“One should count each day a separate life.” So says the philosopher Seneca. The Stoics encouraged us to cultivate the proper attitude towards death as they did towards life. The implication of Seneca’s quote is that we should take note of how we live our life each and every day. And strive to make our answer a resounding yes each and every day. It has been said that the study of philosophy is a preparation for death. This is not a morbid sentiment but rather one to encourage us to make the most of our life and to appreciate each day and consider each day an opportunity to accomplish something so that we can say the world was a better place for our having lived. Richard Dawkins points out that since we are going to die that makes us the lucky ones. Lucky, because most people are never going to have the chance to live at all. When you consider how many potential lives could be actualized you begin to appreciate the sentiment he expresses and to embrace the opportunity we've been given.
Seneca also counsels that we take heed of this in the following way:
"The wise will start each day with the thought:
"Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. No promise has been given you for this night. No, I have suggested too long a respite, no promise has been given even for this hour."
In his book Plato not Prozac! Lou Marinoff relates a Buddhist parable which expresses a similar theme:
"A monk kept a teacup by his bed, and every night before he went to sleep he turned it upside down. Each morning he righted it. When a puzzled novice inquired, the monk explained that he was symbolically emptying the cup of life each night to signify his acquiescence in his own mortality. The ritual reminded him that he had done the things he needed to do that day and so was ready should death come for him. Each morning then he turned the cup up to accept the gift of a new day. He was taking life one day at a time, acknowledging the wonderful gift of life with each dawn but prepared to relinquish it at the end of each day."
A nice ritual to practice for all!
Much of the stress we are under is the result of a confusion of wants and needs. Many people believe they need things when really these things are merely wants.
The philosopher Epicurus distinguished these and discussed the problems in confusing them long ago. There are three categories of desires. The first are natural and necessary and include the basics: food, clothing, shelter, as well as friendship, freedom, and thinking. We require these in order to be happy. And, for Epicurus, these are all that we require in order to be happy.
But, there are also natural and unnecessary desires (wants which become confused with needs). These include many of the luxury items in our life; fancy food, clothing, big houses, fancy cars. All of which we desire but do not require in order to be happy. The problem occurs when we believe we need these things, purchase them, and then find that we have to work to afford them. So, people end up working, not for themselves, but for their things.
Third, Epicurus identifies the unnatural and unnecessary desires for power and fame. These may be at the root of our belief that the natural but unnecessary desires are really needs. After all, if you strongly desire fame and power, you will deduce that you need those things that Epicurus classifies as natural but unnecessary.
There is a wonderful quote from Einstein about the perils of fame: "With fame, I have become more and more stupid, which of course, is a very common phenomenon. But you have to take it all with good humor. Charlie Chaplin had it right. When he and I met we were surrounded by people calling our names. 'What does it all mean?' I asked him. 'Nothing.' he replied."
Fame and power are truly unnatural and unnecessary.
Another cause of our stress is our belief that we need to keep up, keep going faster, being more productive. Again, this confuses a want with a need. However, a movement has been growing against this in recent years called the "slowness movement." Carl Honore has published a book titled In Praise of Slowness discussing the benefits of slow work, slow food, slow sex, and a relaxed stress free approach to life in general.
There is nothing new here really as Henry David Thoreau wrote eloquently on this in his essay "Life Without Principle." In it he writes "I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. If I should sell my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for." But, we are all too willing to sell our forenoons and afternoons leaving nothing behind for our self or our families and friends. We impose these conditions and requirements on ourselves and then feel stressed when we cannot keep up.
We can only do so much in any given day. Once we do that and do our best we should be satisfied with that and recognize that there are limits to what we can do. This recognition is a good start to living a life of happiness.
Perhaps we should heed the words of William James: "Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well dressed, and a great athlete, and make a million a year, be a wit, a bon vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a 'tone-poet' and saint. But the thing is simply impossible."
The fear of making mistakes stifles many people's creativity and innovation. We are often so worried about what will happen if we make a mistake or if something goes wrong that we do nothing.
Richard Dawkins tells the story of a professor of his in school who researched and wrote for years on a particular biological phenomenon and one day a younger scientist lectured to the class and definitely proved the old man wrong. He shook his hand and thanked him. Dawkins correctly points out that this is the essence of a good scientist.
The philosopher of science Karl Popper discussed what a good theory consisted of and concluded that it must be falsifiable. That is, you must be able to describe the evidence that could, in principle, show that the theory was false. Every scientist must be prepared to have their theory disconfirmed by the facts. It's not easy but it is part of the search for the truth. I can't say that it would be easy to accept but it would be the mark of a great researcher, not to mention an intellectually honest one, to accept such a fate if presented with the evidence that falsifies their theory.
Another good example of this noble mindset comes from the Dalai Lama who famously says "if there's good, strong evidence from science that such and such is the case and this is contrary to Buddhism, then we will change." Indeed, perhaps less willingly the Catholic Church has changed its views on Copernicus, Galileo, and evolution over the years.
Being wrong can also be a path to progress however unintended. As historian James Burke points out, Gutenberg got the date of a religious festival wrong and was inspired to go ahead with plans to develop the printing press. For years scientists were wrong about the existence of aether leading Einstein to reformulate the laws of the universe.
So, if you're worried about being wrong, here's a handy guide to taking action when you fear you might make a mistake.
1. If the cost of failure is zero, take action. Many times the decision you have to make entails no costs even if you're wrong. In such cases it is only the fear of being wrong that is stopping you from proceeding and innovating. As Joseph Chilton Pearce once said: "To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."
2. If your decision is reversible, take action. In other cases, the decision you have to make is one you can reverse without much cost except having tried something new. In such cases it makes sense to try innovation.
3. If there is a very good chance for positive results, take action. Lastly, of course, if your decision involves the very good chance of benefit especially when combined with low costs of being wrong then it makes sense to take action.
In each of these cases you should take action primarily because being wrong is not very likely or has low costs. But, we mustn't forget that error can lead to innovation itself. As my examples above illustrate sometimes error is the fortunate outcome of decisions. So if the potential for being wrong doesn't entail harm to yourself or others it might make sense to take action even with a good chance of being wrong.
How many advancements have been missed due to the fear of being wrong? How many books were never written for the same fear? How many opportunities have been missed due to the fear of making a mistake by taking action. We may never know. The nature of seeking knowledge itself is to sometimes be wrong as William James points out so aptly: "We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood."
History seems to be one of those subjects that many students dread learning and have no interest in. It's a shame really since we live with pieces of history all around us and understanding this is an important part of understanding the world as it is today.
A large part of the problem is with how history is taught. Of course history seems boring the way the textbooks and many teachers present it. But, there are other ways to teach history to engage students' interests and there are other ways to learn history if you're an independent learner. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Learn history backwards. Most history textbooks start at the beginning which makes intuitive sense. But, why not begin with today and work backwards. I don't know of any history teachers who do this but I think it would be an intriguing way to run a history course. Pick any event happening now and look for its causes. Then look for the causes of those causes and so on. Pretty soon you are hundreds of years in the past and knee deep in history. You can't help it because if you really want to understand why something is happening now the answer will be in the past.
2a. Start with where you live. Everything around you has a history. Just look around your home. Do you have a fireplace? If so, it has a history. Electric lighting? An open floor plan? Even your furniture has a history that you may already refer to by historical eras without even thinking about it. Perhaps your sofa is Edwardian. Your glassware is Victorian. Perhaps you have Regency flatware. History surrounds you.
2b. Start with where you live. Your own local community has a history as well and learning more about it will help you feel more connected to your community. When was your town or city founded? By whom? Why? All of these questions are entry ways to a discovery of history.
3. Learn history by exploring another subject. Do you find history boring but find some other subject fascinating? Start there. No matter what it is, that subject has a history and you've probably already learned something about it. So, you're already enjoying learning history. I once had a student tell me that she did not like history at all but really enjoyed science. So, I pointed out that any area of science she was studying had a history and that history was important for understanding the science of today.
Even seemingly non-academic topics of interest have a history. Any hobby you have or sport you play has a history and learning about it might provide useful and surprising insights about your interest. You might be thinking that you prefer doing an activity rather than learning its history but don't think about it in those terms. Look at learning a subject's history as a way of improving your performance. Start by asking a simple question: Why? Why do they suggest I do such-and-such that way? Why do I use this equipment? Any why question will lead to some history.
Above all remember that as an independent learner you don't have to read textbooks and take exams. Just go where your curiosity and interests lead you. See where things lead. If you follow them with interest, they'll probably lead to some history.
Discussing controversial ethical issues can be difficult for many precisely because they have a strong emotional content. While no one suggests completely ignoring one’s emotions when addressing these issues, it is beneficial and constructive to be able to distinguish reason from emotion and to allow reason to guide and inform our emotions. This may sound like an impossible task but it can be done. There are several useful philosophical insights that might make this task easier. First, we should distinguish the person making a statement or argument from the person himself. Second, we should distinguish offense and harm. Lastly, we can benefit from the insights of the Stoic philosophers who have had a strong influence on the psychological school of thought known as rational emotive therapy. I won’t be able to address all of these points in sufficient detail here. But perhaps an introduction to each will help clarify the issues and inspire you to learn more about these useful insights so that you can benefit from them, not only in this class, but also in other classes and perhaps in your life in general.
In logic there is a fallacy of reasoning known as argument against the person. The reason this is a logical fallacy (mistake in reasoning) is because there is a difference between the person and what that person says. If you disagree with something I say that doesn’t mean you are disagreeing with me as a person. In other words, if you disagree with me it doesn’t mean you are insulting me or attacking me personally. You may very well like me as a person but dislike something I think or say. For example, if I say I think golf is a great way to relax you may disagree with that. But does that mean you are insulting me or does that mean you dislike me? No. Now while that is a fairly tame example, logically speaking the same should hold true for other issues as well. Perhaps you disagree with someone’s view of capital punishment. You can say that you disagree and argue passionately for your view just as they can. But that does not mean that you dislike that person or are insulting or attacking them. Recognizing this should allow us to engage in spirited discussions without worry about offending anyone. We just have to remember that we can discuss an issue without personally attacking or insulting someone.
Another useful distinction which will help us is the distinction between offense and harm. A good resource on this subject is Lou Marinoff’s book The Big Questions. In one chapter he asks the question “if you’re offended are you harmed? The answer turns out to be no. Consider this. Suppose someone walks up to you and steps on your toe. You have no choice about whether that’s going to hurt. It is! So, here you are harmed. Being harmed is involuntary, you have no choice about whether to feel pain or not. Now, offense is not like this. If someone walks up to you and says “wow, you have really big feet” you have a choice to make. The choice is how you will react to this comment. I’m sure you’ve heard the expressions “no offense intended” and “none taken.” These are very revealing. Offense is something that can be offered and it’s also something that can be taken. But, importantly for us, offense is also something that can be refused. You have a choice in this and that’s what distinguishes offense from harm.
As human beings we are emotional beings. But, we are not slaves to our emotions. We have the ability to reason and think and this can aid us in our emotional reactions. This was a very important insight of the ancient Stoic philosophers. The basic idea behind stoicism is that we have no control over external circumstances. What we do have control over is out attitude towards them. As Epictetus once said “it is not things which disturb us, but our attitude towards them.” This perfectly sums up the stoic idea as well as how to handle offense. Similarly, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said “if you are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs you, but your judgment about it. And, it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
Of course, this takes skill and practice but it can be learned. One good approach to learning this is discussed by the psychologist Albert Ellis who developed something called rational emotive therapy. His approach is very stoic inasmuch as he maintains that what really disturbs us is not our emotions themselves but our rational (or more correctly irrational) beliefs. It is our beliefs which in large part determine what our emotional response to a situation will be. If we can formulate rational beliefs then our emotional responses won’t be ones of depression, anxiety, or offense. One way to begin is to reflect on why you’re having the emotional reaction that you’re having. As Ellis would advise, ask what beliefs do you have that are contributing to your emotional response. Then ask whether those beliefs are reasonable. Chances are, if the beliefs are unreasonable then your emotional response may be causing you to become unhappy or upset needlessly.
It should go without saying that there is nothing at all wrong with emotions or having them. But, if our emotions are ones of depression and unhappiness then it’s good to know that something can be done to address that. Notice as we go through the texts in our class that while we’re discussing many emotionally charged issues the attempt is always being made to discuss them from the standpoint of reason. Of course emotions inform our reason just as our reason informs emotions. The trick is not to allow either side to dominate to the exclusion of the benefits of the other.
Aristotle writes extensively about happiness in his book the Nicomachean Ethics. In it he says "what is always chosen as an end in itself and never as a means to something else is called final in an unqualified sense. This description seems to apply to happiness above all else: for we always choose happiness as an end in itself and never for the sake of something else." The rest of the work considers the best means to achieve this ultimate end and Aristotle ultimately concludes that a life lived according to the virtues is the best means to this ultimate end. Given this analysis the question becomes how does joy differ from this?
In his book Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Mortimer Adler points out that a common mistake, even among professional philosophers, is to believe that happiness is a psychological state as opposed to an ethical state. Perhaps this is the best way to distinguish joy from happiness. To say that joy is a psychological state is to say that it can be understood in a given moment in time and is fleeting or transient. Joy is not a condition we can sustain for any extended period of time. We feel joy in the face of certain events in our lives but then return to a prior state. It may not even be possible to intend to experience joy. Could one artificially manufacture a scenario with the express intent of deriving joy from it? However, if Aristotle's analysis is correct, one can intend to live a happy life by acting in accordance with the virtues. To do this he counsels that we practice to get into the habit of acting virtuously. Clearly, there is an intent here which seems to be a crucial difference.
Additionally, while joy can be experienced and evaluated in specific given moments in time, Aristotle advises that we look upon happiness as a quality of our entire life. A life well lived is a happy life but this must be viewed as a whole. Indeed, "one swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy." We localize joy but must generalize happiness.
Though separated by centuries and culture the Dalai Lama concurs in large part with this Aristotelian interpretation of happiness. In his book The Art of Happiness, he shows how one can train the mind to be happy. Again, this illustrates the role of intent in the process of achieving happiness. He also points out that to the extent that we are happy our attitude plays a large role. The reverse holds true as well. To the extent that we are unhappy we have only our attitude to blame.
In this respect, the Dalai Lama's message is also similar to the ancient Stoic idea of happiness. As the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius pointed out "the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts." While achieving happiness is not as easy as simply deciding to be happy a proper attitude is essential. And, the recognition that external things do not control our happiness. As Seneca once said: "He that is not content in poverty, would not be so neither in plenty; for the fault is not the thing, but in the mind."
This brings me to one last contrast. It is often correctly said that money cannot buy happiness. But, it might be possible for money to buy joy or at least be able to create conditions where the experience of joy is likely. Many people feel joy when buying a new car, buying clothes, or whatever. But, this feeling subsides once the newness of the item wears off. Those who do not recognize the difference between this psychological state of joy and the ethical state of happiness return to purchase new things in the hopes that these will bring happiness. But, since happiness is a quality of one's life as opposed to a fleeting psychological state, this strategy is doomed to fail.
It seems that more and more things are required to keep the feeling of joy alive. But, in a previous post I pointed out that it was Epicurus who recognized that there are only three things required for happiness: friendship, freedom, and contemplation. Of these, one is most important for Epicurus: Of all the means which are procured by wisdom to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.
I have been playing golf since college and while it has not always been easy to find my “A” game on the course it has always been a learning process. In this post I’d like to share seven lessons I've learned from the game of golf.
1. Patience You have to learn patience to succeed in golf quite simply because it takes time (at least for me it did) to learn the fundamentals of the golf swing and the techniques of putting, chipping, and driving the golf ball. Having learned patience by practicing and mastering some of these techniques you also need patience to play a round of golf since in most cases you will be playing with other golfers both in your own group and on the course and many of these players will be slower than you!
2. Honesty Like any other game golf is governed by rules. But, unlike many other sports golfers enforce the rules on themselves. Even in professional tournaments with referees and observers, there are countless stories of golfers assessing penalties on themselves because they broke one of the rules. Golf is a game where you are really playing against yourself constantly trying to improve. But, improvement doesn’t really mean anything if it’s not honest improvement. If, after years of playing you are finally on the verge of breaking 80 (as I am), doing so by fudging a stroke here or there or by not taking that penalty stroke for hitting the ball into the water hazard diminishes the accomplishment.
3. Acceptance If you want to understand the ancient philosophy of the Stoics I suggest that you take up golf. There is no quicker way to learn the value of acceptance. In golf, you have to hit the ball where it lies and there are only certain cases where you can take relief from your lie. So, each shot requires that you accept where the ball is and play those conditions. As Epictetus once said “people are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take of things.”
4. Embracing Challenges Closely related to the previous lesson and perfectly captured by the Epictetus quote is the lesson of being able to embrace challenges. Jack Nicklaus once told the story of being in the clubhouse and listening to various golfers complaining about the course conditions that day. The rough was too high, the bunkers too deep, the fairways too narrow, the wind too strong. But, one golfer was not complaining but rather eager to face the conditions that day. Jack knew this was the golfer that would prevail on that day. If you can look upon difficulties as challenges and opportunities instead of impediments your chances for success increase greatly.
5. Managing your Mistakes Everyone who plays the game makes mistakes. Making mistakes is after all part of life. But, the key to success, in golf and life, is to manage those mistakes so they don’t become worse than they really are. In golf that means if you hit your drive into the woods don’t always try to make your next shot heroic by going for the green. Sometimes you have to accept your fate (see lesson 2 above) and minimize your mistake by chipping back out onto the fairway and moving on.
6. Perspective Above all, golf teaches the proper perspective for things in life. Golf, after all, is just a game. It can be fun and it can be frustrating. But, so too can life. The secret is to keep trying and not get frustrated. As the great golf teacher Harvey Penick once said “if you play poorly one day, forget it.” Everyone has bad days. But, tomorrow’s another day.
7. Courtesy Etiquette is an important part of the game. You don’t talk when someone else is addressing the ball. You don‘t stand on someone else’s line when putting. You don’t pull for someone to miss their shot. You don’t point out bad shots someone makes and you compliment good ones. Being polite goes a long way both on and off the golf course. Like the other lessons, this one applies to life in general. Keep smiling and keep playing!
We’ve all heard the quote that a journey of thousand miles begins with a single step. The secret is to keep making steps consistently. Progress in life consists in continuing to make these small steps again and again and again. Those who have difficulty making progress often only see each small step by itself and fail to keep in mind the cumulative effect of all the small steps taken together.
Consider how many of the successes in our lives consist of small steps. Wealth is built in small steps by investing a little bit every month for decades. We raise our children in small steps by engaging with them each and every day for decades. Life itself evolved in small steps. The best image of this is provided by Richard Dawkins in his book Climbing Mount Improbable where he relates the parable of Mount Improbable : " Mount Improbable rears up from the plain, lofting its peaks dizzily to the rarefied sky. The towering, vertical cliffs of Mount Improbable can never, it seems, be climbed. Dwarfed like insects, thwarted mountaineers crawl and scrabble along the foot, gazing hopelessly at the sheer, unattainable heights. They shake their tiny, baffled heads and declare the brooding summit forever unscalable.
"Our mountaineers are too ambitious. So intent are they on the perpendicular drama of the cliffs, they do not think to look round the other side of the mountain. There they would find not vertical cliffs and echoing canyons but gently inclined grassy meadows, graded steadily and easily towards to distant uplands... The sheer height of the peak doesn't matter, so long as you don't try to scale it in a single bound. Locate the mildly sloping path and, if you have unlimited time, the ascent is only as formidable as the next step."
We all have goals in our lives that we wish to attain and often we wish we could attain them quickly. We want to get out of debt, become wealthy, lose weight, attain spiritual enlightenment and we want these things now. But, the path to each seems as insurmountable as Mount Improbable . What we have to do is find our way around to the other side where the gently inclined slope makes progress much easier because it is incremental.
I think the key to success in whatever endeavor you choose can be inferred from this image. Do one small thing and keep doing it. If you want to save money, start by saving a small amount every month and keep doing it every month. If you want to get out of debt start by paying a small amount more every month on your smallest debt and keep doing it every month.
Whatever you choose to do to improve your life, you can use this "small steps" method.