“The ancient texts can speak to us today,” says Sam Crane, Fred Greene Third Century Professor of Political Science, whose new book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao: Ancient Chinese Thought in Modern American Life, is out this month.
The book distills key concepts from classical Confucian and Daoist thinkers and applies them to issues confronting contemporary Americans. How, for example, might a modern-day Confucian respond to the question same-sex marriage? Or what might Zhuangzi add to our understanding of assisted suicide? Crane hopes that his book will simultaneously make ancient Chinese thought more accessible and provide new insights into familiar American debates.
Take abortion. Crane argues that Confucian and Daoist thought would likely come down on different sides, but, he stresses, not using the same justifications Americans do today. Confucians would accept abortion under certain conditions but they would frame their argument in terms of social duties and obligations. “Confucians,” he says, “would prioritize our duties to the living over those to the not-yet-born.” Daoists, on the other hand, would have what Crane describes as “a skepticism about attempts to control the unfolding of events.” He explains that Daoists believe nature is going to proceed as it will, and therefore they would question whether we can actually attain the goals we seek through calculated actions.
On other issues, such as children who are tried as adults for heinous crimes, Crane says Confucians and Daoists would likely agree. “They have very different views of childhood, but at the end of the day neither would accept the prosecution of children as adults.”
“Confucianism and Daoism teach much about how to live a good life, and what politics is all about,” Crane says. “They hold many fascinating and relevant insights that can benefit many people, in many different facets of their lives.”
Crane’s blog, The Useless Tree, which he has maintained since 2005, also contemplates ancient Chinese thought in modern American life.