Last night was the first Philosophy Salon over at the Bookworm bookshop here in Chengdu. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect: this was a speculative idea that I put forward in a chat with my friends over at the Bookworm shortly after arriving in town a few weeks back. It turned into a reality astonishingly quickly, and so last night I found myself heading across town to lead a discussion about philosophy, wisdom, Aristotle and Confucius.
I thought a salon might be fun for several reasons. First, because I miss doing philosophy in the company of others. Second, because I am keen to keep one foot outside the university here in Chengdu. Third, because philosophy is far too interesting and useful to be left only to the scholars (I like the scholars, I am a wonky sort of scholar myself, but they are not the whole story). And fourth, the the way I first cultivated my love of philosophy was precisely in this fashion: by talking with friends.
I had expected around twelve or thirteen people, so I was little taken aback when I found the room crowded out with around fifty or so participants. It was a bilingual event, and as it turned out, the group was mainly Chinese-speaking, with some smatterings of English here and there. We forged ahead, and did a quick introduction, before splitting the room up into groups to look at Aristotle and Confucius’s thoughts on wisdom. The conversations were wide-ranging (from the peculiar wisdom of grandmothers, to the female principle in Gnosticism), and it was a massively stimulating evening. I was also pleased to have some light shed on a tricksy passage of Confucius’s that I’d always struggled with. The passage goes like this:
The master said, “The wise delight in water, the humane delight in mountains; the wise move, the humane are still; the wise are joyous, the humane endure.
This has always puzzled me (and many of the audience too, who said, “We know these words, but we have no idea what they mean”). But the reading that was suggested was elegant. Wisdom is about attending to changing situations, humaneness is about holding to steady principles. Thus the wise delight in the movement of water, and the human delight in the stillness of mountains. This may not be new to many readers of this blog, but I hadn’t thought about the passage like this before, and I found the reading persuasive.
To give a flavour of the event, here are a few photographs. Next time — two weeks away — we’re going to be talking about death (one participant wanted a meatier subject than wisdom, and death focuses the mind) via Montaigne and Zhuangzi. I’m looking forward to it already. And if you happen to be in Chengdu, then do think of coming along!