BMCR 2022.10.17

Self-cultivation philosophies in ancient India, Greece, and China

, Self-cultivation philosophies in ancient India, Greece, and China. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 327. ISBN 9780190941024 $99.00.

The past decade has seen increased interest in comparative philosophy and related projects, such as world philosophy and cosmopolitan philosophy. There has been a particular emphasis on ethics and the analysis of its related mental and physical practices; Gowans adds to this growing body of scholarship, which we might see more broadly as comparative or cross-cultural ethics.[1] In many ways, Self-Cultivation is an impressive and deeply researched monograph, though several issues—as we will suggest—prevent the monograph from living up to its full potential.

After an introduction that lays out Gowans’s model of self-cultivation philosophy, the book proceeds in three sections, devoted to Indian, Greek, and Chinese traditions. Each section offers analysis of three different schools and/or major texts. Chapters begin with a vignette, usually a brief biographical evocation of the philosophical lifestyle of a major figure from the school in question, followed by brief notes on sources and the history of the school. Thereafter follows a general summary of the school’s positions—including matters ranging far beyond ethics—and how they offer evidence for Gowans’s model of self-cultivation. The schools and texts covered include: the Bhagavad Gīta, Sāṃkhya/Yoga, and Indian Buddhism (Part I); Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Pyrrhonism (Part II); and Confucianism, Daoism, and Chan Buddhism (Part III).

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is Gowans’s incredible range. It is hard enough to tackle a single philosophical tradition, much less three. Gowans has clearly done his work: he routinely cites sensible translations, commentaries, and relevant bibliographies in each chapter. He is typically aware of thorny issues of scholarly interpretation, and tries, usually successfully, to find a sensible middle ground (and in particularly difficult controversies notes how different interpretations might affect our understanding of a given case of self-cultivation practice). There are, of course, cases where this or that specialist article or edited volume has not been cited, and there is the occasional slip but, given the scope of the work, Gowans has done a phenomenal job—not all examples of comparative philosophy can say the same.[2] Indeed, one of the benefits of the book is that it provides excellent bibliographical resources for scholars looking to explore a new tradition for either research or teaching purposes.

Rather than offer chapter-by-chapter summaries of Gowans’s summaries of various schools, we feel, especially in light of limitations of space, that it would be most helpful for our readers if we focus thematically on the overall strengths and weaknesses of Gowans’s approach to comparative philosophy.

We begin with a close look at Gowans’s introduction, which is in many ways the most valuable part of the monograph. Here Gowans clearly outlines what he considers to be the underlying structures of self-cultivation philosophies (pp. 14-21), identifying four common features: (1) some understanding of human nature; (2) an existential starting point that considers the human condition as problematic; (3) the promise of an ideal state of being in which we can overcome the problems or limitations of the human condition; and (4) a transformational program, or set of therapeutic or spiritual exercises ‘by which we move from our problematic existential starting point to the ideal state of being’ (p. 17). Gowans also briefly discusses the contexts of self-cultivation philosophies, which he sees as usually following the guidance of a teacher or role model, but which can also include a community of practitioners. Gowans makes a direct connection between self-cultivation philosophies and what other scholars have called an ‘art of living’ or ‘philosophy as a way of life’, drawing explicitly on work by Hadot and later authors such as Cooper and Sellars. Generally speaking, Gowans’s introduction, written in an engaging style that includes philosophical as well as historical reflection, makes a compelling case that self-cultivation philosophies are a fruitful topic for comparative analysis. That said, more explicit engagement with Hadot et al. would have been helpful; the book limits engagement to occasional brief comments in footnotes (e.g. p. 19 n. 44 on rejecting the label ‘art of living’ in favour of ‘self-cultivation’; pp. 60-1 nn. 20-1 for a critique of Cooper).

We noted that Gowans offers summaries of school doctrines in each chapter; this decision and its consequences unfortunately undermine Gowans’s ability to fully evidence and articulate his model of self-cultivation. The problem is that there is simply too much ground to cover; Gowans’s insistence on trying to offer an account of the full range of a school’s position leads to enormous compression. Take Epicureanism: the physics of atomism, its ramifications for human nature, comments on epistemology, the gods, and the swerve—all this comes hard and fast in four pages (pp. 118-21). Or consider the treatment of Buddhism. A foundational doctrine like the theory of dependent origination gets reduced to one sentence, and Gowans has to race through the development of Mahayana Buddhism in a couple of pages, giving a paragraph to the concept of emptiness. In the midst of all this we find whirlwind expositions of the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the six perfections, and the four jhānas.

And so too for the expositions of the other chapters. It would be easy for readers who are not already familiar with the material to get lost. Furthermore, most of this summarizing reflects little that is new: there are plenty of other places to find introductions to these schools, and so Gowans spends an inordinate amount of time telling us what we might already know. As a result, readers will likely either skim chapters they are already familiar with or else require further information on traditions with which they are unfamiliar.

A little skimming or supplemental reading is no terrible thing, but there is a more serious consequence to Gowans’s approach: in light of the extensive summarizing, the actual analysis of self-cultivation practices is often reduced to a few pages at the end of each chapter. A few examples should make clear that this is a real loss. In his discussion of Stoicism, Gowans misses out on a great deal by giving brief paraphrases of Marcus Aurelius or partial quotations of Epictetus. These texts, compelling to readers from antiquity to today, offer brilliantly concrete examples of the self-cultivation techniques that are so central to Gowans’s model: “Begin therefore from little things. A little oil is spilt, a little wine stolen: say to yourself ‘this is the price of imperturbability and tranquility’” (Epictetus, Encheiridion 12). Likewise, when Gowans claims that ‘there are extensive discussions of a wide variety of self-cultivation practices throughout the Gīta’ (p. 51), we are left to wonder why these are not the main focus of this chapter. The section on Yoga misses an interesting opportunity when he chooses to ignore the third chapter of the Yoga Sūtra, which discusses the siddhis, or supernormal powers, one can gain through the practice of yoga. As Gowans states without explanation: ‘Nothing will be said about these extraordinary claims’ (p. 68). Although such abilities are unlikely to be accepted by most modern readers, they are integral aspects of the Yoga Sūtra’s understanding of what self-cultivation can achieve. Delving into these issues or allowing texts with explicit statements about self-cultivation practices would do so much more to substantiate Gowans’s argument than a cramped paragraph on the Swerve or Abhidharma thought.

One solution would have been to reduce the range of the work to offer more focused analysis on what is really essential to Gowans’s thesis. This move would have been good for other reasons: Gowans has included several authors and/or texts which are poor or otherwise complicated examples of his model of self-cultivation. The discussion of Pyrrhonism sticks out in particular. Gowans’s analysis is split between Pyrrho and his later follower Sextus Empiricus. For the former, Gowans mobilizes biographical anecdotes from Diogenes Laertius to construct an ethical ideal of tranquility (with self-cultivation practices attributed to Pyrrho primarily on the basis of an anecdote of his being attacked by a dog!), though “we are given no real indication what these practices were” (p. 175). The discussion of Sextus is more reliable, though here too Pyrrhonism is an awkward fit: Sextus does not have, as Gowans admits, any real habituation or purification practices, just a range of arguments aimed at leading to the suspension of judgment (p. 453).

The chapter on Chan Buddhism also seemed out of place in a book that primarily focuses on much earlier texts (the main source for this chapter dates from 8th century CE, which stretches most definitions of ‘ancient’; so too the discussion of Śāntideva in Chapter 4). Gowans justifies its inclusion by arguing that it ‘is remarkable as a self-cultivation philosophy’ because ‘its approach is quite different from anything we have seen in previous chapters, and it provides an opportunity to explore the limits of what a self-cultivation might be’ (p. 254). Gowans has in mind here the provocative stories of Chan teachers conveying their insights through non-sequitur responses or shocking behaviour such as yelling at and hitting their students. Unfortunately Gowans does not have enough room to consider these issues in sufficient detail; recent work may suggest that these stories were less about self-cultivation and rather more concerned with entertaining a lay audience for the sake of generating public support for the Chan school.[3] The inclusion of the Gītā, too, is potentially controversial, especially as the text with which to begin an extensive discussion on self-cultivation philosophies from around the world, as it is neither representative of the other texts and traditions he discusses elsewhere, nor chronologically one of his earliest sources.

We suggest, therefore, a focus on traditions and texts that firmly demonstrate Gowans’s model of self-cultivation not only would have sharpened our understanding of his core argument but could have freed up significant room to explore actual practices of self-cultivation in more detail.

Gowans raises several compelling themes throughout various chapters, including references to a shared medical or therapeutic model of philosophy; discussion of, as a concrete example of the relationship between self and other, the view of various traditions about the role of women and their ability to achieve the ideal state through self-cultivation; or contrasting traditional comparative philosophy with what Gowans calls ‘fusion philosophy’. However, these fruitful topics are typically mentioned in passing, often in some chapters but not others, with little attempt to offer a systematic and coherent analysis of the similarities and differences between the intellectual traditions under consideration.

The authors of this review are aware that the review has been at several points rather negative. We would like to reaffirm our sincere appreciation of Gowans’s ambition, intellectual and scholarly range, and our overall conclusion about the value of his model of self-cultivation. The problem, we feel, is that it is really hard to do comparative philosophy well: the demands it makes of authors (and readers) are immense, and the field, despite recent efforts, remains far less developed than many other disciplines. Gowans is to be commended for his bold and intelligent monograph, which offers an important and learned attempt at realizing what comparative philosophy could look like, and what we could learn from it. We hope that our review contributes to Gowans’s stimulus by providing reflections on the difficulties authors face when attempting such analysis.



[1] E.g. Angle and Slote, (2013) Virtue Ethics and Confucianism; Lai et al. (2019), Cultivating a Good Life in Early Chinese and Ancient Greek Philosophy: Perspectives and Reverberations.

[2] E.g. McLeod (2014), Understanding Asian Philosophy: Ethics in the Analects, Zhuangzi, Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita, is notably out of date in its engagement with secondary literature on Indian sources.

[3] See McRae, (2003: 45-100) Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism; Heine and Wright, (2002) The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism; Heine and Wright, (2004) The Zen Canon: Understanding the Classic Texts.