Michael J. Puett’s course boasts the third-highest enrollment at Harvard College. Can you guess what it is? No, not Ec10, and no, not CS50—it’s ER18, Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory. Puett is also an accomplished author, having published dozens of academic papers and several books. His most recent work, “The Path,” discusses what the world today can learn from ancient Chinese philosophers. Despite his popular success, he always keeps his office door open—during his time at Harvard, Puett has received several awards for his dedication to teaching and advising undergraduate students. After meeting Puett, it’s easy to understand why his course is so popular. Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FM: ER18 is up there in enrollment with CS50 and Ec10, two very practical, skills-based courses. Could you give a pitch for your class, and explain how an ethical reasoning course can give us concrete skills?
MP: Usually when we think of practical skills, we think learning the skills of economics or computer programming—which are incredibly important—or we could expand that to a musical instrument or a sport. [With] all of those, we think about training ourselves to be good at those particular activities. We tend not to always think of our lives that way. Part of my course is teaching you to think about your life that way. You don’t want to simply live in the world and become a certain person because you’re told to be that person by social standards. That’s what the course is about: It’s a practical course about guiding your own life and building a world where we can flourish.
FM: What do you think is the biggest misconception we have about our lives today that is corrected or challenged by Chinese philosophy?
MP: The single biggest misconception is that we like to tell ourselves to look within ourselves, find ourselves, and be true to ourselves. We like to think that we can liberate ourselves by doing what we want to do and what’s best for us—and that’s the way to be a great individual. One of the best things Chinese philosophy texts teach is that, in doing so, we are actually trapping ourselves. With that rhetoric, what we are really saying in practice is that we should keep all the patterns and ruts we are falling into—because they are us. We entrap ourselves in this very limited vision of who we are. If we take the challenge of saying we fall into ruts and patterns but we can break out of those, you think of yourself and the world around you as changeable—and something you can devote yourself to changing. What we think of as a liberated life is actually chaining us.
FM: What are three pieces of advice that you would give to Harvard students, based on your course?
MP: Number one: Do not try to look within and find yourself. Think of the self as something you will create from the way you live your life. If you take it seriously, you can create an extraordinary life for yourself and those around you.
Number two, kind of related: Don’t ever think the world we’re living in is somehow just natural, the way things are. The world we’re living in has been created by human activities, and if we’re not happy with the world we’re living in, it’s up to us to change it. Never fall into the danger of thinking this just is the way things are. The world is always changing.
The third is kind of just putting those two together—giving myself the challenge of saying that among the things I’m going to devote myself to while I’m on this planet is to create an extraordinary life for me and those around me, a world where I and those around me can truly flourish. The fact that there’s no way now to know in advance what that’s going to mean in 30, 40, 50 years, is part of the excitement, because it means you are constantly working to create that kind of world without knowing what it’s going to be. It means you are constantly asking yourself, have we really created the world where people can flourish? If not, how can we change it? That way, we can construct an extraordinary life for ourselves, and an extraordinary world where people can flourish.