Self-Cultivation Philosophies


This is a draft of the Introduction to a book in progress tentatively entitled Self-Cultivation Philosophies in Ancient India, China and Greece. It explains and defends the concept of self-cultivation philosophy as a valuable interpretive tool.


What are Self-Cultivation Philosophies?


Self-cultivation philosophies propound a program of development for improving the lives of human beings. On the basis of an account of human nature and the place of human beings in the world, they maintain that our lives can and should be substantially transformed from what is judged to be a problematic, untutored condition of human beings into what is put forward as an ideal state of being. As such, self-cultivation philosophies are preeminently practical in their orientation: their primary purpose is to change our lives in fundamental ways. In this respect, they emphasize practical wisdom more than theoretical wisdom, in contemporary terms “knowing how” over “knowing that.” Yet, in promoting their practical ends, these philosophies typically make substantial theoretical, as well as empirical, claims about human nature and the world in which we live.


In this book, I will argue that the concept of self-cultivation philosophy is a valuable interpretive framework for understanding, comparing, learning from and assessing several important ancient philosophical outlooks in Greece, India and China. In particular, I will maintain that nine philosophical traditions may insightfully be interpreted as self-cultivation philosophies, three from each of these three ancient civilizations. The self-cultivation philosophies originating in Greece, with subsequent development in the Roman period, are the most prominent Hellenistic schools: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Pyrrhonian Skepticism. The philosophies from India are those rooted in the teaching of the Buddha, in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras, and—a rather special case—in the Bhagavad-Gītā. The self-cultivation philosophies from China are the Ruist tradition of Kongzi and his followers (better known in the Western world as Confucianism), the Daoist outlook based primarily on the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, and the later Chan Buddhist tradition (subsequently developed elsewhere in East Asia and best known in the West in its Japanese form as Zen).


Of course, there are other self-cultivation philosophies in these civilizations, in other ancient cultures, and throughout the world up to the present day, including the contemporary Western world. It is obviously not possible to consider all of these in a single work save at the cost of superficiality or extraordinary length. The nine philosophical traditions from Greece, India and China examined here have been selected for several reasons. The first is that each of them has inherent interest and value. The second is that the comparison of all of them together helps to demonstrate that, from early on, there has been important philosophy outside the Western world, especially in India and China, something that continues to be largely under appreciated by contemporary Western philosophers. Finally, these nine philosophies have attracted a great deal of attention in the contemporary world both by scholars and, at least in most cases, a variety of ordinary persons seeking a meaningful or worthwhile life (though the extent to which and way in which this is true is varies considerably). Though many philosophies have not been self-cultivation philosophies, many ancient philosophies were, and it will be illuminating to see the aforementioned nine outlooks interpreted as self-cultivation philosophies, each quite distinctive and yet with numerous overlapping features.


In this introduction, I will explain and defend the concept of self-cultivation philosophy, outline the basic structure of self-cultivation philosophies, and discuss the nature of the texts in which these philosophies were often expressed.[1]


The Nature of Self-Cultivation Philosophy


The phrase “self-cultivation philosophy” requires some explanation. In thinking about this, it will help to distinguish between the concept of an idea and particular conceptions of it.[2] The concept is the basic idea of self-cultivation philosophy, an account of the characteristic features typically shared by different forms of self-cultivation philosophy in virtue of which they are classified in this way. Conceptions are specific ways of developing, explaining and applying the concept by particular self-cultivation philosophies. Hence, various conceptions of self-cultivation philosophies may differ radically from, and may be quite critical of, one another. Each may express a distinctive and controversial understanding of what a worthwhile self-cultivation philosophy should be. But these conceptions are nonetheless all instances of the concept of self-cultivation philosophy. What follows is an account of the concept of self-cultivation philosophy that allows for diverse conceptions of it.


The term “self-cultivation philosophy” is not a common expression in philosophy, though traditional Chinese philosophies have often been related to self-cultivation programs.[3] The term ‘cultivation’, originating from the Latin verb cólere (to take care of, inhabit or revere), has two primary uses. It refers to the activity of growing living things, usually plants by farmers and gardeners, and it pertains to the acquisition of human culture by persons, often with rather elitist connotations of gaining knowledge and appreciation of “refined” arts and literature. In both cases, cultivation concerns a kind of training, based on purported knowledge, that human beings undertake to guide living things in what is thought to be a valuable direction. It is with this in mind that the term is appropriate for what are presented here as self-cultivation philosophies. On the basis of what is typically portrayed as some form of wisdom, these philosophies put forward training programs to develop human beings towards a good life.


One drawback of the term ‘cultivation’ is that it is sometimes used to distinguish one conception of these philosophies from another. For example, it is quite suited to Mengzi’s philosophy, with his emphasis on cultivating our “moral sprouts,” but for the same reason poorly suited to Xunzi’s philosophy, since he denies that we have such sprouts. However, any alternative term, such as ‘development’ or ‘transformation’, is likely to have similar difficulties (being more suited to some of these philosophies than others). Since the phrase ‘self-cultivation’, broadly understood, already has considerable currency in discussions of Chinese philosophy, it is best to stay with this term.


What is trained is specifically “the self.” However, this term is somewhat problematic partly because it is understood in so many different ways, often with attendant controversies, and partly because many of the self-cultivation philosophies in the ancient traditions maintain that ordinary understandings of the self are deeply mistaken. In fact, Buddhists deny that there is a self at all. Nonetheless, it may be argued that all of these philosophies are plausibly and fruitfully interpreted as explicitly or implicitly promoting a cultivation of the self, where the cultivation often takes the form of challenging or contesting, sometimes in radical ways, everyday conceptions of the self. The everyday conception marks out, in a rough and ready way, the scene where cultivation first gets underway. The understanding that cultivation produces may involve a very different interpretation of the scene than that accepted at the beginning. For this reason, these philosophies often distinguish different senses of the self, and even Buddhists find ways to speak about the self (for example, by admitting it to the realm of conventional rather than ultimate truth). Other terms might be suitable in some respects—terms such as person, human being, individual or soul—but these are often awkward vehicles for expressing the central contentions of these philosophies. Moreover, there is a host of expressions involving self that naturally lend themselves to the programs of these philosophies—for example, self-reflection, self-knowledge, self-control, self-discipline, self-fulfillment, self-realization and the like. Hence, the term self, though not without limitations, is the most suitable way to designate that which is to be cultivated in these self-cultivation philosophies.[4]


It is important to observe that self-cultivation means training of the self, not necessarily training by the self alone. Though there could be a solitary self-cultivation project, what is more commonly proposed in these traditions is training in a specific social context under the guidance of some master (though, of course, the self being trained needs to participate in this). Moreover, self-cultivation is not necessarily a self-centered pursuit in which one’s own cultivation matters more than having concern for other people. Though it could take this form, it might also be quite opposed to this, as for example in the bodhisattva vow to seek enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. Hence, the concept of a self-cultivation philosophy as such is not defined as being either a solitary or a selfish undertaking.


We need next to consider how self-cultivation and philosophy come together. It is evident that there are self-cultivation programs that do not involve philosophy in any significant sense, and there are philosophies that have nothing to do with self-cultivation. A self-cultivation program is a self-cultivation philosophy insofar as it involves philosophy in some important way—for example, by urging people to attain wisdom through learning a philosophy or engaging in philosophical activity. Likewise, a philosophy is a self-cultivation philosophy insofar as it has a specific practical orientation: it teaches its followers how to live a good life. In short, self-cultivation philosophies advocate a program of development of the self that involves philosophy and is directed towards living well.


Of course, philosophy is a contested concept, and some of the controversies concerning it raise questions about the extent to which self-cultivation philosophies, especially in their Chinese and Indian renditions, involve philosophy. After all, their training programs partly consist of an array of “therapeutic” or “spiritual” exercises that may include the development of moral virtue, the transformation of desire and emotion, different bodily exercises, various kinds of meditation, and other forms of self-discipline. We might wonder what all this has to do with philosophy. An important part of the answer is that these techniques are often elements of an interconnected set of practices that are directed to attaining wisdom that is existentially meaningful by effecting a deep transformation in a person’s life. A central premise of self-cultivation philosophies is that the key to achieving a truly good life is gaining some kind of wisdom. These philosophies typically suppose that becoming wise also requires, in addition to these other practices, a particular discipline involving some form of philosophical understanding, both for its direct insight and in order for the whole ensemble of practices to be effective. But of course this raises the question: philosophy in what sense?


There are two common objections that may be raised here. The first is that philosophy is a theoretical, not a practical discipline, that its aim is knowledge for its own sake and not for any benefits it may bring. The second is that the proper method of philosophy is reason or argument, and by this measure the self-cultivation philosophies are suspect. I will now propose an account of the concept of philosophy and show how it allows us to respond to these objections.


The root meaning of philosophy—the ancient Greek term philosophia—is the love of wisdom. As it developed in ancient Greece and beyond in the Western world, philosophy became a distinctive kind of inquiry directed towards wisdom. In my view, there are three important characteristics of human beings that give rise to philosophy: first, we care about and value many aspects of the world and our lives; second, we have the capacity to imagine that the world might be different than what we think it is and that we might live differently than the way we do live; third, we have the ability to reflect on our beliefs and values, to think about whether they are correct or whether they should be modified, and to change them if we think we should (though sometimes this may be difficult to do).


In ordinary life, we engage in a variety of practices rooted in fundamental assumptions about the world and our lives. To a considerable extent, the success of these practices requires that we not give much attention to these assumptions. They usually remain in the background. But because we are beings who value, who imagine and who reflect, as just noted, it is sometimes important for us to wonder about these assumptions. Philosophy arises on these occasions. The ancient Greeks were correct in supposing that philosophy begins in wonder.[5] For example, we might wonder: Are we valuing the right things? Are we living in the right way? Do we have good grounds for our ways of life? Philosophy, on this account, is a reflective practice that seeks understanding of fundamental questions such as these.


For the Greek philosophers, as well as for those in China and India, the central topics of philosophical reflection were the nature of human beings and the world we live in, the extent to which and ways in which we can have knowledge, and how we ought to live. The self-cultivation philosophies addressed all of these concerns to some extent. However, as philosophies that were practical in their orientation, their central concern was the last topic. The focal point of their interest was what Bernard Williams called Socrates’ question: “how should one live?”[6] The interest in human nature, metaphysics, and epistemology on the part of the self-cultivation philosophers was, at least at the outset, largely guided by this concern.[7] The Socratic question is, as Williams noted, a very general one, and there may be some temptation immediately to make it more specific. For example, it might be taken to be a question about what will promote our self-interest, or what morality requires of us, or what a member or leader of a political community should do. These are important distinctions and they are useful in thinking about particular conceptions of self-cultivation philosophy. But at the outset, in providing a concept of self-cultivation philosophy, it is best to characterize it as responding to Socrates’ broad question by teaching us something similarly broad: how ideally one—someone, perhaps anyone—should live (or, as it might put, what a good life, broadly speaking, would be for a person).[8] This question is meaningful on its own without disambiguation we might find natural.


We can now address the first objection, that philosophy aims only at theoretical understanding without concern for any practical benefit. This may well be a valid way of thinking about some subjects or forms of philosophical inquiry, but we have ample reason to resist it as a characterization of the concept of philosophy itself. In particular, it would be extraordinarily odd to insist that an inquiry into the question “how should one live?” would, in some sense, cease to be philosophical as soon as we supposed that our answer has some practical bearing on how one should live. Moreover, to a very large extent the ancient Greek philosophers thought that philosophy had, or could have, a practical aim. Williams attributes this view to Socrates and Plato,[9] and Aristotle says in the Nicomachean Ethics that “the present undertaking is not for the sake of theory, as our others are (for we are not inquiring into what excellence (aretē) is for the sake of knowing it, but for the sake of becoming good, since otherwise there would be no benefit in it at all).”[10] In addition, virtually all the Hellenistic philosophers would have agreed with this statement attributed to Epicurus:


Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers therapy for no human suffering (pathos). For just as there is no use in medical expertise if it does not give therapy for bodily diseases, so too there is no use in philosophy if it does not expel the suffering of the soul.[11]


Not only is it obvious that a philosophical inquiry into Socrates’ question is likely to be animated by practical concerns, the idea that philosophy has—or at least could have—a practical aim was a commonplace among many ancient Greek philosophers. In this respect, they had much in common with the ancient Chinese and Indian philosophers.[12] Hence, there is no merit to the first objection.


The second objection raises several issues and requires more discussion. It states that the correct method of philosophy is reason, meaning arguments, and that the self-cultivation philosophies, especially those in China and India, are inadequate by this standard. A common response to this objection is to point out that, as a matter of fact, these philosophies do employ arguments. This response is certainly correct in its central contention, but more needs to be said about the main premise of the objection, that the method of philosophy is reason in the form of argument.[13] In my view, this is a partial truth and we need a fuller account to properly understand the method—it would be better to say methods—of philosophy, Western as well as non-Western. We should begin by thinking about the nature of the enterprise. If philosophy seeks to understand fundamental questions, then presumably its methods should make use of whatever cognitive capacities human beings possess for achieving this understanding. Reason is obviously a prime candidate for such a capacity and it was much emphasized in Greek philosophy. However, it is not the only candidate, and even within Western philosophy there are diverse views about the nature and value of reason. There are several points to be made here by way of elaboration.


First, even the most canonical philosophers in the Western tradition have sometimes acknowledged that rational thought can take different forms. Two well-known examples come from prominent authors of works in logic. Aristotle said that “it is a mark of an educated person to look for precision in each kind of inquiry just to the extent that the nature of the subject allows it,” noting that in ethical matters we need to be content “to show what is true about them roughly and in outline.”[14] And John Stuart Mill wrote that, with respect to justifying utilitarianism, though there “cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term,” this does not mean that accepting or rejecting it “must depend on blind impulse or arbitrary choice.” Rather, “considerations may be presented capable of determining the intellect either to give or withhold its assent to the doctrine.”[15]


Second, more generally, the nature of rationality is one of the topics that philosophers consider, and there are disagreements, within Western philosophy, about how to understand rationality. A survey of texts that are ordinarily included in the history of Western philosophy reveals a wide range of understandings of kinds of rational reflection. In the modern period alone, examples from Montaigne and Pascal to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche tell us that there are many forms that rational philosophical discourse can take besides those of such “mainstream” figures as Descartes, Hume and Kant.


Third, there are significant traditions within Western philosophy that challenge rationality in a variety of ways, with suggestions that it has significant limits, generates paradoxes, undermines itself, has little value, etc. These skeptical voices are, as it were, rational expressions of concern about rationality, and they have been heard recurrently since the time of the ancient Pyrrhonian and Academic skeptics. Taken as a whole, then, the Western philosophical tradition has had a complex and sometimes ambiguous relationship with its commitment to rational inquiry. The same can be said of the Indian and Chinese traditions.


Finally, in philosophy, rational reflection is sometimes understood specifically as employing arguments, either deduction or forms of induction such as abductive or analogical inferences. But if rational reflection is understood in this way, then nearly everyone agrees that philosophical reflection involves something more than argument (dissent might come from some forms of “rationalism”). This is largely because there are frequent appeals to what is accepted without inference. For example, in the Meditations, Descartes says that nature teaches him that he has a body that has various sensations and needs.[16] He puts this forward as a datum that he supposes anyone would recognize and hence that must be accounted for in his philosophical theory. In general, it is widely supposed that philosophy, even when relying on argument, also requires something that may be referred to broadly as experience (or perhaps awareness). Experience may include commonly recognized capabilities such as sense-experience or memory, but it might also include such things as the deliverances of common sense, intuition, instinct, introspection, innate ideas, conscience, testimony, revelation or meditation. In each case, it may be claimed that there is some cognitive capacity—some basis for knowledge—in addition to reason taken as the capacity to make logical inferences. These other capacities might provide support for the premises of arguments. But they might also be put forward as sources of understanding quite different from—and perhaps in opposition to or incomprehensible by—rational analysis.[17] Of course, there might also be skeptical challenges to the validity of these capacities and we need not suppose that they are accepted uncritically. Even within Western philosophy, there is considerable diversity in the attitudes taken towards these different forms of experience just as there is diversity in attitudes taken towards reason. This suggests that we should define the concept of philosophy as an attempt to understand fundamental questions on the basis of whatever cognitive capacities we possess, where it is recognized that which cognitive capacities are legitimate sources of understanding is itself a philosophical issue.


One way of articulating this concept of philosophy draws on contemporary work in virtue epistemology. This approach to epistemology is customarily divided into virtue reliabilism and virtue responsibilism. Both of these are relevant to the concept of philosophy, but virtue reliabilism is initially most helpful.[18] Virtue reliabilists emphasize the importance of epistemic virtues understood as cognitive faculties that are truth-conducive. That is, these virtues are capacities that stably and reliably generate truth rather than falsehood. Virtue reliabilists typically maintain that there are several cognitive faculties. Common examples are reason, perception, introspection, intuition and memory.[19] The feature of virtue reliabilism that is important here is the fact that reason is only one of the cognitive faculties and that the other faculties involve some source of knowledge in addition to reason. In various ways, these other faculties are usually thought to refer to some input from the world.


From this perspective, it is natural think of philosophy as an inquiry that seeks understanding of fundamental questions on the basis of whatever cognitive faculties we have, where it is supposed that we may well have more than one. These faculties typically include reason, but they might also include forms of experience such as perception, intuition, conscience and perhaps meditation. The last is especially important in the Indian and (to some extent) the Chinese philosophical traditions. Of course, there are numerous disagreements among philosophers about the kinds and comparative importance of both reason and experience in philosophy. One way to represent these disagreements is to suppose that there is a spectrum of possible views among philosophers from those at one end who stress the importance of reason over experience to those at the opposite end who emphasize the importance of experience over reason (in both cases, where there may be diverse understandings of reason and experience). At each extreme, we may find philosophers with deep skepticism about the value of the opposite extreme (radical rationalists and radical anti-rationalists respectively). In between these extremes, there are a variety of positions that, in diverse ways, endorse the value of both reason and experience. It is a philosophical question which epistemic approach is appropriate for philosophical inquiry, or for a particular kind of philosophical inquiry, and hence this question is one about which proponents of different conceptions of philosophy have often disagreed. For example, could non-conceptual awareness attained in some form of meditation be a source of understanding? And how might this relate to the understanding of rational analysis? According to the concept of philosophy I am proposing, these questions are both philosophical questions, and if non-conceptual awareness were a genuine source of understanding fundamental issues, then this awareness would have a place within philosophy. In fact, these topics have been widely discussed in Buddhist thought and they are one form philosophy can take.[20]


Finally, it is worth noting briefly the relevance of the other form of virtue epistemology, virtue responsibilism, to understanding self-cultivation philosophy. Virtue responsibilists emphasize the importance of valuable intellectual character traits such as attentiveness, conscientiousness, open-mindedness, courage, etc.[21] Ordinarily it is supposed that these character traits are acquired and we are responsible for their possession and/or exercise. Though reliabilism and responsibilism are often regarded as competing versions of virtue epistemology, they may be thought of as complementary approaches, each of which has an important contribution to make.[22] From this second perspective, if we think of philosophy as an inquiry that seeks understanding of fundamental questions, then it is natural to suppose that philosophers will require good intellectual character traits such as the responsibilists discuss.


Moreover, we can regard some of the practices advocated by self-cultivation philosophers as exercises for the development of such character traits, for example, by purifying one’s mind of disruptive desires or emotions so as to be able to reason or experience in a calm, attentive and impartial way. For instance, part of the Stoic critique of the passions may be understood in this fashion. Epictetus says that passions “make it impossible for us even to listen to reason.”[23] The Confucian Xunzi makes a similar point: since “the desires of the eyes and ears” can ruin thinking and frustrate concentration, the sage in training needs to transform desires so that this no longer happens.[24] Similarly, in the Bhagavad Gītā, Krishna says that desire is the “eternal enemy” and “evil demon” that “destroys knowledge and discrimination.”[25] In general, many exercises of the self-cultivation philosophies may be understood in terms of the cultivation of intellectual virtues, the development of epistemic habits that are conducive to understanding, in a manner that may be illuminated by virtue responsibilism.


In sum, in the self-cultivation philosophies, philosophy is an attempt to understand Socrates’ question “how should one live?” and related topics on the basis of some purported cognitive capacities typically involving reason and experience broadly construed. Hence, the second objection is answered. All of the traditions discussed here from Greece, China and India are properly considered philosophies.


The Structure of Self-Cultivation Philosophies


The styles in which the self-cultivation philosophies of Greece, China and India are expressed vary widely. There is no common format of presentation in the texts available to us. In fact, the genres of writing are often radically different from one another. Nonetheless, there is an underlying structure of thought that they all share to a large extent. One important indication of the nature of this structure is the fact that they commonly saw their enterprise as similar to medicine. We have already seen this for the Hellenistic philosophers in the medical analogy from Epicurus cited earlier. But something similar may be found in other traditions as well. For example, the Theravāda commentator Buddhaghosa depicted the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism in comparable terms: “the truth of suffering is like a disease, the truth of origin is like the cause of the disease, the truth of cessation is like the cure of the disease, and the truth of the path is like the medicine.”[26] In fact, in these ancient traditions there were often close connections between philosophy and medicine. This was especially true in China where there were sometimes significant relationships between medicine and both the Daoist and Confucian philosophical traditions. For example, in both there were self-cultivation programs involving such things as qi (vital energy) and the complementary forces of yin and yang.[27] The comparison with medicine emphasizes the practical nature of self-cultivation philosophies and suggests that, explicitly or implicitly, any self-cultivation philosophy will have four key elements: an underlying account of human nature (and our place in the world), a depiction of our existential starting point, a portrayal of the ideal state to be attained, and a program of transformation by which persons may move from the starting point to the ideal (roughly analogous to biology, illness, good health and medical treatment).[28]


First, the self-cultivation philosophies all assume some understanding of human nature. Sometimes this is directly explained in considerable detail and other times it is more in the background. This is hardly surprising. There could not be a self-cultivation philosophy that did not in some way imply at least a minimal account of human nature. Related to this, the self-cultivation philosophies often also accept a broader understanding the world in which we live. They adhere to a metaphysics or cosmology or some general picture about the overall context of human life. The remaining three elements of self-cultivation philosophies (starting point, ideal and transformation) all presuppose this: an understanding of human nature explains why human life is unsatisfactory and how we might live differently so as to improve our lives.[29] Various models may be proposed to distinguish these accounts. For example, some of them suppose we have the potential to attain the ideal and need to develop this, others assume this potential is lacking and so we need to radically transform ourselves, and still others maintain the ideal is already within us and needs only to be recovered.[30] Insofar as these philosophies make such claims about human nature, any assertion of their value for people today would need to take into account relevant work in contemporary psychology.[31]


Second, the self-cultivation philosophies maintain that the ordinary default condition of human beings is in some important and often pervasive respect problematic. That is, they propose that in the absence of pursuing their favored program of transformation, our lives would be flawed in some significant way. They claim that, though we might be more or less happy or decent in our everyday activities, at bottom our lives are prone to anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, greed, lust, envy, alienation, conflict and the like. This is our existential starting point. There is no single analysis of why our lives are unsatisfactory, but there are recurrent themes. It often has to do with disruptive desires, emotions, passions, etc. and these are usually said to depend on some fundamental ignorance or misunderstanding we have concerning human nature and the world.


Third, these philosophies declare that there is an ideal state, often depicted as the opposite of our default problematic condition, that we are capable of attaining or at least approaching. Sometimes this ideal state is described in explicit terms, but depictions of it are often brief and elusive, sometimes paradoxical or mysterious, and not infrequently suggestive of a condition beyond humanity as we ordinarily understand it. In some cases, the ideal is available only after death, in a post-mortem realm, but ordinarily some form of the ideal is available in this life, before death as conventionally understood. In this respect, these self-cultivation philosophies are quite worldly in their orientation. The ideal is presented as being a good life in some sense, commonly involving a form of wisdom, contentment (with aspects of tranquility and joy) and—at least usually—moral virtue. On account of the moral dimension, the ideal figure is often thought to be of great benefit to others, but the ideal is typically considered valuable in itself.


Finally, the self-cultivation philosophies maintain that we can and should undergo a transformation program by which we move from our problematic existential starting point to the ideal state by engaging in a set of “therapeutic” or “spiritual” exercises. These exercises vary considerably in their nature, but they often involve the development of philosophical understanding, moral training, various forms of meditation, bodily practices, and other kinds of self-discipline. It is usually supposed that it would take considerable time and effort to achieve the ideal, perhaps an entire lifetime (or more than a lifetime), though sometimes an “effortless” approach is preferred. On occasion it may be suggested that the exercises might be undertaken on one’s own, but it is much more common to insist that they should be performed in a communal setting under the guidance of a master. In teaching these exercises, the proponents of the self-cultivation philosophies were promoting a “way of life” and advocating an “art of living.” These philosophies were primarily directed towards a life of practical wisdom, towards—as Aristotle said—“becoming good.”


In short, a self-cultivation philosophy has these four elements: an understanding a human nature, an analysis of the ordinary state of human life as problematic, a conception of an ideal state that human beings can hope to attain, and some transformation program by which human beings can move from our ordinary state to towards this ideal state. However, as emphasized earlier, not all philosophies are self-cultivation philosophies, and saying more about why this is will help to clarify this account.


In metaphysics, for example, theories that aim simply to give the correct account of universals, time or material constitution are not as such self-cultivation philosophies. Likewise, in epistemology, theories that only attempt to give the proper understanding of induction, probability or the Gettier problem are not as such self-cultivation philosophies. Similar points can be made about other areas such as the philosophy of mind, language, art and the like. There are many philosophies that have as their only aim an explanation of some fundamental assumptions in our understanding of an aspect of the world or human life. These may be pursued solely for the sake of better comprehending the particular topic and without any direct concern at all for how this bears on living a good life. Someone might well defend a philosophical theory about material constitution or induction without advocating anything that could be called a way of life. Such philosophies are not self-cultivation philosophies. However, it is also true that the development of a self-cultivation philosophy typically involves metaphysical and epistemological concerns. For example, this has obviously been the case with Stoicism, Buddhism and Daoism. Hence, aspects of self-cultivation philosophies may coincide with the interests of other philosophies that are not directly concerned with self-cultivation.


Since moral philosophies typically have some bearing on how we ought to live, they have a closer connection to self-cultivation philosophy. But a similar point can be made here as well: not every moral philosophy is a self-cultivation philosophy as such. For example, there are topics in metaethics that may be explored without putting forward a conception of a good life or explaining how we might attain such a life. For example, theories about the meaning of moral terms, or about whether an “ought” can be derived from an “is,” or about whether accepting a moral judgment has a necessary connection with motivation, can all be defended without necessarily advocating a self-cultivation philosophy. A similar point can be made about normative ethics. For instance, a philosophical theory that says that the moral rightness of an action depends only on its consequences, or a theory which denies this, is not by itself a self-cultivation philosophy. Of course, these topics may well be relevant to the concerns of some self-cultivation philosophies, and developing a self-cultivation philosophy ordinarily involves some of the common issues in moral philosophy. Hence, as before, a self-cultivation philosophy may have overlapping concerns with moral philosophies that are not themselves self-cultivation philosophies.[32]


A self-cultivation philosophy has the four elements outlined in this section. There are important ways in which these elements connect with one another and a full-fledged self-cultivation philosophy needs to have all four. Of course, it is possible for someone to defend a philosophy that has some of these elements, but not others. For example, a philosopher might argue for a view about human nature or defend a claim about ways in which ordinary human life is problematic, but not have anything to say about the other elements. Such philosophies would not themselves be self-cultivation philosophies in the full sense. Moreover, there might be some unclear or borderline cases in which it is not obvious whether or not something is a self-cultivation philosophy. There are many phenomena where we know what a full-fledged instance is, recognize that something may have parts of this but not all of it, and acknowledge that there are some difficult or unusual cases. For instance, we know what we mean by a golf course when we say that it is where members of the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) play their tournaments. We also understand that a putting green, a driving range and a putt-putt course are not full-fledged golf courses even though they have some elements of them. And we realize that there may be odd cases such as 3- or 15-hole courses. Similar points can be made about the identification of self-cultivation philosophies.


In any case, my claim is that each of the traditions I consider is fruitfully interpreted as a full-fledged self-cultivation philosophy in which each of the four elements is found in a significant way. Though they were expressed in a wide variety of linguistic forms, these ancient self-cultivation philosophies all had this basic underlying structure. They differed considerably in their specific understanding of these four features, but they were all self-cultivation philosophies precisely because they had this structure.


Transformative Texts


The examination of each of the ancient self-cultivation philosophies will center on one or more texts in which these philosophies are expressed. Though this approach is common in scholarship by philosophers on ancient philosophies, it raises a host of methodological and interpretive questions. For many of the texts that will be considered, there are substantial scholarly disputes about the identity of its author, the manner of its composition, the date it was produced, and its initial reception and subsequent history in the culture (this is especially true in the Chinese and Indian traditions). Sometimes only fragments of texts have survived and we are forced to rely on ancient secondary accounts to understand them (this is often the case in the Hellenistic schools). However, though these issues will be briefly discussed, they are not the primary focus of this study. For each philosophy we will analyze there is a rough scholarly consensus that there was a more or less distinctive outlook that was articulated in some body of texts at some period of time—and that this outlook played some role in the later history of the culture and is regarded as having some philosophical importance in the present day. Against the background of this consensus, the primary aim here is to show that each of these recognized philosophical outlooks may be plausibly interpreted as a self-cultivation philosophy in terms of the structure just explained.


Each of these philosophies was produced in, and for some period of time was practiced in, some specific social context. Our knowledge of these contexts varies, but it is quite limited overall (in some cases, it is nearly nonexistent). When there is relevant knowledge of the social context, however, this may have some bearing on the interpretation of the philosophy and its practice (for example, in the case of Epicurus’s “garden” or the world of the Buddha). But nearly all of these philosophies also played a role in a specific intellectual context, for example by being the subject of later commentaries or by being involved in debates with competing outlooks, and this intellectual context is also important for understanding these philosophies. Though these philosophies were practical in that they advocated and were part of a way of life, the proponents of these philosophies themselves often emphasized the memorization, study and interpretation of texts. These text-oriented practices were common therapeutic or spiritual exercises in these traditions (there is a respect in which this is true even in Chan Buddhism despite its strong anti-textual rhetoric).


It is customary in philosophical scholarship on ancient philosophical texts to focus attention on the philosophical theory or outlook that is put forward, the presuppositions of this theory, the meaning of its main terms, the primary arguments or considerations advanced in its favor, its overall coherence, its relationship to competing theories, etc. This emphasis on theoretical content is entirely appropriate and will be of central importance in the interpretations of the ancient self-cultivation philosophies in the chapters ahead. They are, after all, philosophies. However, insofar as they are self-cultivation philosophies, they are also promoting some practice or way of life. Hence, it is essential to read these texts as both expressing a philosophy and playing a role in some self-cultivation practice. In this connection, it is helpful to keep in mind some well-known 20th century work in the philosophy of language.   


Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us the importance of understanding language as rooted in, as part and parcel of, human activities and practices, as intimately related to what he sometimes called “a form of life.”[33] J.L. Austin later urged us to recognize the diverse ways in which statements are employed, and in particular to see that sometimes statements are themselves various kinds of actions, what he called “performative utterances.”[34] We need not embrace a program or methodology of “ordinary language philosophy” (to which these figures are sometimes assimilated) in order to appreciate and benefit from these lessons. And these lessons are of vital importance if we are to comprehend the texts in which the ancient self-cultivation philosophies are typically expressed.


The literary form of these texts varies widely. In addition to now-familiar philosophical discourses, there are letters, dialogues, personal reflections, exhortations, summaries, commentaries, reports of lectures or conversations, collections of sayings, aphorisms, anecdotes, poems, stories, epics and fantasies. However, whatever the specific literary genre, it is reasonable to suppose that these texts typically were intended, not merely to be read for the sake of understanding, but also to be employed in a variety of ways in self-cultivation practices.[35] They were commonly read as part of some specific form of life and their statements were often understood, not merely as statements about the world or our concepts, but as a various kinds of instruction in how to how to live one’s life. Insofar as this is true, these works are properly thought of as transformative texts, as texts intended to facilitate some fundamental transformative process in the lives of their readers. As understood here, a transformative text is akin to what Austin called a “performative utterance.”[36] Though it will probably include statements that are properly judged as true or false by some standard, the text as a whole is—or at least includes—the performance various actions of guidance: it aims to facilitate (promote, encourage, enable, assist, inspire) cultivation (development, transformation) of the self according to some self-cultivation philosophy. In this respect, it may be seen as similar to an instruction manual—“take these steps to attain well-being.” This is quite evident in many contexts such as the Buddha’s eightfold path, the teaching of Kongzi represented in the Analects, and Epicurus’s Menoceus. But it is implicit in many of the texts we will examine. Or so I will argue.


Various analogies pertaining to texts may be helpful in comprehending the nature of transformative texts. For example, cookbooks may include all sorts of information about ingredients, substitutes, equipment, culture, history, and the like. And they may be read profitably for understanding or enjoyment. However, as cookbooks, they are centrally instructions in the preparation of food for eating. Their primary aim is not merely understanding, but a practical result. Someone who grasped all the information in a cookbook, but who could not properly prepare the dishes, would be unsuccessful in terms of this aim.


Other analogies are better insofar as they directly concern some transformation of a person—for example, manuals in how to develop an operatic voice, or how or to hit a baseball, or how to write a short story. These also may contain important information and to this extent may be promoting understanding of this information. But the primary purpose of these texts is teaching people how to perform some activity well—singing, hitting, writing, etc. In all these cases, the text is an outline of guidelines that is probably best employed under the tutelage of a personal instructor sensitive to the capacities and needs of particular students. And, at least with more advanced students, the guidelines should probably be applied flexibly with a measure of adaptation and innovation in light of specific circumstances. Both points are important in examining the transformative texts of the self-cultivation philosophies. Of course, these texts aim in some sense to transform people’s lives as a whole, not merely one aspect of them: they strive to teach people how to live well. But the purpose is still practical. This may be why Socrates, who in the Apology urged Athenians to live well by examining their lives and caring for their souls, made constant appeal to craft analogies—various activities such as cooking, medicine, navigation and the like whose success is ultimately measured in performing a practical activity well.[37]


There is tremendous diversity in the kinds of texts that express self-cultivation philosophies. Some are more obviously and explicitly guides to practice than others. None are mere instruction manuals: they are fundamentally philosophical texts. However, because they are articulations of self-cultivation philosophies, they typically have some transformative aim, and it is important to keep in mind this dimension of these texts if they are to be properly understood. They are in part articulations and defenses of some philosophical theory. But they are also guides to a variety of exercises in living our life in accordance with the theory, in cultivating our self in the ways the theory recommends. In assessing these texts, it is important to keep in mind both their theoretical and practical aspects.


[1] In developing this account, I have been influenced by the traditions in which the ancient self-cultivation philosophies have been expressed and developed as well as by many recent interpretations of these. In Greco-Roman philosophy, these interpretations include Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Michael Chase tr. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995) and What is Ancient Philosophy?, Michael Chase, tr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), and Richard Sorabji, Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). In Indian philosophy, these include Jonardon Ganeri “A Return to the Self: Indians and Greeks on Life as Art and Philosophical Therapy,” in Clare Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri (eds) Philosophy as Therapeia, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 66, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 119-35, William Halbfass, “The Therapeutic Paradigm and the Search for Identity in Indian Philosophy,” in Tradition and Reflection: Explorations in Indian Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. 243-63, and Matthew T. Kapstein, Reason’s Traces: Identity and Interpretation in Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Thought (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001). In Chinese philosophy, they include Philip J. Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation, Second Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), Edward Slingerland, Effortless Action: Wu-Wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in early China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) and Tu Wei-ming, Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought, Boston: Cheng and Tsui, 1998). In addition, there are many other interpretations that are important and will be discussed in later chapters as appropriate.

[2] For the concept/conception distinction, see John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 5-6; see also Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 113-117 and Bryan W. Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 16-21.

[3] For example, see Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation, Michael LaFargue, The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), Wei-ming, Humanity and Self-Cultivation, and Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism.

[4] Though a variety of terms are employed, in all the relevant languages there are terms that are commonly translated as self such as attā in Pali, ātman in Sanskrit, ji () and zi (自) in Chinese, auto in Greek, and sui and ego in Latin.

[5] See Plato, Theaetetus, F. M. Cornford, tr., in Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 155d and Aristotle, Metaphysics, second edition, Vol. VIII of The Works of Aristotle, W.D. Ross, tr., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928), 982b.

[6] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 4. See the whole of Williams’ first chapter for an account of the importance of this question.

[7] My contention is that the self-cultivation philosophies I consider in this book were guided by the Socratic question. I am not claiming that all philosophies were or should be guided by this question. Many philosophies aim for some kind of understanding of fundamental questions without having any direct concern with the general practical question “how should one live?” (I discuss this point in more detail at the end of the next section). Hence, I reject the contention of Bryan W. van Norden that all philosophy should be guided by Socrates’ question (see his Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018, p. 151).

[8] Williams himself resists understanding the question in terms of a good life (see pp. 4 and 20), but for my purpose this is acceptable as long as ‘good’ is not taken to mean something specific such as morally good. There is an important issue about whether or not the self-cultivation philosophies were intended to be relevant and applicable to all human beings or only some. In some cases, it appears that they were addressed to all human beings, at least in principle or in some way, but this was not always the case. In the discussion here, I leave this issue aside.

[9] Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 1.

[10] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Christopher Rowe, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), II.2 at beginning (emphasis added).

[11] A.A. Long and D.N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) p. 155 (25C). In The Therapy of Desire, Nussbaum has shown that a similar medical analogy was accepted by virtually all the Hellenistic schools (Epicureanism, Stoicism and Pyrrhonian Skepticism). See also John Cooper, Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012) and Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?.

[12] Insofar as these philosophers thought, as perhaps Epicurus did, that philosophy must have such a practical aim, they are going beyond my account of the concept of philosophy, which permits but does not require that it have a practical aim such as overcoming suffering.

[13] Williams, Cooper and Nussbaum largely agree that the method of philosophy is reason, though Nussbaum embraces some of the points I make below.

[14] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.3.

[15] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), Ch. 1, par. 5.

[16] See René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Third Edition, Donald A. Cress, tr. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), p. 53 (VI, 80).

[17] To take two rather different but well-known examples, consider Blaise Pascal’s claim that the heart has reasons about which reason knows nothing (see Blaise Pascal, Pensées, A.J. Krailsheimer, tr. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966), section 423) and Jonathan Haidt’s report of people condemning a case of sex between siblings with having a clear reason why (see Jonathan Haidt, Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), pp. 44-8). Sometimes a striking personal experience changes a person’s outlook on life in an important way. It is not obvious that this is always unwarranted or would be warranted only after a suitable argument was found to justify the change.

[18] Prominent proponents of virtue reliabilism include Ernest Sosa and John Greco.

[19] Virtue reliabilism has antecedents in ancient philosophical traditions, especially in Greece and India, and it is arguably a common sense perspective.

[20] For discussion of this, see Matthew T. Kapstein, “’Spiritual Exercise’ and Buddhist Epistemologists in India and Tibet,” and Tom J. F. Tillemans, “Yogic Perception, Meditation, and Enlightenment: The Epistemological Issues in a Key Debate,” in Steven M. Emmanuel, ed., A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 270-89 and 290-306 respectively.

[21] Well-known proponents of virtue responsibilism include James Montmarquet and Linda Zagzebski.

[22] For example, see Heather Battaly, “Virtue Epistemology,” (Philosophy Compass vol. 3/4: 2008), 651.

[23] Epictetus, Discourses, W.A. Oldfather, tr. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928), 3.2.

[24] Xunzi: The Complete Text, Eric L. Hutton, tr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 21.288-314.

[25] The Bhagavad Gītā, Winthrop Sargeant, tr. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2009), 3.39-41.

[26] Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli, tr., (Seattle: Buddhist Publication Society Pariyatta Editions, 1999), XVI 87. For discussion of the medical analogy in Buddhist and Greek philosophy, see my “Medical Analogies in Buddhist and Hellenistic Thought” in Clare Carlisle and Jonardon Ganeri, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 11-33.

[27] For example, see Lisa Raphals, “Chinese Philosophy and Chinese Medicine” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) and “Embodied Virtue” (in Chris Fraser et. al, eds., Ethics in Early China (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), pp. 143-57), and Robin R. Wang, Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012) and “Virtuous Body at Work the Ethical Life as Qi in Motion” (Dao vol. 9, 2010, 339-51).

[28] The medical analogies do not imply that there is no difference between self-cultivation philosophy and medicine. The value of the analogies is that they encourage reflection on differences as well as similarities (as I discuss in the paper on medical analogies cited in note 26).

[29] This is true even of Buddhism, which denies that there is a self and, in Mahāyāna forms, denies that anything has an intrinsic nature (what is called emptiness). Despite this, Buddhists have a good deal to say about human nature and they put forward extensive metaphysical and cosmological accounts of the world.

[30] These correspond to what Van Norden calls the development, re-formation and discovery models of ethical cultivation (Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism, pp. 43 ff.). Other classification schemes have been proposed, for example in Ivanhoe, Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation and Slingerland, Effortless Action.

[31] For example, the research on infants by Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn at Yale might be relevant to the debate between Mengzi and Xunzi on the moral sprouts. For an accessible account, see Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (New York: Crown Publishers, 2013).

[32] It might be supposed that self-cultivation philosophy has some kinship with virtue ethics insofar as both emphasize the development of character. There are some similarities, however caution is required in making such a claim. It may mislead as much as it informs. Much depends on what is meant by the phrase “virtue ethics,” and there are many different views about this (see Martha C. Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” (The Journal of Ethics vol. 3: 1999), 163-201). There is also a great deal of diversity in self-cultivation philosophies. Some of them are certainly quite different in many respects than the well-known virtue ethics of Aristotle or recent philosophers such as Philippa Foot or Alasdair MacIntyre.

[33] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York: MacMillan Company, 1953), sec. 19.

[34] See Austin “Performative Utterances,” in Philosophical Papers, third edition, eds. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 233-52, and How to Do Things with Words, second edition, eds. J.O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[35] The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius may well have been personal reflections that were not intended for any audience, though they were probably written as part of Marcus’ own self-cultivation practice. Nonetheless, they have since often been read as part of the self-cultivation practice of other persons. See The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, A.S.L. Farquharson, tr. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[36] In Austin’s subsequent terminology, the illocutionary force of many of its utterances is not merely stating (see How to Do Things with Words, pp. 98-101).

[37] See John Sellars, The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy, second edition (London: Bristol Classical Press, 2009), ch. 2.