On one level, this is an easy question to answer. Given China’s growing global political and economic influence, it makes practical sense to learn more about the two seminal philosophical texts that provide the underpinnings of a nation that President Xi Jinping pointedly reminded President Trump yesterday has the longest uninterrupted culture in the world. What could be a more effective way of understanding China’s traditions and customs than reading two of the most influential and enduring works in world history?

If that isn’t sufficient justification, there is a second and, to me at least much more interesting, perspective to approach the Analects and the Daodejing from: namely, whether the lessons the two texts contain can help us to embrace the personal and social challenges that we are grappling with in the modern world as a result of the dramatic changes that are being driven by the rapid proliferation of new technologies.

How can the process of reversion in the Daodejing, for example, help us better understand the growing ideological polarization we are seeing in the West? And how can the adoption of simple daily rituals like the ones that Confucius is described as having pursued in Book 10 of the Analects help us to improve the way we lead our daily lives?

Since both the Analects and the Daodejing were composed over 2,000 years ago, pursuing such questions may appear quixotic at best. But the more I’ve studied the works, the more I’ve come to realize that amid their archaic language and opaque jargon they both contain insights and wisdom that are highly applicable to more effectively navigating the complexities of the world we live in. This is the topic that I will be exploring as I put the finishing touches to my translations in the months ahead.

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