The renewed philosophical attention to ancient “spiritual exercises” has generated a consistent critique: how can these practices have any relevance today, when the traditions and communities that sustained them no longer exist in anything like the same ways? The present chapter responds to this challenge by looking at Neo-Confucian practices in light of recent, narrative-based studies of exemplary lives by Colby and Damon, Bateson, and others. The methodologies and precise goals of these studies vary widely. Some make efforts to apply fairly rigorous social science methods, including the use of control groups; others focus on historical figures or groups. Together, they provide challenging perspectives on the Neo-Confucian self-cultivational practices explicated in the previous chapter. Subjects examine the nature of commitments, the accessibility of sage-like ideals, the difference between imagination and fantasy, the importance of dialogue, and the roles of attitudes like faith and belief.
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