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In private messages, Stephen Walker recently came back to points he’d made before about the three basic ways of life I had identified before (asceticism, traditionalism and libertinism). He noted, correctly I think, that that scheme as it stands is Indo-Eurocentric; many Chinese thinkers (especially pre-Buddhist ones) do not fit it comfortably.

The problem is not merely a matter of some thinkers lying between ways of life – if, say, Mozi lies between traditionalism and libertinism, as Aquinas lies between traditionalism and asceticism. Schemes like this are (and probably must be) Weberian ideal types: the possibility that real-world examples will fall somewhere in between the categories is not just anticipated, it’s intended. The point is to have a universal heuristic to understand the particulars better, not to have a classification where one can file everything neatly into one folder or the other. (There is something rather Platonic about the ideal-type method, in that one never expects to encounter a perfect or exact manifestation of the category in the real world.)

No, the serious problem is more particular to the scheme, with its third category of “libertinism” encompassing those thinkers who do not embrace asceticism and whose critiques of tradition are relatively radical. Chinese tradition features many such thinkers – but, contrary to my category of “libertinism” as defined in the earlier post, almost none of them highlight pleasure as a (let alone the) central feature of a good life. The point ties back to a key feature of Chinese thought that I’ve noted before: subjectivity is not a major Chinese concern. And pleasure, whatever else it is, is a highly subjective feeling, especially to the extent it is taken as normative and valuable. A behaviourist could understand pleasure entirely in terms of neurons and pleasure-expressing reactions, but on such grounds it seems bizarre to take a utilitarian approach according to which pleasure is the good. If that’s all pleasure is, then why privilege this pattern of neurological movements over any other?

Mozi, the fierce critic of Confucianism, would seem like the most obvious example of such a thinker, going beyond these categories. Stephen noted that Mozi can be far more traditionalist than he appears, citing the ancient sage kings as justification just as the Confucians do – but he still criticizes the modes of life that people have lived in for generations. The Daoists, too, seem to advocate a worldly life that is neither traditional nor libertine.

I have very limited expertise in Daoism, so I asked Stephen what kind of life the Daoists endorse, if neither traditional nor libertine. He noted that they generally appeal to pragmatic efficacy, to sets of variously defined practical worldly goods, such as physical health or family relationships. And that point made me think I was right on track with my earlier response to him: we might just be better off classifying ways of life and even philosophies according to the classical Indian scheme of the four puruṣārthas!

Puruṣārtha means “human aim” or “human end.” There are traditionally said to be three, or four, puruṣārthas, and while they are referred to all over Indian literature, it is surprisingly rare for them to be theorized: one finds almost no discussion of why these are taken as the aims of human existence or what they add up to. They are probably discussed at greatest length in the Mahābhārata, but its accounts are not very systematic.

And yet I have often found the puruṣārthas to be a surprisingly robust account of the aims that humans seek, one that might even expand into a valuable cross-cultural classification of philosophies. In early texts the three puruṣārthas are: artha, worldly success at pragmatic aims such as statecraft and the acquisition of material goods; kāma or pleasure, especially but not only of a sexual kind; and dharma, adherence to norms of duty, especially as found in traditional texts like the Vedas. Later, in post-Buddhist times, is added the fourth aim of mokṣa, liberation or release from suffering.

If we apply this fourfold classification to the history of philosophy and the possible ways of life, we find mokṣa corresponding closely to what I have called asceticism: the quest for transcendence of the world, tied theoretically to the view that the world is a poorer or worse version of some higher and better reality. Augustine’s Christianity is a mokṣa philosophy. Dharma is traditionalism: the attempt to preserve the world as it is and has been, to “save the appearances” in theory and in practice, accepting common-sense ideas and carrying on the continuity of one’s community with children. Aristotle and Confucius are dharma philosophers.

What I previously called “libertinism” is divided: a kāma philosophy continues to take pleasure as the highest good, as do Jeremy Bentham or Epicurus. But an artha philosophy, while refusing (as a pure kāma or even mokṣa philosophy would) to take established tradition as the ultimate authority, also avoids identifying pleasure as a central goal of life, instead urging success at particular worldly goals that – while often urged by tradition – may nevertheless be directly at odds with tradition. If this categorization works, then John Rawls would appear as an artha philosopher along with Mozi and the Daoists.

The trick with the puruṣārtha approach may be at the level of theoretical philosophy. Asceticism as I described it is not just a way of life, it’s also a view of a higher truth beyond this world. Traditionalism is also an epistemology that privileges common sense and the wisdom of the ancestors. And libertinism privileges empiricism, a focus on the evidence of the senses in our lives here and now. It is in this respect that artha and kāma philosophies do not seem so different from each other.

So I’m not yet sure whether I think this classification is better than the previous one. It has the advantage of noting that goals of artha are often closely linked with dharma, frequently more than they are with kāma, as in the case of Mozi. As a result, it does seem to make better sense of Chinese intellectual history than the “three ways” classification – and the fact that an Indic scheme of categories is useful for describing pre-Buddhist China is itself quite interesting.