Moral Cultivation in the Premodern World: Craft and Transformation in Later Stoics, the Zhuangzi, and Zen

Yale’s Global Philosophy Reading Group warmly invites you to a symposium entitled Moral Cultivation in the Premodern World: Craft and Transformation in Later Stoics, the Zhuangzi, and Zen. The symposium will take place next Thursday, April 4th in HQ 136, from 3:30 to 6:00 PM, with a reception (food from House of Naan, Prosecco, and sparkling water) to follow. Please see the description, program, and abstracts below for more details. We hope to see you there!

If you know in advance that you’ll attend, please send a quick email to so we can order enough food and drink for the reception.

A poster with a graceful painting of Zhuangzi framing announcement for the symposium, with a marble bust of the Stoi Chrysippus and a drawing of the Buddhist monk Huineng chopping bamboo at his moment of enlightenment.

Featuring invited speakers David Machek (Lecturer and Privatdozent, Universität Bern and Research Fellow, Charles University) and Christopher Gowans (Professor of Philosophy, Fordham University) and responses from Yale graduate students Lizzie Davis (CLSS & PHIL) and James Brown-Kinsella (EALL & PHIL), Moral Cultivation in the Premodern World will explore the considerations that inclined premodern philosophers across different cultures to advance skill-based and transformation-based approaches to moral cultivation. We will give approximately equal attention to three traditions — the later Stoics, the Zhuangzi, and Zen — and end with a final session where everyone is invited to reflect on and discuss our takeaways about moral cultivation and the advantages and limitations of this kind of project in comparative philosophy.


  • 3:30-4:00 David Machek, “Crafting Virtue: Self-Cultivation Through Skill in Later Stoics and the Zhuangzi
  • 4:00-4:10 response from Lizzie Davis on the later Stoics
  • 4:10-4:30 Q & A
    • 5-minute break
  • 4:35-5:05 Christopher Gowans, “Self-Cultivation without a Path: Transforming Buddhist Practice in Huineng and Dōgen”
  • 5:05-5:15 response from James Brown-Kinsella on the Zhuangzi
  • 5:15-5:35 Q & A
    • 5-minute break
  • 5:40-6:00 Reflection and Discussion on Takeaways and Methodology
  • from 6:00 on, reception with food from House of Naan, Prosecco, and sparkling water


David Machek, “Crafting Virtue: Self-Cultivation Through Skill in Later Stoics and the Zhuangzi

It is a distinctive claim of the Stoic ethics that human perfection is a craft, namely the ‘craft of living‘. Among early Chinese texts, a similar idea was espoused by the Zhuangzi – an anthology traditionally associated with Daoist thought. In both contexts, the crafts provide an attractive paradigm: similarly to crafts, human perfection is (1) a condition of epistemic fitness, (2) with inherently practical purpose, i.e. to live well, (3) acquired by means of systematic, practical training which (4) warrants step-by-step progress, from apprenticeship to virtuosity. But these similarities, substantive as they are, go hand in hand with important differences. Perhaps the most striking one concerns the relationship between the craft of living and other, ordinary crafts, and specifically the role and import of learning the ordinary crafts for the sake of mastering the craft of living. Whereas the Stoics maintain that expertise in ordinary crafts and expertise in the craft of living are two radically different epistemic states – distinguished not only by the underlying epistemic contents but also by their fundamental physical properties – the Zhuangzi is reluctant to draw a similar distinction, and some passages even imply that learning the craft of living is nothing but mastering an ordinary craft such as carving or cicada catching. From the Stoic perspective, this would seem like an odd claim to make: if the craft of living is constituted by a system of philosophical theorems – a body of specialized knowledge – how could learning any non-philosophical craft play a substantive role in acquiring this knowledge? We shall try to reconstruct what a Zhuangzian response to this imaginary Stoic objection might be, and suggest how the divergent views about the role of ordinary crafts in Stoicism and the Zhuangzi reflect the underlying philosophical agenda peculiar to early Chinese and to Greco-Roman tradition.

Christopher Gowans, “Self-Cultivation without a Path: Transforming Buddhist Practice in Huineng and Dōgen”

From the outset, the dominant metaphor for Buddhist practice is “the path” that takes us from suffering to enlightenment (for example, the Eightfold Path). This is true in India, Tibet, and China. However, in China an alternative to the path approach emerged, associated with the phrases “sudden enlightenment” and “inherent enlightenment.” I will construct a dialectic between the Chan master Huineng as represented in The Platform Sutra and the later Zen master Dōgen to identify a version of this alternative, and I will argue that it can be developed in a philosophically cogent and plausible way that has advantages over the path approaches. This exploration model of Buddhist practice, as I call it, is a distinctive understanding of self-cultivation philosophy in comparison with traditions that emerged in ancient Greece, India, and China.

Best wishes,

James Brown-Kinsella (Yale PhD, EALL & PHIL)

John Grisafi (Yale PhD, RLST)

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